Time magazine editors made a sensible choice in picking Joe Biden and Kamala Harris as their “Person of the Year.” But a more inspired choice was made by the magazine’s readers when surveyed; they narrowly picked the “essential worker.”
Time defined “essential workers” as the millions of people who have risked their own health and lives to continue serving the rest of us during the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s a broad category of “frontline” workers that includes everything from nurses and doctors to grocery store clerks, janitors, and food delivery employees.
It didn’t take a pandemic to appreciate the everyday heroism of first responders and medical personnel. We routinely appreciate and applaud, as we should, the service and dedication of medical professionals, fire fighters, law enforcement officers, and others who have pledged to serve our communities. Yes, 2020 presented them with a dire emergency of rare universal dimensions, and I am awed by how they’ve responded, but these are people who’ve signed up for the job. Like soldiers in battle, we honor their sacrifices on our behalf, even if we know they had signed up for the role.
But to me, the true “person of the year” for 2020 is the previously unappreciated essential worker, the unexpected essential soldier in this struggle. Farmworkers and food processors, distribution warehouse workers, the clerk at my local Safeway, the janitors keeping our public spaces clean when cleanliness has become a matter of life and death – these are the unexpected heroes of 2020, who have been disproportionately affected by the coronavirus while shielding the privileged from either risk or inconvenience.
The fact that immigrants, and undocumented immigrants, constitute a significant portion of this workforce, offers a particularly poignant 2020 plot twist. As Isabel Migoya, a Mexican graduate student at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, pointed out to me, the same administration that in 2019 issued a “National Emergency Proclamation Concerning the Southern Border” because of all the people crossing over would be forced to classify many of these immigrants in 2020 as “essential to continue critical infrastructure operations.”
It is estimated that 3 in 4 of the 7 million undocumented workers in the United States are doing some of these jobs deemed essential by the Department of Homeland’s Cybersecurity and International Security Agency’s guidance. Hundreds of thousands of them do work in health care, but plenty more are picking our vegetables, processing our meats in plants, stocking warehouses, bagging groceries, and cleaning our workspaces. Nearly 2 million undocumented workers maintain our food supply. Needless to say, these workers are far more vulnerable to COVID than the general population, and far less likely to have access to timely treatment.
The fact that a sizable minority of Americans views these immigrants as villains, instead of as a national treasure, is appalling. But I am also sickened at the memory of participating in past immigration roundtables and debates in which supposedly enlightened and savvy Washington think tankers and analysts were extremely disdainful of “low-skilled” immigrants and argued for only encouraging high-skilled immigration in the future. I’m tempted to call up some of these contemptuous experts to ask them how they’re felling about those “low-skilled” immigrants these days.
To be fair, even those of us who have long championed the importance of undocumented workers to the US economy, arguing for their legalization and for a larger pipeline of legal migration from Mexico and Central America, may have underappreciated these workers’ actual importance. I plead guilty to worrying in the first weeks of the global pandemic, on top of everything else, about the impact of depressed remittances to Mexico’s economy. Even I couldn’t have dared imagine that with the US economy ground to a halt, save for the most essential services, Mexican undocumented immigrants in this country would be working (and thus earning, saving, and sending home) far more than before. No one could have imagined that 2020 would see an increase in cross-border remittances – remittances that proved how indispensable these workers really are.
In France, the government announced this fall that it would offer to fast-track citizenship for immigrants providing essential frontline work through the pandemic. In the United States, however, political discourse around immigration remains sadly disconnected from reality. It’s clear a majority of Americans do not share the Trump administration’s extreme xenophobia, and have more enlightened views on everything from what ought to happen with those covered by so-called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals to the question of whether law-abiding workers who’ve been in the country for years should be offered legal status and a path to citizenship. And the incoming Biden administration will no doubt reflect that more enlightened consensus with executive orders and proposed legislation aimed at reversing the dark Trump years.
But too much of this debate, even on the enlightened side, is couched in terms of our values, and what’s the right/humane thing to do for these immigrants. That is all well and good, but what continues to be missing is an acknowledgment of our own national interest. Donald Trump’s worldview and anti-immigrant zeal needs to be rejected not only because it is cruel and antithetical to our values, but also because it is antithetical to US strategic and economic interests. The year 2020 has proven that immigration and immigrants remain a comparative strength of the US, and that’s true whether we are talking about these millions of frontline essential low-wage earners, or immigrant scientists and other experts playing key roles in the development of vaccines (a column for another day).
The United States needs a massive reset and rethink of its immigration policies, which our politics seem ill-equipped to contemplate. Matt Yglesias’ provocative but persuasive book “One Billion Americans: The Case for Thinking Bigger” argues that a massive expansion of legal immigration isn’t only manageable, but necessary to compete with rising economic powers like China and India, not to mention revitalize depressed swaths of the country suffering from depopulation.
Our politics, Yglesias writes, need to embrace a “ruthless pragmatism” on immigration in the face of three fundamental facts on immigration policy: our country needs more people; immigration is a win-win to our society and immigrants; and, a large and politically influential share of the population is much more skeptical of immigration than it should be.
Even after Trump has left the White House, I don’t know how the US can reconcile the tensions between these well-established realities around immigration to force a revolution in our thinking about the subject. But perhaps appreciating the essential workers who are keeping us fed and safe during the pandemic – and appreciating who these essential workers really are – is a good start.
* Andrés Martínez is a professor of practice in the Cronkite School of Journalism at Arizona State University and the editorial director of Future Tense, a Washington, D.C.-based ideas journalism partnership between ASU, Slate magazine, and New America Twitter: @AndresDCmtz