COVID-19: Immigrants are Essential Workers: Food Supply Chain

Immigrants, who make up about 14% of the U.S. population, are disproportionately vital to the U.S. food supply chain.

Immigrants make up 22% of overall workers in the food supply chain, according to the Migration Policy Institute, ranging from 73% of hand packers and packagers, 62% of agricultural graders and sorters, 30% of agricultural workers, 27% of food production workers to 17% of grocery and food and beverage retail workers.   In some states, their share is even greater, such as in California, where immigrants represent 69% of agricultural workers, and in New York, where 32% of grocery and other food and beverage workers are immigrants.

In Maine, just as in the rest of the country, immigrants are on the front lines working on farms and orchards, in seafood, chicken and egg processing facilities, in grocery stores, and in food service, including in health  and elder care facilities.

While the majority of immigrants in these essential jobs are U.S. citizens and legal residents, the nation depends on millions of undocumented immigrants who are also a critical part of the food supply chain.  For example, in California estimates are that 60 to 75% of farm workers are undocumented.

And while food supply chain jobs have been deemed essential, that does not translate into legal protections.  As this article notes,

(t)he pandemic carries particular risks for agricultural workers. Most do not receive sick pay if they fall ill, and they lack health insurance. The $2 trillion pandemic aid package that passed Congress last week does not offer any assistance to undocumented immigrants.

They are also still subject to deportation, despite administration statements that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) will modify its enforcement priorities during the pandemic.  Undocumented immigrants, and even immigrants in the process of applying for residency, fear seeking medical help if they feel ill, regardless of government assurances that they should not be afraid to seek COVID-19 testing, preventative medical care, or treatment.

The dichotomy between immigrants’ role in supplying the nation with the food needed to survive and thrive and their lack of economic, health, and immigration protections is appropriately leading to calls for their inclusion in future federal relief efforts.

Some states with large immigrant populations are taking steps to assist immigrant workers in essential services, such as in California, where a private-public partnership launched an aid fund.  But similar efforts are likely impossible in cash-strapped small states like Maine, and immigrant workers who provide essential services benefiting the whole country should not be treated differently depending upon the state where they live.

Congress should provide assistance to all who keep food arriving on our tables in any future aid bills.  The funds would be spent in workers’ local communities, and is both morally right and economically smart.