Time to rethink America’s relationship with the Latino community – all of it

Farm workers pick strawberries at Lewis Taylor Farms. USDA Photo by Lance Cheung.

By Janet Murguía, President and CEO of UnidosUS

As we look at a year of dealing with the greatest public health crisis of our lifetimes, what has been proven true is the impact of COVID-19 spared no one and that we are all in this together, whether we acknowledge that or not. But what was also proven true is how indispensable the Latino community, including immigrants, has been in this pandemic.

The pandemic has hit communities of color disproportionately hard and for the Latino community it has been especially devastating. We are twice as likely as to get COVID-19, four times as likely to be hospitalized for it, and three times as likely as to die from it.

There is a simple reason for that: a full 70 percent of Latinos in the workforce are considered essential workers. So, while many other Americans sheltered safely in place, we were called upon to keep the American economy going.

We were not alone, as many of our fellow Americans also stepped up to the plate. But we, as a community, pulled more than our weight on the frontlines as doctors, nurses and health care workers, who braved the pandemic to care for the sick and dying. We stepped into the breach as first responders and caregivers to help keep our communities safe. Our factory workers, grocery workers, agricultural workers and delivery people, helped to keep food on American tables.

And when other plants shut down due to the pandemic, the government ordered the chicken-processing and meat-packing plants to reopen—despite the danger to our workers. Many Hispanics put their lives at risk, to ensure that Americans could eat. And at the time, I should note, no one asked about their immigration status.

Trump immigration policies | Farmworkers
Salinas, California, USA.

We owe a profound debt of gratitude to all who served as essential workers, and I do believe our community deserves to be recognized for their courageous contributions and extraordinary sacrifice. And one thing is certain after this past year: We shouldn’t have to look over our shoulders out of concern for the immigration status of a family member.

Many politicians are quick to draw a line in the sand between immigrants with documentation and those without. They even go as far as to suggest, obscenely, that some people are “illegal.” It’s an easy soundbite, but it’s too often a way to dismiss the contributions, the value, and the humanity of 11 million people.

For our community, there is no such line. Most of the 11 million have been living and working here for decades. They have put down roots and married into our families. Many have children who are citizens that have known no other country. There is no distinction between them and us. We are indivisible. They are us. We celebrate the marriages, the births, the graduations and the life milestones of our nieces and nephews, siblings and grandchildren—we celebrate them together as familia, as a community.

We believe it is time for America to rethink its relationship with our community, including those of us who are undocumented. It’s time for Americans to admit what our community has known all along: Latinos and immigrants are vital to America’s future. And it’s not just some of us; it’s all of us. What the past year has proved is that we are essential, period. It is not only the moral thing to do, but also the smart thing to do.

One out of five Americans is Hispanic. Under the age of 18, it’s one in four. Over the next 10 years, we’ll be needed to shoulder more of the nation’s economic burden—not less. It’s no secret that America needs all our community’s workers, regardless of legal status. According to The Conference Board, “If left unchecked, today’s conditions could easily develop into one of the worst labor shortages of the last 50 years.” We are integral to America’s success.

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And for the good of the country, America should be investing more in us, not less. As we rebuild from this unprecedented pandemic, we need a solution once and for all. Congress should pass long overdue comprehensive immigration reform such as the Biden administration-backed US Citizenship Act of 2021 introduced last month by Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and Rep. Linda Sanchez (D-CA). And a great start would be for the Senate to take up the House-passed bills to give a path to citizenship to DREAMers, TPS holders, and farmworkers. Congress should also enact legislation introduced by Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-TX), Rep. Ted Lieu (D-CA), Sen. Alex Padilla (D-CA) and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) to create an accelerated pathway to citizenship for some five million essential workers who have put their lives on the line for this country. We’ve earned it.

To do this, though, we need to turn the page on the polarization of the past decade and unite to move our country forward. It will take a substantial effort by all of us to heal and restore our country. It will not happen overnight—but it cannot happen until we as a nation recognize the dignity and humanity within each of us.

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