The role of immigrants as essential workers during coronavirus pandemic causes tensions at hearing

House subcommittee did not come to conclusions about whether or not undocumented immigrants who are essential workers should be granted citizenship status

By Lizzy Tarallo
Vicente Reyes, a beneficiary of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, provides testimony at a hearing of the Subcommittee on Immigration and Citizenship. 

Democrats and Republicans disagreed at a congressional hearing on Wednesday afternoon as members of the Subcommittee on Immigration and Citizenship disagreed about the safety protections and citizenship status that essential workers who are immigrants should be given in light of the coronavirus.

Tom Jawetz, vice president of immigration policy at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank, explained that immigrants have been working in a variety of sectors, such as food service, farming and child care, in order to keep the country running during the pandemic. 

“Out of the estimated 7 million undocumented immigrants in the workforce, CAP estimates that 5 million, nearly three out of four, are doing jobs deemed essential to the nation’s infrastructure,” Jawetz said.

Jawetz said that granting citizenship to undocumented immigrants must be a core component to recovering the nation’s economy. 

“The 10.5 million undocumented immigrants in the country today have lived here for an average of 14 years,” Jawetz said. “This is their home, where they are raising their families, and it is long past time that we recognize them as fully woven into the fabric of American life.”

The American Dream and Promise Act of 2019 passed the House in June 2019. If passed by the Senate, this bill would provide immigrants with the opportunity to obtain permanent residence status in the U.S. for 10 years if they entered the country as minors. However, no further action has been taken by the Senate, and the clock is ticking for undocumented workers. 

Vicente Reyes is a 20-year-old from Bakersfield, California, and a beneficiary of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, also known as DACA. Both of Reyes’ parents came to the U.S. when he was a child, and neither Reyes or his parents have citizenship status. As a beneficiary of DACA, this means that Reyes cannot be deported based on his citizenship status since he came here as a child. 

Reyes is also a second-year student at Bakersfield College who hopes to pursue a career in robotics engineering. For the past 10 years, Reyes has helped his parents harvest crops such as onions, table grapes, kale, avocados and tangerines. Reyes gave his testimony because he believes that he and his family should be given citizenship. 

“Farm workers, and the rest of our nation’s undocumented immigrants, deserve a path to legalization and citizenship that recognizes the essential role that we play in this nation,” Reyes said.

Reyes also said that he fears for his safety at work because his employers have never screened him for coronavirus symptoms or given him personal protective equipment. 

 “We take either cloths, shirts, any bandanas, things that we have at our house and we use that to protect ourselves the most that we can,” Reyes said. “But there is no gear that’s being given to the farm workers.”

Reyes said he is worried that his parents will be deported if U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement ever came to the farm his family works on.

“For my parents, this fear of deportation compels them to wake up every morning and hug us as if it was the last day together,” Reyes said.

Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, a Democrat from Florida, agreed with Jawetz and said that undocumented immigrants should be given the opportunity to obtain citizenship.

“I think immigrants who have been living here for tens of years – for decades – have been waiting for a legal path to citizenship, including our Dreamers,” Mucarsel-Powell said.

Rep. Sylvia R. Garcia, a Democrat from Texas, empathized with Reyes and the work he does on the farm, since she has also worked on a farm in the past. 

“Let me say that I’ve picked cotton myself. I’ve worked on the farm, and I had a friend that we would compare notes. And she told me it was worse for her because she picked onions; you could never get rid of the smell,” Garcia said. “So, I hope that has not happened to you because I know you said you picked onions.”

Garcia said that while some Americans have the privilege to work from home during the pandemic, many immigrants in essential sectors do not have this same luxury.

“You can’t do the work of agriculture work from home. You can’t care for someone from your home. You can’t clean houses from your home,” Garcia said. 

While many Democratic committee members said they valued Reyes’ testimony, some Republican committee members did not agree that there should be a hearing about immigrants during the pandemic.

Rep. Tom McClintock, a Republican from California, said that the hearing was “tone-deaf” and that it left him with an “inexpressible sense of disbelief.”

“Here we are in the middle of the most self-destructive panic in history when millions of people have lost their jobs because of government edicts forbidding them to work, resulting in massive unemployment, and the majority holds a hearing regarding foreign workers,” McClintock said. 

In his opening remarks, Ranking Member Ken Buck, a Republican from Colorado, said he acknowledged the importance of immigrants as essential workers. However, he said, it’s “important that we recognize that those who are here illegally should leave.” 

“We have to recognize that illegal immigrants have no role, should not be in this country, and we are making a serious mistake when we don’t allow Americans to fill jobs that are being filled now by illegal immigrants,” Buck said. 

Buck asked many of his questions to Dimple Navratil. Navratil is an immigrant from India who went through the naturalization process to become a U.S. citizen over 20 years ago. The pandemic forced Navratil’s small business in Racine, Wisconsin, to close. When she tried to receive federal grants to keep her business open, she said the mayor denied her requests because he had seen her husband at a rally to reopen businesses. Buck suggested that if the economy had opened sooner, Navratil’s business may not have closed.

“We respect those who are working legally in the United States, and so many things that are going on in this country would be resolved if we had opened our economy back up, while taking appropriate safety precautions,” Buck said.

No specific actions were taken in regards to any of the witnesses’ testimonies. By the end of the hearing, only Democratic committee members remained, besides Ranking Member Buck. 

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