Washington Post: Opinion | America is forcing these essential workers to live in the shadows

By Karen Tumulty

When Pedro Guerrero Mortero was growing up in California’s Central Valley, where one-quarter of the nation’s food is produced, he saw daily how undocumented agricultural workers such as his parents lived in a country that didn’t recognize them or the benefits it was reaping from their countless hours of toil in the blistering sun.

But it wasn’t until the terrifying days of the covid-19 pandemic that an irony of their situation came home to him. “People like my parents were deemed as essential workers. They never had the day off. They had to constantly keep working every single day — to risk their lives, basically — to feed our nation,” he recalls. “That brought a question to my mind: How can these essential workers in this country not be given the opportunity to legalize their status?”

Guerrero, who was born in the United States, is now a college student double-majoring in history and political science. When I heard him speak last month at an event in Los Angeles sponsored by the CHIRLA Action Fund, the political arm of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights, he was looking forward to casting his first ballot, in California’s March 5 primary.

The question he raised — how a country can deem people “essential” even as it forces them to live in the shadows — stuck with me. It is this kind of issue that is getting lost as the politics surrounding the nation’s broken immigration system has become focused entirely on the chaos at the border.

A bigger picture comes into focus with estimates compiled from the Census Bureau’s 2019 American Community Survey by the immigration advocacy group Fwd.us. More than two-thirds of undocumented workers — upward of 5.2 million people, of whom nearly 1 million are “dreamers,” brought to this country by their parents when they were children — work front-line jobs in industries that were deemed essential during the pandemic.

Another way of looking at it: Nearly 1 in 5 people in the essential workforce — people who cleaned hospitals during the pandemic, who provided home health care and child care, who kept food coming to our tables, who built temporary clinics — do not have permanent legal authorization to live in this country.

Theirs are not jobs that can be done over Zoom.

Back then, Americans who had the privilege of quarantining at home leaned out of their windows clapping and banging pots to show their appreciation for essential workers. But already, the memory of how so many relied on so few is fading. Meanwhile, Donald Trump is promising “the largest domestic deportation operation in American history” if he is elected.

“What he’s talking about is rounding up millions of essential workers. Let’s be clear about that,” says Fwd.us President Todd Schulte.

Some in Congress are trying to do something more rational — and just for undocumented essential workers.

When Sen. Alex Padilla (D-Calif.) arrived in the Senate in early 2021 — the former California secretary of state was appointed to fill the seat that Kamala D. Harris vacated when she became vice president — the first piece of legislation he introduced was a bill to expedite a pathway to citizenship for essential workers who lack permanent legal status. It was co-sponsored by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), and a companion measure was introduced in the House by Reps. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) and Joaquin Castro (D-Tex.).

The bill has languished, but “I never give up hope. I’ve been fighting for three years — 3½ years, almost — and we’ll keep fighting as long as it takes,” Padilla told me.

He says this is not just a moral imperative but an economic one, too, given how tight the labor market has become. It is especially crucial in his state. “California’s economy is as strong as it is because of the contributions of immigrants. And not just as workers. Immigrants are also significant consumers and significant entrepreneurs,” he added.

Democrats have traditionally advocated giving broader pathways to citizenship for dreamers and other undocumented people who live in and contribute to this country. Legalization proposals, however, were glaringly absent from the latest failed effort to achieve a bipartisan border deal — which was one of the reasons Padilla voted against it.

“I think it was important for me to oppose as a reminder not just to Republicans but to Democrats,” Padilla said. “We’re going to have to try again. And when we do, this is not the new starting point. This has to be the anomaly, not the new standard.”

Comprehensive immigration reform is not in the cards anytime soon. But doing right by the essential workers who kept the country going during a dark time — and might well be called upon to do it again someday — seems like the least we can do.

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