SUBSCRIBE NOW
OPINION

Many immigrants live in fear, lack basic rights: We have the power to change the system.

Our vibrant immigrant community doesn’t have to remain a vulnerable population.

Mireya Reith and Lawrence Benito
Opinion contributors

States like Arizona, Florida and Texas have made headlines as ones that could turn the tide against President Donald Trump’s reelection for his negligent handling of the coronavirus outbreak. But dig deeper into this latest spike in the Sun Belt and you’ll find another story: one of a virus devastating our immigrant communities.

Some of the most harrowing scenes are in migrant camps and detention centers in U.S.-Mexico border states. More crowded than ever, detention centers — which are often unsanitary, lack basic necessities like soap and deny people basic medical care — are obvious hotbeds for the disease. The first cases of the virus recently were confirmed at a large migration encampment on the border, where Trump’s shutdown of the asylum process has caused people to be stuck for months in places where social distancing is nearly impossible.

For those not trapped in detention, many are on the front lines working essential jobs. But the title of essential bears no protection for these low-wage workers. Their immigration status takes precedence, and they are left out of the resources that federal and state governments have offered others: protective gear, hazard pay, paid leave and unemployment insurance.

In Arkansas and Illinois, the states we call home, meatpacking plants have been at the center of outbreaks. In these facilities, workers, with little to no benefits like sick leave or disability, stand elbow to elbow in assembly lines. Immigrants make up 30% of the industry’s workforce in the United States, and many of the undocumented families will go hungry without financial assistance.

Even those undocumented immigrants who are not on the front lines still face grave danger if they contract the virus — they either cannot afford to pay out-of-pocket costs for a doctor, or are too afraid to get tested or go to hospitals for fear of being exposed and ending up in detention.

Across the nation, we see the consequences of inhumane immigration policies that leave families without protection, resources or access to care. But our vibrant immigrant community doesn’t have to remain a vulnerable population.

Court gave young immigrants hope

We have the power to create a system where all of us are afforded basic human rights. We saw a glimpse of that power with the Supreme Court decision in favor of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. For a brief moment, 650,000 young immigrants could breathe a sigh of relief as their status was protected. It was a monumental feat of organizing by the immigrant community.

But Trump’s reaction told us all we need to know about half-measures. He called the court's decision and one in favor of rights for LGBTQ workers  “shotgun blasts into the face” of Republicans. And his plans for immigration policy if he were to win a second term are terrifying.

If we want to ensure immigrants are offered the full breadth of human rights and no longer remain pawns in a political game, we must pass an immigration plan that creates an accessible, equitable road map to full citizenship.

The first step is to reimagine what safety for all of us looks like. That means ending family separation and reuniting those who have been torn apart by deportation. It also requires us to reverse provisions of the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigration Responsibility Act that strip due process and criminalize immigrants. We need to keep enforcement agencies out of schools, courtrooms and places of worship. And we must take the financial incentive out of detention, end private detention centers and instead invest in community-based alternatives to detention.

Immigration activists rally outside the Supreme Court in April as the justices hear arguments on the Trump administration's plan to ask about citizenship in the 2020 census.

True safety goes beyond dismantling violent immigration enforcement. It also requires that we create the conditions where immigrant communities can thrive. That includes equitable access to health care, higher education and affordable housing, and access to benefits that they are already paying for through taxes. And as an essential workforce, immigrants must be protected when they report labor violations.

Most Americans support immigration

Seventy-five percent of Americans across the political spectrum believe that immigration is good for the United States. And they’re right. Immigrants make us stronger, more diverse and more innovative. So not only do we have a moral obligation to treat people who have migrated with dignity, but we have the political and electoral power to do so. 

We should create the conditions to build up our immigration system, not tear it apart. We can change the U.S. immigrant story from one of a community ravaged by violent policies and a deadly virus, to one that is vibrant and living in harmony with all of us who want to create a brighter future for the next generation.

Mireya Reith and Lawrence Benito are co-chairs of the Fair Immigration Reform Movement.