My View: Oregon must provide lifeline to immigrant workers
As much hardship as the coronavirus pandemic has already dealt Oregonians, one particular community in our state could suffer even more. Like other workers, undocumented Oregonians are reeling from the implosion of the economy and the job market. But unlike other workers, undocumented Oregonians cannot access most safety net programs or federal emergency assistance, leaving them with no real means to support themselves and their families during this time of crisis.
To prevent an even greater tragedy, the Oregon legislature must provide lifeline to undocumented workers who've lost their jobs.
Undocumented immigrants are integral to Oregon's urban and rural communities, and vital to the state's economy. Undocumented workers are key to Oregon's agricultural industry. Deemed "essential" by the federal government, they plant, prune, harvest and pack what our state produces. Undocumented workers also cook and clean our restaurants, hotels and offices. They beautify our landscapes. And they drive production in Oregon's diverse manufacturing sector. Some of these industries have been devastated by the coronavirus crisis.
Despite the important role undocumented workers play in our economy, they usually endure low wages. As a result, undocumented Oregonians have few resources to meet their basic needs. In 2014, the share of undocumented Oregonians with income falling below the poverty line was 28.3 percent, much higher than Oregon's overall poverty rate of 16.6 percent.
Oregon's undocumented workers support families with children. About 86,000 Oregon children live with a family member who is undocumented. That is one of every 10 Oregon children. The vast majority of these children, nearly 83 percent, are U.S. citizens.
Like other Oregonians, undocumented Oregonians pay taxes. They pay income taxes, payroll taxes, property taxes, and gas taxes, among others.
Even so, undocumented workers are excluded from most public supports. At a time of skyrocketing layoffs, they cannot access unemployment insurance.
In late March, Congress enacted a third federal relief package. The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act — much-needed federal aid intended to shore up millions of American households hit by the crisis — will bypass undocumented workers. They are not eligible to receive the recovery rebate payments of $1,200 per adult. Their families also will not receive the additional $500 per child payment, even for U.S. citizen children.
The CARES Act extends unemployment insurance to self-employed individuals and other categories of workers usually not covered by unemployment insurance — except for undocumented workers. Once again, federal law turns a blind eye to this group of critical workers. As such, laid-off undocumented workers will have little to sustain themselves and their families during this period of economic crisis and social isolation.
Denying income support to laid-off workers while also requiring them to remain at home is not only cruel, but it is self-defeating. To arrest the spread of the coronavirus, it's imperative that everyone not considered an essential worker stay with their family at home. Nearly all undocumented workers labor outside their home. The nature of the work — harvesting, cooking, cleaning — cannot be performed in a home office. How can we expect laid-off workers with few resources and no means of support to self-isolate when there are mouths to feed?
The lack of support for undocumented workers also ignores the needs of businesses. Once the period of isolation ends, businesses will be able to restart more quickly if they can get their workers back on the job. That includes undocumented workers, who play such a vital role in a number of Oregon's industries.
Finally, it ignores the fact that the children of these families are part of our collective future. Allowing children to endure extreme privation diminishes the future of our state and nation.
While we can hope that Congress will come to its senses and extend the same protections to undocumented workers as it does for others, we should not wait for the feds to see the light. The Oregon legislature should, at its first special session responding to the coronavirus crisis, address the plight of laid-off undocumented workers. It should establish the Oregon Worker Relief Fund, which would provide a wage replacement benefit for laid-off undocumented Oregon workers.
If the coronavirus crisis has taught us anything, it is that we are in this together. Our individual well-being depends on the health of the community. Undocumented workers and their families are part of our community, and we must ensure their well-being in this time of crisis.
Janet Bauer is senior policy analyst with the Oregon Center for Public Policy (ocpp.org). Adriana Miranda is executive director of Causa, Oregon's immigrant rights organization (causaoregon.org).
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