Over the last two months, the spread of coronavirus and COVID-19 infections across the country has exposed the necessity of proactive and inclusive policies—many of which the League has and will continue to advocate for, like increasing access to affordable childcare, improving unemployment insurance and bolstering Medicaid coverage (by halting work requirements for the Healthy Michigan Plan, for example). What the spread of COVID-19, particularly in Michigan and counties near Detroit, demonstrates is that although this virus may not inherently discriminate, its effects and outcomes certainly do because of systemic disparities driven by racist policies in healthcare, housing and other areas of public policy.
The COVID-19 crisis has also put the spotlight on those whose industries and professions do not stop, do not move seamlessly to at-home offices, and do not begin to happen over Zoom calls: that is, the “essential,” “frontline,” or “critical infrastructure” workers among us. Michigan’s essential workers (defined in Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s Executive Order) have created some semblances of “normal” (aka pre-COVID) life for Michiganders. Michigan’s frontline workers are putting their lives on the line for the safety of others.
The same can be said of immigrants in Michigan. Across essential occupations, large shares of workers were born outside the country yet work, live and build community here in Michigan, whether they are naturalized citizens or noncitizens (which can include lawfully present “green card” holders, nonimmigrant visa holders or undocumented people).
Now is the time we must continue to push against a narrative that scapegoats immigrants as newcomers arriving in this country to “take American jobs.” This tired rhetoric is used to divide all workers who are being hit hardest during the COVID-19 crisis, particularly those who are a part of the critical workforce ensuring that we all can continue to stay safe and healthy.
Instead, let’s refocus and take a look at immigrants’ outsized impact in this moment – particularly the jobs they already have – and appreciate how critical Michigan’s immigrant workforce is. In addition, we must move toward a narrative that values and celebrates immigrant Michiganders as people and explicitly acknowledges that U.S.-born Michiganders’ well-being is inherently linked to the success, safety and well-being of their immigrant neighbors and friends. A pandemic is as good a time as any to think critically about our shared humanity.
Data from the 2018 American Community Survey (most recent available) shows that 8% of those working in Michigan are immigrants. Yet, more granular data from the Integrated Public Use Microdata Series (IPUMS) on occupation highlights that immigrants are disproportionately represented in a number of essential occupations, meaning they make up a much larger portion than 8% of the workers within the occupation.
Among healthcare practitioners and technical occupations in Michigan:
- 30.5% of physicians are immigrants, with over 20% being naturalized citizens.
- 33% of surgeons are immigrants, with over 18% being naturalized citizens.
- 20% of pharmacists are immigrants, with over 13% being naturalized citizens.
Among agricultural occupations in Michigan:
- 30% of graders and sorters of products are immigrants, with over 25% being noncitizens.
- 25% of “other” agricultural workers are immigrants, with 21% being noncitizens.
Among production occupations in Michigan:
- 34% of food processing workers are immigrants, with 20% being noncitizens.
- 21% of butchers and other meat, poultry, and fish processing workers are immigrants, with 16% being noncitizens.
- 20% of packaging and filling machine operators and tenders are immigrants, with over 16% being noncitizens.
Essential jobs in healthcare, agriculture, and production services, among other industries, depend deeply on immigrants, and this is particularly apparent in these times. We all respect and value these workers, their services and their sacrifices right now – I know that I do, especially as someone who is lucky enough to be working from home. Unfortunately, federal legislation passed so far has left out tens of thousands of Michiganders, including essential workers, who filed their taxes using an Individual Taxation Identification Number (ITIN) as opposed to a Social Security Number—most of whom are undocumented immigrants. The restriction also extends to ITIN filers’ citizen spouses and children, meaning some immigrant families are losing out on thousands of dollars of relief during this COVID-19 crisis. Demonstrating respect and dignity for immigrant workers, neighbors and friends in Michigan cannot stop with our well-wishes; it must be reflected in policy changes.
The League has outlined inclusive policy recommendations, which include allowing all Michigan residents the right to obtain a driver’s license, so one can drive to work or the grocery store legally and without fear; expanding Medicaid access for some groups, so more immigrants can confidently seek and afford healthcare; and ensuring full language access services, so all Michiganders feel welcome and can receive needed services. It is as clear as ever that Michigan’s immigrant communities are truly essential to the well-being of all Michiganders, and it will take policy changes to ensure that everyone in Michigan can lead healthy, stable lives with equitable rights and freedoms.