Helping while Suffering: Immigrants during the pandemic and at all times

By: Jiayu Fang

Who are experiencing the strongest stress under the current crisis of COVID-19?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, this group includes essential workers in the food industry, racial and ethnic minorities, and those lacking access to information in their primary language. In the U.S., many immigrants fall into these categories. 69% of immigrant workers work in the ‘essential infrastructure’. 88% of immigrants come from places other than Europe and North America. And 83% of immigrants speak languages other than English at home. Most information on COVID-19 available on the CDC website is in only 4 non-English languages (Spanish, Chinese, Vietnamese, and Korean), leaving many other immigrants without information in their mother tongue.

Photo Credit: Jennifer M. Mason /

COVID-19 has been putting many lives at risk, and immigrants are a significant part of that population. To be frank, this should not be a surprise. COVID-19 is just pouring oil on the pre-existing fire of inequality suffered by immigrants in the U.S.

This could not be more obvious during the Trump administration, but inequality and suffering had been happening way before that. To name one example: since 1965, the U.S. has been labeling Latin American migrants as “illegal” and even “criminals,” despite the consistent labor demand for foreign workers.

Such negative labels and attitudes, including from the government, have fed biases among the native-born Americans and fed systematic discrimination. This in turn blocks many immigrants from building social networks outside their ethnic bubbles, makes it harder to break language barriers, and to gain access to resources such as job opportunities. Many of the so-called “essential jobs” have never been popular among native workers due to their low pay and unhealthy working environment. Having to make a living doing such jobs shows that many immigrants do not have the “privilege” to choose how they want to support themselves and their families.

Photo Credit: eddtoro /

At the moment, so many immigrants are essential to maintaining this nation, just as they always have been: filling in for work that native workers refuse to do, like the case for the North Carolina Growers Association. Immigrants also create economic activities through daily purchases or forming small businesses. They deserve more than what they currently have.

We need stronger protections under labor rights policies for immigrants. Right now, lots of essential jobs that immigrants do place them at high risk of exposure to COVID-19, but the protection measures that employers should adopt for their employees have just been “recommendations” or “guidance,” not mandatory. There should be regulations to make sure essential workers get a substantial supply of masks, gloves, hand sanitizer, and other basic protective equipment. These workers also deserve higher pay. A federal hazard pay program is yet to happen; only a handful of states provide relevant programs.

And, just as how the pandemic is not the sole cause of the inequality immigrants suffer from, the efforts to solve their problems should not end with this particular crisis.

Regulations to provide a better working environment and wages is a long-term goal for immigrants’ rights. For those who, because of their legal status, feel insecure about or are ineligible for unemployment insurance, stimulus checks, healthcare, and other services that many native-born Americans take for granted, there should be accessible pathways to legal status and even citizenship. Immigrants also deserve a warmer welcome in settling, like accessible language training that opens doors to more helpful information and job opportunities.

So much more can be done for immigrants in this country, who have been helping us while suffering during the pandemic and in history. Fundamentally, what immigrants deserve is just one thing: fair treatment. When a crisis hits, they, just like others, deserve not to be “disproportionately hurt.”

About the author

Jiayu Fang is a junior-year undergraduate at UC Berkeley, with a major in Sociology and a minor in Public Policy.

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The Berkeley Interdisciplinary Migration Initiative (BIMI) is a partnership of migration experts at UC Berkeley who investigate the social, political, legal and economic dynamics of migration globally as well as locally. We strive to advance thoughtful and substantive conversations on migration that leverage the university’s cutting-edge scholarship and its public mission to educate current and future generations. We embrace new data- gathering technologies as well as embedded, on-the-ground fieldwork, drawing from the interdisciplinary expertise of faculty, students and the communities with which we engage. Bringing together research, training and public engagement, BIMI aspires to inform, educate and transform knowledge to improve the well-being of immigrants and the communities they live in.

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