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Undocumented Immigrants in the United States and COVID-19

The population of undocumented or unauthorized immigrants in the United States had continued to decline over the last decade. In 2019, the population of undocumented immigrants was 10,350,000, a decline of 12% from 2010. This group currently represented around 3% of the United States population, Forbes reports.


This overall change is largely due to a change in immigration trends from Mexico. From 2010 to 2019, the population of undocumented immigrants from around the world increased by around 500,000. During the same period, the population of undocumented immigrants from Mexico decreased by nearly 2 million, a 28 percent change, according to Forbes.


This was largely due to the Trump Administration’s strict protection of the southern border of the United States and the return of many unauthorized Mexicans to their native country. With the Biden administration’s more lenient immigration policy, particularly towards unaccompanied minors, this trend may reverse.


In 2018, around half of undocumented immigrants resided in three states: California (24 percent), Texas (16 percent), and New York (8 percent), the Migration Policy Institute reports. As of 2018, around 68 percent of this group came from Mexico and Central America, 14 percent from Asia, 7 percent from South America, 6 percent from Europe, Canada, or Oceania, 4 percent from the Caribbean, and 2 percent from Africa. Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, India, and Honduras were top countries of birth for unauthorized immigrants.


Some immigrants do not have full documentation, but temporary protection. Around 640,700 undocumented minors are protected under Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), according to the Migration Policy Institute. The program was launched in 2012 and gives some children who entered the United States before age 16 two-year deportation relief. Immigrants who come from countries plagued by humanitarian crises may be temporarily protected under Temporary Protected Status, a form of humanitarian relief unveiled in 1990.

As of 2017, around 7.6 million undocumented immigrants labored in the United States, totaling nearly 5 percent of the American workforce. Around 750,000 unauthorized immigrants held food service jobs, including production, processing, retail, and distribution. Most food-service work was deemed “essential” during the pandemic, the Pew Research Center reports.


Around 2.3 million undocumented immigrants worked in the service sector, while 1.3 worked in the construction sector. Due to the safety risks, repetitive nature, and low pay of many of these jobs, it is unsurprising that the majority of Americans agree that “undocumented immigrants mostly fill jobs U.S. citizens do not want,” according to Pew Research.


In 2015, undocumented immigrants may have paid up to 13.7 billion in taxes, CNN writes. Using Individual Taxpayer Identification Numbers (ITINS), around 4.35 million tax returns were filed, which experts believe are filed almost entirely by undocumented immigrants, CNN reports. Additionally, in 2010, unauthorized workers accounted for around 12 billion in Social Security tax payments.


Undocumented immigrants who are not legal residents will thus not reap the retirement, disability, and survivor benefits that come with a Social Security card and number, despite their contributions to the program. They are thus also not eligible for food stamps, as the nonprofit Maryland Hunger reports. Additionally, they are not eligible for health care in the vast majority of municipalities of the United States, HealthCare.gov reports.


With the pandemic, struggles for undocumented immigrants continue. Those with no documentation have not, and will not, receive any stimulus checks from the United States government. Requirements for stimulus checks under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES) enacted March 27, 2020, include that people must have valid social security numbers, according to USA Today.


These checks, which went to individuals earning $80,000 and married couples who received less than $75,000 in tax returns, among other groups, would be especially beneficial to undocumented individuals, as around 28 percent of undocumented immigrants live below the poverty level. In comparison, around 11 percent of the population of the United States lives below the poverty line, the United States Census Bureau reports. Additionally, many of them are in frontline jobs.


According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, CARES may exclude over 15 million individuals in families with “mixed-status.” A requirement to receive these benefits is that both parents must have a social security number. This excludes children who are citizens of the United States but have parents who are undocumented. California is one state that has pushed against this, passing a stimulus that applies to undocumented people, CNN reports.


The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) released a statement offering “equal access to the COVID-19 vaccines and vaccine distribution sites for undocumented immigrants.” They deem this a “moral and public health imperative.”


Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) will also not arrest immigrants at physicians' offices, clinics, drug stores, any medical facility giving out the vaccine. They will treat them as “sensitive locations,” where they will not search for undocumented immigrants, according to the Department of Homeland Security.


Nevertheless, many undocumented immigrants fear their safety in getting vaccinated. They believe that immigration officials will arrest them or that employees at vaccine facilities will ask for social security or residence identification, despite the DHS’s prohibition of this.

And their fears are valid. In February, a site in Texas turned down undocumented immigrants, telling them that vaccines “are exclusive for American citizens and legal residents of this country,” according to The Washington Post. In March, a Rite Aid in California did the same, ABC News reports.


When I received my first vaccination at a pharmacy in the greater DC area, I witnessed a group of five pharmacy employees asking a man, who spoke minimal English and was likely Latino or Hispanic, for his social security card. I am unsure of whether he eventually received a vaccination.


Clearly, many vaccination sites are not obeying the order of DHS. Given the contributions undocumented immigrants make to the United States economy and workforce and their exclusion from stimulus benefits under the CARES Act, they must at least receive the vaccine without struggle and fear for their safety. This is for the safety of not just undocumented immigrants, but all residents of the United States.


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