An estimated 69 percent of undocumented immigrants are frontline workers. There are multiple efforts underway to create a pathway to citizenship for those with essential jobs during the pandemic, but a pressing question still looms: Who will be excluded? 

There are currently three bills that could provide an opportunity for undocumented food and farm workers, and other unauthorized immigrants, to obtain legal residency or citizenship. The U.S. Citizenship Act would advance labor protections and create a pathway for 11 million undocumented immigrants to become citizens and expedite the process for farmworkers. The Citizenship for Essential Workers Act would establish a track to citizenship for 5 million essential workers on non-immigrant visas. Finally, the Farm Workforce Modernization Act (FWMA), which has passed the House, would provide more than 1 million undocumented agricultural workers with the ability to eventually adjust their status. While each of these bills offers potential pathways to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, FWMA has the most birpartisan support, though it will only benefit a small percentage of immigrant workers. Immigrants who are not farmworkers would be excluded, including other undocumented agricultural workers like those who work in meat and poultry processing. 

These bills come with a number of caveats. The Citizenship Act retains existing criminal bars under immigration law, the National Immigration Law Center reported, but also adds bars for any felony conviction or three or more misdemeanor convictions—excluding simple marijuana possession, marijuana-related paraphernalia, nonviolent civil disobedience, and minor traffic offenses. Farmworkers say FWMA’s provisions would require them to jump through lengthy and complicated hoops to adjust their status. The act would allow undocumented immigrants who have worked on a farm for a minimum of 180 days over the past two years to apply for “certified agricultural worker status” that they could renew every five years and would prevent their deportation. However, they would have to remain farmworkers for another eight years to simply qualify for permanent legal residency. 

The Citizenship for Essential Workers Act does not have the bipartisan support needed to get enacted, but it has the most potential to benefit undocumented frontline workers. It would create a pathway to citizenship for many groups of undocumented frontline workers—including emergency responders, meatpacking plant workers, childcare providers, construction workers, janitorial staff, and healthcare workers like Tannya De Los Santos. 

The 27-year-old began her career in healthcare as a receptionist, but decided to take on more responsibility during the pandemic, becoming a referral coordinator helping patients schedule and book their medical appointments. De Los Santos is currently training to be a medical assistant through the Service Employees International Union’s (SEIU) West Joint Employer Education Fund, a multi-employer, labor-management training fund serving 100,000 SEIU members across 16 employers in five western states. The program has no out of pocket cost for tuition and includes wrap around services, coaching, and laptop lending. Opportunities like these were once rare for immigrants like De Los Santos, especially outside of states like California where she lives. She is a Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipient, providing the mother of two with authorization to work and reside in the United States. But DACA is not a permanent status; it’s an immigration benefit that must be renewed every two years; it can get taken away at any time; and it does not provide a pathway to citizenship. Essentially, De Los Santos is still undocumented, but as long as her DACA status is active, she doesn’t have to fear deportation, is eligible for certain benefits, and doesn’t have to navigate underground economies. 

An estimated 110,000 DACA recipients work in the healthcare industry. Part of the reason De Los Santos pursued a career in the medical field is because she knows what it was like accessing healthcare prior to DACA. She still gets emotional remembering how clinic staff treated her at the same Santa Rosa, California clinic where she now trains to be a medical assistant. The experience doesn’t inspire warm memories. 

“When I was a patient, I felt targeted for being Hispanic and because I didn’t have insurance; because I was undocumented,” De Los Santos said. “It is very important to me that everyone coming into the clinic feels comfortable. Everyone who comes into my clinic is my community.”

Tannya De Los Santos. (Photo courtesy of Tannya De Los Santos.)

De Los Santos is not the only DACA-mented healthcare worker at her clinic. She said that people like her have been working on the frontlines through the course of the pandemic and fighting to help patients experience some sense of normalcy during a very chaotic time. But it hasn’t been easy—and De Los Santos has been lucky. According to a project  by Kaiser Health News and the Guardian called “Lost on the Frontline,” more than 3,600 health care workers in the U.S. died during the pandemic’s first year. Two-thirds of them were people of color and a third were born outside the United States. De Los Santos said she is grateful to be represented by SEIU because when her workplace failed to provide proper PPE, the union stepped in immediately to rectify the situation. Unfortunately other frontline undocumented workers don’t have the same supports to fall back on.

More than two-thirds of workers who are undocumented are frontline essential workers—“a rate [that] is much higher than among immigrant workers overall (55 percent) and higher still than among U.S.-born workers (48 percent),” according to FWD.us, but have even less access to the same resources and advocacy available to DACA-mented workers like De Los Santos. Undocumented immigrants have been at a higher risk of contracting COVID-19 because of their frontline worker status and their inability to qualify for healthcare. Like many workers across the United States, they have mostly been left to their own devices and unable to rely on protections ostensibly offered by government oversight. The Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have offered employers guidance on COVID-19, but the National Immigration Law Center reports that “no enforceable legal standard or regulation is in place to require employers to take certain minimum steps to protect workers who are on the frontlines of this crisis and risking their health and safety every day.” Undocumented workers are left to advocate for themselves, but doing so could very likely come at the expense of their safety and employment, leaving them at further risk with few options.

During the COVID-19 crisis, the disparate treatment experienced by undocumented workers has been on full display. Fearing immigration enforcement, undocumented immigrants have been afraid to get tested and state officials continue to provide conflicting information about whether these vulnerable workers can get vaccinated. (Every U.S. resident, regardless of immigrations status, can get tested and vaccinated for COVID-19.) Broadly, Congress excluded undocumented workers from many key benefits offered through COVID-19 relief legislation, including stimulus payments

While these citizenship and residency bills may be able to mitigate some of these issues for undocumented workers, even if they gain traction, various undocumented communities will still be excluded and negatively affected. For example, disabled immigrants or undocumented immigrants with comorbidities who had a work history prior to the pandemic may not be able to adjust their status because they could not risk continuing to work and contracting a deadly virus. Democrats also have a long history of doubling down on immigration enforcement for newly-arrived undocumented immigrants as a concession for passing measures that benefit a fraction of undocumented communities with deep roots in the United States. For example, when President Obama announced DACA, he also outlined how his administration was going to prioritize border security, “putting more boots on the southern border than at any time in our history.” 

Some states have stepped up to provide support to undocumented workers. In February, California legislators passed $600 one-time payments to households receiving the state’s earned income tax credit, along with an extra $600 for undocumented taxpayers earning less than $75,000 who were ineligible for previous federal stimulus payments and other assistance for low-income residents. Last week, New York approved the highly contentious Fund for Excluded Workers, the nation’s first proposed state-run and state-funded program to bring relief to individuals excluded from government-issued economic relief. The state will now offer one-time payments of up to $15,600 to undocumented immigrants who lost work during the pandemic. However, the nation’s spotty, region-specific patchwork of support leaves a majority of undocumented immigrants unsupported and without a safety net—especially the growing number of undocumented agricultural workers in rural regions of red states.

De Los Santos told Prism it’s good bills are being considered that would provide a pathway to citizenship for undocumented workers, but she urged lawmakers against using employment as a measuring stick for who is worthy of adjusting their status. 

“Honestly, I don’t think these things should just be for essential workers,” De Los Santos said. “Everyone should be able to [access] citizenship. Before I was an ‘essential worker’ and before DACA, I was just a regular undocumented immigrant and I felt targeted. Essential workers deserve citizenship, but so does everyone else.”

Tina Vásquez

Tina Vásquez is the senior reporter at Prism. She covers gender justice, workers' rights, and immigration. Follow her on Twitter @TheTinaVasquez.