All Essential Workers Deserve a Path to Citizenship

March 17, 2021

Perspectives in Primary Care (formally the Primary Care Review) features perspectives from practitioners and students representing organizations, practices, and institutions across the country and around the world. All opinions expressed in this article are owned by the author(s).

Recently, the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition (MIRA) was a proud sponsor of the New England Business Immigration Summit, which brought together members of Congress, business leaders, university presidents, and advocates to advance 21st century immigration reform in the United States. During the Summit, we heard from Nirva, an immigrant healthcare worker on the frontlines of Massachusetts’ pandemic response.

Nirva came to the United States from Haiti after the devastating 2010 earthquake and currently has Temporary Protected Status (TPS), which is a status given to individuals from countries experiencing an armed conflict or natural disaster that makes it unsafe for them to return. TPS is not a permanent status and does not put people on a pathway to U.S. citizenship. Nirva now works seven days per week as a clinical assistant at a major cancer institute, certified nursing assistant at a nursing home, and home health aide, all while pursuing a degree in healthcare management.

Nirva told us about how difficult it has been working throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. Several of her coworkers have been unable to work because of the virus, so she has had to pick up extra shifts and take care of more patients. When she goes home, she has to keep herself distanced from her family to make sure she doesn’t inadvertently spread the virus to them. She describes her experience as tough, stressful, and depressing.

Immigrant essential workers are heroes

Nirva is one of nearly 5,600 TPS holders in Massachusetts who are essential workers. Another 72,000 essential workers in the Commonwealth are undocumented. These workers are our nurses, first responders, teachers, home health aides, farmworkers, meatpackers, grocery store workers, and more—the people putting themselves at risk to serve our communities. Unfortunately, these heroes are not treated as such.

Despite the risks these essential workers face, undocumented immigrants in Massachusetts and across the nation are denied access to many critical safety net programs. Undocumented immigrants in Massachusetts pay $850 million in federal, state, and local taxes each year, but they have been left out of COVID-19 stimulus relief and are ineligible for unemployment insurance. Both undocumented immigrants and TPS holders are excluded from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

These immigrants are not even eligible to apply for a standard Massachusetts driver’s license, as they are in 16 other states. Why do we expect these essential workers to expose themselves to even greater risk by carpooling, taking public transportation, or driving without a license?

In addition to these risks, essential workers also face the constant threat of separation from their children and other family members. Massachusetts has a history of law enforcement involvement in deportations, including participation in 287(g) agreements that deputize county sheriffs as U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents. This involvement undermines trust in our public institutions, causing many immigrants to avoid seeking medical care, emergency assistance, and police and court protection out of fear of immigration consequences for themselves or family members. Essential workers should not have to choose between maintaining family integrity and seeking COVID-19 testing, treatment, and vaccination, or for that matter, reporting workplace safety violations and wage theft.

Action is needed at the state and federal levels

Our nation is failing to take care of the very people who have been taking care of all of us during this crisis. President Biden’s U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021 would provide a pathway to citizenship for 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States. While it is essential that Congress do everything in their power to pass this bill, it will likely not be an easy lift. In the meantime, Congress should use the opportunity of future COVID-19 relief legislation to include a pathway to citizenship for undocumented essential workers, as well as TPS holders and DACA recipients.

Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-TX) is planning to introduce a bill that would do just that. The Citizenship for Essential Workers Act would provide an expedited pathway to legal permanent resident status and eventual U.S. citizenship for over 5 million undocumented essential workers in the U.S., including some DREAMers and TPS holders and their families. It will ensure the application process is fast, secure, and accessible, provide immediate protection from deportation, and include essential workers who lost their jobs due to COVID-19, as well as the families of essential workers who died from COVID-19. Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren is co-sponsoring this bill in the Senate.

There is broad support in Congress for a bill like the Citizenship for Essential Workers Act. Recently, over 100 lawmakers, including Massachusetts’ own Representatives Jim McGovern, Ayanna Pressley, and Lori Trahan, signed onto a letter led by the Congressional Hispanic Caucus to express their commitment to including a pathway to citizenship for essential workers, TPS holders, and DREAMers in the COVID-19 budget reconciliation package.

Congress is also expected to vote on the Dream and Promise Act this week, which would provide a pathway to citizenship for DREAMers and TPS holders.

This work doesn’t end at the federal level. Here in Massachusetts, we’ve had immigration policies and practices for decades that negatively impact the health, financial wellbeing, and safety of undocumented immigrants, including undocumented essential workers. The Massachusetts legislature must act this legislative session to pass the Safe Communities Act, which would end state and local law enforcement’s involvement in deportations, and the Work and Family Mobility Act, which would enable all qualified Massachusetts residents, regardless of immigration status, to apply for a standard license or identification card, while keeping in full compliance with REAL ID requirements.

Our essential workers don’t have the privilege of working from home. They have been on the frontlines of this crisis for a year now, putting their physical and emotional wellbeing at risk every day. We’ve put up signs thanking essential workers and cheered for them night after night, but that gratitude falls short when our policies do not give every essential worker the support and protections that they need and deserve.

Nirva says that a pathway to citizenship would help her finally feel free and secure in this country. It would also give her the opportunity to receive financial aid to pursue her dream of attending nursing school and to travel home to Haiti and visit her family, who she hasn’t seen in over a decade. It’s hard to imagine anyone more deserving of this simple freedom than a healthcare worker who has been keeping all of us safe and healthy during a devastating crisis. Let’s get this done—for Nirva and for every essential worker who aspires to obtain U.S. citizenship.

**Feature photo obtained by standard license on Shutterstock.


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Eva Headshot

Eva Millona, JD, MA, is the President and Chief Executive Officer of the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition (MIRA), a multi-ethnic coalition of 130+ organizational members and the largest coalition in New England promoting immigrant and refugee rights and inclusion. Millona is also a co-chair of the National Partnership for New Americans, chaired the Statewide Complete Count Committee in Massachusetts for the 2020 U.S. Census, and serves on the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, the Massachusetts Governor's Advisory Council for Refugees and Immigrants, the Attorney General's Council for New Americans, and the Advisory Board for the Boston Mayor’s Office for Immigrant Advancement. Millona is a native of Albania and a proud naturalized U.S. citizen. She holds a law degree from the University of Tirana School of Law and a Master’s Degree in Political Studies from Clark University.

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