Protecting Immigrants and Refugees Amid the COVID-19 Pandemic

Monday April 27, 2020

In 2019, thWES Mariam Assefa Fund launched as a philanthropic initiative and made grants to five organizations united in one common goal: to build an inclusive economy that works for all immigrants and refugees. In the face of COVID-19 and its impacts, the Fund, the Beeck Center for Social Impact + Innovation, JFF, Mission Driven Finance, Upwardly Global, and the Welcoming Center for New Pennsylvanians are proud to stand together to continue fighting for immigrants and their vital role in our economy and society. In this joint statement, we share our reflections on the challenges that immigrant communities face amid the COVID-19 pandemic. We also offer recommended strategies for equitable recovery as we move forward.  

Immigrants are on the front lines of the COVID-19 crisis. They number disproportionately among the moment-to-moment heroes in health care, food delivery, and janitorial services. They also rank high among the rapidly mounting economic casualties in the caregiver, food, retail, and hospitality sectors. Immigrants are as doggedly resourceful as other Americans, but disproportionately vulnerable to the effects of COVID-19.  

As an economic crisis unfolds and more than 26 million Americans file for unemployment, it’s critical to acknowledge the contributions of immigrants and refugees to our economy. Immigrants, together with their children, are projected to represent 83 percent of workforce growth through 2050. At the same time, many immigrants have been overlooked or intentionally left out of recent federal economic relief efforts, further threatening immigrants’ ability to contribute their talents and weather this crisis like the rest of America’s workersEnsuring the wellbeing and economic stability of this communityboth new Americans and immigrants who have been here for many years, will be critical to the rebuilding of our national economy in the future 

The impact of recent events has been stark, and as a result immigrants face urgent needs that warrant rapid response and structural change. Chronically uneven access to opportunity has led to great economic vulnerability. Data from a mid-March survey by Upwardly Global, a national organization that helps college-educated immigrant professionals rebuild their careers in the United States, found that since the start of the epidemic, 50 percent of their clients had lost a job or seen their hours significantly reduced. More than two-thirds of respondents had savings for one month or less of expenses. Immigrants with less formal education are even more vulnerable at this time of crisis. 

Even more troubling, health care is either inaccessible or out of reach for many immigrants, especially those in low-wage jobs. Misinformation about the public charge rule, which threatens the green card eligibility of immigrants who receive publicly funded benefits such as Medicaid, has made many immigrants reluctant to seek needed care. Ambiguity about enforcement of the rule during the COVID-19 crisis has rendered many unwilling to take advantage of a range of critical social safety net programs, leaving their families and communities to struggle mightily even when relief is in reach. 

The ongoing pandemic has also weakened the systems that support immigrant workers. Nonprofits and service providers, which often operate with lean margins and minimal reserves, face disruptionSome immigrant-serving organizations have already faced temporary or permanent closure; others have sought to navigate the difficult shift to virtual job-seeking, training, and upskilling programsoften hindered by the fact that clients, staff, and volunteers alike may lack internet access or needed equipment, such as laptops. Still other organizations, like the Somali Family Service of San Diego, have worked to keep their doors open for critical needs but without sufficient personal protective equipment for staff. 

So what can those who have long worked with immigrant communities do at this moment? Though we have many avenues to pursue, the best remedy is not yet entirely clearbut we have the obligation and opportunity to take meaningful action now and in the months ahead.  

  • First and foremost, we must advocate policies that will help promote equitable access to economic security in the near and long term. Many immigrant workers and their families are ineligible for cash assistance, unemployment insurance, health care, or food assistance programs that are crucial to enabling families to weather the current economic and health crises. Policy makers must ensure that all immigrant and refugee workers, their families, and their businesses are included in relief programs like CARES, as well as in future relief or stimulus packages. Through inclusive eligibility for critical programs and comprehensive income, health care, retraining, and other economic and employment benefits, these solutions must explicitly address the broader financial, legal, and social barriers that many immigrants and refugees in low-wage jobs face  
  • As government entities make decisions and take action, we must ensure access to information—especially for those whose English language skills are a barrier. Clear, accurate translations of government resources ensure that people in need understand the supports that are available to them. 
  • Wherever possible, we must press employers to commit to proactive support for workers, including paid sick leave for full-time employees and contractors, as well as guidance and training for workers who must be furloughed or laid off. This support should also include upskilling efforts for workers who remain on staff. To enable the success of incumbent immigrant workers, employers must invest in language and digital literacy skills, as well as technical and safety training that will enable their employees to adapt to a post-COVID-19 workplace. In the immediate term, we must also press corporate leaders to include and empower diverse voices and perspectives at the tables where decisions are made. Prioritizing inclusion and empowerment will help ensure that, when the crisis has passed and it is time to rebuild and rehire, equity and inclusive talent practices are at the core of all discussions. 
  • Those of us in the philanthropic community should hold one another accountable for providing the flexible capital that offers immediate relief to non-profit service providers. Funders can invest in access to upskilling, education, and workforce development for all Americansand new Americansto build new skills to be applied now and during the future economic recovery. Equally important is philanthropic support for immigrant advocacy groups that serve as the voice of immigrant workers. Informed advocacy is essential to shaping effective and representative policy and funding decisions. We must also look ahead toward rebuilding our economic, workforce, and educational systems with equity and inclusion at the core. 

The health and economic challenges ahead are daunting especially for vulnerable communities. A multi-stakeholder, multi-sector, and multi-faceted approach that accounts for immigrant and refugee workers’ diverse needs, for their communities, and for the organizations working on their behalf is requiredThe benefits—a thriving and more equitable economy; a resilient American workforce; and stronger, more cohesive communities—will follow. 

In partnership,

Betsy Zeidman, Fellow, Beeck Center for Social Impact + Innovation 

Cat Ward, Managing Director, JFFLabs; and Laura Roberts, Deputy Director, JFFLabs at JFF 

Jina Krause-VilmarPresident and CEO, Upwardly Global

Lauren Grattan, Co-Founder and Director of Community Engagement, Mission Driven Finance 

Nicole Pumphrey, Deputy Director, the Welcoming Center for New Pennsylvanians

Monica Munn, Senior Director, the WES Mariam Assefa Fund

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