Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-Texas) and Sen.-designate Alex Padilla (D-Calif.) are pushing for undocumented essential workers on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic to be fast-tracked for U.S. citizenship.
“History will remember them as American heroes,” Padilla said on a press call Friday, speaking of undocumented people working in agriculture, health care, grocery stores and more during the pandemic.
“We have an obligation to treat them as essential,” added Padilla, who will take Vice President-elect Kamala Harris’ Senate seat in California after she’s inaugurated. Padilla’s own parents came to the U.S. from Mexico in the 1960s and worked in restaurants and house cleaning.
Castro said he’s working on legislation to immediately protect undocumented essential workers from deportation and speed up their path to citizenship. Castro, the former chair of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, is hoping to get it passed as part of the next coronavirus relief package after President-elect Joe Biden takes office.
“These are people who feed us, clean our homes and hospitals and offices… and they do all this while living in fear of deportation, exploitation and now of this pandemic,” Castro said, noting that many who work in meatpacking, farm work and other front-line industries don’t have the option to work from home, and their employers don’t provide them with paid sick leave.
The proposed protections would apply to an estimated 5 million workers out of a total of over 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S., said Lorella Praeli, president of the advocacy group Community Change Action.
Undocumented immigrants are among those hardest hit by the pandemic since they are disproportionately represented among workers deemed “essential” — from farmworkers to building cleaners — who are risking their lives while millions of Americans stay home.
Meanwhile, undocumented immigrants were excluded from Congress’ relief packages, as they were made ineligible for stimulus checks. They’re also not eligible for unemployment benefits.
As the coronavirus surges, Latinx and Black people are around four times as likely to be hospitalized as white people, and nearly three times as likely to die, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
Last month, France fast-tracked citizenship processes for hundreds of immigrant front-line workers, including health care workers, garbage collectors, housekeepers and cashiers.
Earlier this week, dozens of U.S. lawmakers signed a letter led by the Congressional Hispanic Caucus applauding Biden’s commitment to immigration reform and urging him to take immediate action, given that the presidency and both houses of Congress will soon be in Democrats’ hands.
“History will remember them as American heroes.”
Padilla said he and Castro plan to get the 5 million undocumented essential workers fast-tracked for citizenship as part of the next coronavirus relief bill and then work toward a broader path to citizenship for all undocumented immigrants in a later immigration reform bill.
“Knowing the urgency of COVID relief, it seems there’s a quick and easy way to get a good number of these [people] protected sooner rather than later,” Padilla said on Friday’s press call.
The incoming California senator said he and Castro have been speaking with the Biden-Harris administration and plan to talk with House and Senate leaders soon. The offices of Biden’s transition team, as well as Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), who is set to become Senate majority leader, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Biden and Harris’ platform includes a commitment to work with Congress to pass legislation to create a path to citizenship for all undocumented immigrants in the U.S.
Greisa Martínez Rosas, head of the immigrant rights group United We Dream, said the organization supports Castro and Padilla’s proposal and demands “that Congress uses every avenue possible to pass policies that include a pathway to citizenship for all 11 million undocumented immigrants.”
The process for undocumented workers to gain legal status in the U.S. can be complicated and take years. In terms of what advocates are hoping “fast-tracking” citizenship would look like in this case, Angelica Salas, executive director of immigrant rights group CHIRLA, said that the legislation would first be debated promptly as part of the next coronavirus relief package. Then eligible immigrants would receive green cards, granting them permanent residency and protection from deportation, after which they could apply for citizenship after a few years.
Patrice Lawrence, co-director of the immigrant-led organization UndocuBlack Network, said legislation recognizing immigrants’ “humanity and our contributions to this country is long overdue” and that a bill protecting undocumented essential workers is “the bare minimum this country can do.”