Our pandemic workforce relies on immigrants

By  and , Guest Columnist Published: April 26, 2020 4:00 AM CT
Bryce W. Ashby
Guest Columnist

Bryce W. Ashby

Bryce Ashby is a former track athlete, current volunteer coach of the Snowden School Elementary track team, and proud dad to three runners.

Guest Columnist

Michael J. LaRosa

Michael J. LaRosa is an associate professor of history at Rhodes College.

This past Monday evening’s tweet from President Trump surprised many who focus on immigration issues and concerns. The president issued a short message suspending “immigration” in this nation of immigrants — a country with bedrock values and history founded on immigrants and immigration.

<strong>Bryce Ashby and Michael LaRosa</strong>

Bryce Ashby and Michael LaRosa

The next day, he backed down, after robust pushback from business leaders and members of his own political party who depend on immigrant labor to generate profit. He clarified that his “end to immigration” was actually a “pause” on the issuance of green cards. The green card is a document that allows for permanent residency and offers people the opportunity to work in America. It is not citizenship — but it is a significant step for many in the process of becoming naturalized United States citizens.

Hispanic poverty rate in Memphis dropping rapidly

Such diversionary tactics by Trump are not the first time in history that the U.S. government has made life difficult for immigrants during economic crisis. The most famous example comes from 1930 when perhaps a million people from Mexico, many of whom were actually U.S. citizens, were forced to return to that country as the “Great Depression” deepened. 

Ironically, Trump’s misplaced hostility towards immigrants is attacking many of the heroes who are attending to the sick and dying in our hospitals. Twenty-five percent of physicians in the United States are foreign-born, and 1.5 million immigrants are employed as doctors, nurses and pharmacists. 

Creating barriers to immigration has made it more difficult for hospitals to recruit nurses and doctors from overseas. Our antiquated immigration system means that some 10,000 physicians working in the U.S. right now on H1-B “high skilled worker” visas cannot move within the United States; if they do, they risk deportation. Doctors in one city, for example, cannot travel to New York City, New Orleans or Detroit to temporarily work in their hospitals during a pandemic emergency despite desperate need.

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Our dependence on immigrant labor does not end with health care. We all see images of people harvesting crops right now; less than a third of that labor is performed by U.S. citizens. These people are helping to keep our food supply safe and secure.

Rather than direct our pandemic anger at immigrants and foreigners (the Trump game plan), we ought to be developing a system that rewards immigrants for helping us through this difficult time. Many of these folk are risking their lives to go to work and most certainly do not have the luxury of sheltering in place. 

Here in Memphis, many industries deemed “essential” include construction, health care, the restaurant industry and work involving “the food chain.” All of those “industries” are widely staffed with low-wage workers, many of whom are immigrants. We see them on our daily walks and jogs through the neighborhoods of Memphis – we greet them in Spanish and are grateful that they’re here working with us as we struggle to defeat COVID-19.

All of this should remind us of the folly and fecklessness of the president’s anti-immigration physical barrier – The Wall. No wall can keep viruses away, and this virus has proven far more dangerous than poor people traveling to America to work.

Instead, we need collective action and cooperation from the world community to defeat this shared enemy. Blaming “immigrants” is mean, myopic, out of sync with our national values and — right now — dangerous. Seeking the support and help of our immigrant brothers and sisters at this time of international crisis is the only way forward.


Immigration and Customs Enforcement immigrants


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