Economic recovery would be strengthened by immigrant-inclusive COVID response

Abimael Chavez-Hernandez
Jan 05, 2021

With the onset of winter, it’s clear that the coronavirus and accompanying economic disruption will continue to be with us for some time.

The severe impacts of COVID-19 have disproportionately fallen on our nation’s immigrant communities, as a result of deep and structural inequities that create barriers to their economic and health security. At the same time, immigrants are also more likely to work in industries that are crucial to our national recovery.

Prosperity Now has documented how the pandemic and a federal response that left out many immigrant workers and their families has caused greater financial instability among immigrant households. Their analysis shows why it’s essential that future policy relief choices include immigrant communities in order to help all of us fully recover from these crises.

Structural factors that contribute to COVID’s greater impact on immigrant communities that Prosperity Now identified include:

Higher concentration in lower-wage industries and industries hard hit by COVID

Immigrant communities have faced some of the most severe pandemic-related job losses and as a result, suffered some of the most severe economic effects. Between February and May, five million immigrant workers lost their jobs, contributing to a 15.7 percent unemployment rate as of May. While immigrants make up 17 percent of the national labor force, they are 23 percent of the low- and moderate-income labor force – that’s the part of the labor force seeing the greatest job losses. They are more likely than native-born Americans to work in hard-hit industries including food services, hospitality, and retail. The effects of the crisis have been devastating, with over two-thirds of Hispanic adults with non-citizen family members reporting their families had seen job loss or lost income due to COVID-19.

Less access to economic support and the safety net

When policymakers have taken action to provide economic support to workers and families impacted by COVID, immigrant communities have often been excluded. Prosperity Now notes the explicit and structural barriers that prevent struggling immigrant families from accessing COVID-related economic supports. Some types of immigrants already were blocked from qualifying for food assistance through SNAP or affordable health care through Medicaid, for example. Similar exclusions also appear in the COVID-related CARES and FFCRA acts passed by Congress earlier in 2020. The CARES Act’s direct stimulus payments excluded households with a taxpayer who files their taxes through an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number, or ITIN, rather than a Social Security Number. And expanded access to unemployment insurance for gig economy workers was also inaccessible to undocumented workers. Excluding immigrant workers from federal economic supports harms not just the health and well-being of these workers and their families, but will slow the economic recovery.

Structural barriers to building economic security

In addition to policy choices to exclude immigrant workers and their families, an exclusionary economy makes the current situation even worse. A history of racist policies has prevented many immigrant families from building financial cushions to endure the economic shocks of the pandemic. This is highlighted by disparities in savings between citizen and non-citizen immigrant households: while about 36 percent of naturalized-citizen households lack sufficient savings to get through unexpected emergencies, almost 60 percent of non-citizen households don’t have such savings.

Barriers to building wealth tie back to how immigrant households have been excluded from accessing high-quality credit in the form of mortgage loans and business loans. Residential segregation has meant that many immigrant families live further away from neighborhoods and communities where good job opportunities and schools allow families to build strong futures.

A more inclusive policy response would benefit us all

Immigrant workers are essential to our communities getting through the pandemic and fueling the recovery, yet economic relief policies have mostly ignored the very important role they play. As a result, our economic recovery is fragile. Federal and state policymakers must recognize both the greater harm COVID has caused to immigrant communities and the many contributions immigrant workers and their families make to our communities and nation. Acting now to eliminate barriers that keep immigrant workers and their families from thriving would ensure an equitable and faster recovery for all of us.