Opinion: Immigrants are essential workers too

As our communities and economy have been ravaged by COVID-19, the country has come together to recognize the sacrifices of those filling essential roles to keep our nation safe and moving forward.

While we all recognize America’s essential workforce, we must not forget about the millions of immigrants who go under-recognized — and often unappreciated — for their outsized contributions and service to our country. Simply put, it is a moral and economic failure to label people “essential” and not provide them with the legal status they deserve.

Today, Georgia has a rapidly growing community of diverse immigrants who represent the best ideals of our state — ingenuity, dedication, helpfulness, and entrepreneurship. These Georgians have made our state a great place to live, work, start a business, and raise a family. Our state is home to more than 1 million immigrants from all backgrounds who make up about one-eighth of Georgia’s workforce. Nationwide, there are more than 5 million undocumented immigrant essential workers, 170,000 of whom reside in and contribute to Georgia.

Credit: Official House Photographer

Credit: Official House Photographer

Millions of immigrants and their families have a story to tell about their commitment to our state and this great nation. Some put themselves through medical school, become teachers, grocery store workers, or farmworkers. But that doesn’t stop them from contributing to Georgia, whether through taxes or by ensuring there’s food on our tables. In fact, immigrants add more than $26 billion to our economy each year, along with paying almost $10 billion in state and local taxes.

We both recently participated on a panel together on this very topic. Erick has dedicated his life and career to helping people and families get access to healthcare. He’s also a child of immigrant Georgia farmworkers, who are committed to building and bettering their communities. As a healthcare worker himself, he sees firsthand the selflessness of essential workers. Workers like his parents sacrifice their own personal safety every time they go to work, due to increased exposure and likelihood to contract COVID-19.

Credit: contributed

Credit: contributed

Despite the invaluable contributions from immigrants to keep Georgians healthy and safe, they are providing essential services even as their own futures remain uncertain. Immigrants fight on the frontlines of the pandemic under the daily threat of deportation. Even though they continue to contribute, immigrants have been left out of COVID-19 relief packages and have no opportunity to apply for legal status without congressional action. Not only should more lawmakers work to protect immigrants in relief packages, it is also time to swiftly pass legislation that provides our nation’s immigrants with a pathway to citizenship, including the 20,000 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients who live in Georgia. These are the heroes we should all be looking up to and it is beyond time that we provide them with access to U.S. citizenship.

At the end of the day, without immigrants — including undocumented immigrants — we wouldn’t be the America we know and hope we strive to be. And if our nation can deem their work essential throughout a global pandemic, then we must also prioritize their ability to stay and serve in the United States.

Today, we call on not only those with authority, but on our neighbors, friends, colleagues and beyond to understand the immorality riddled within our immigration system. When America invests in, supports, and protects its most vulnerable inhabitants, the harvest can and will be bountiful. Immigrants who have been, are today, and will continue to be essential to the day-to-day operations of our society and economy. They’re American in every way, except on paper.

We remain committed to fighting for immigrants who have been, are, and will continue to be essential to the day-to-day operations of our society and economy. To advance this, we are participating in community conversations like the recent panel with the Latino Community Fund of Georgia and FWD.us to bring together business, healthcare, and immigration experts to uplift the stories and foster the conversations necessary to help all Georgians understand the essential role immigrants are playing in Georgia.

While we continue these conversations and as Rep. Johnson works with his colleagues in Washington to provide support and a pathway to citizenship for our nation’s immigrants, it is our sincere hope that Georgians will continue to advocate for the immigrant community — our essential neighbors and colleagues — in Georgia and across the country. Thank you to all of Georgia’s essential workers, regardless of immigration status. We won’t stop fighting for you.

U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Lithonia, represents Georgia’s 4th Congressional District. Erick Martinez Juarez is a Harvard alumnus and current 4th-year medical student at the Medical College of Georgia at Augusta University.