Staff Columnist

Iowa should give cash to undocumented immigrants

We rely on them as essential workers, but they're not eligible for federal coronavirus stimulus

Norma, an undocumented worker, is photographed at her home in Iowa City on Wednesday, April 8, 2020. Local immigrants fa
Norma, an undocumented worker, is photographed at her home in Iowa City on Wednesday, April 8, 2020. Local immigrants face uncertainty as businesses have had to close to stop the spread of the new coronavirus. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

Immigrants have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19 pandemic. They’re more likely than native-born Americans to be laboring to keep our essential services running, especially in the food processing sector that has been ravaged by the pandemic.

And yet immigrants living here illegally — including many food industry workers, their family members and people who have been living here since they were children — do not get the same coronavirus relief that legal citizens do, such as the $1,200 federal payment millions of Americans are receiving.

To remedy the situation, Iowa could coordinate direct cash payments to undocumented immigrants who were left out of the federal program. California announced such a program last month, offering $500 payments to thousands of undocumented Californians.

The public health crisis is tightly bound to the immigration crisis. It has exposed disparities in the workforce and also given rise to protectionists who want to restrict migration.

Iowa’s meat processing industry has been slammed by the virus, with at least one plant in Iowa reporting more than half of its workers have tested positive. Those production lines are heavily populated by immigrants. Well over 1,000 combined cases have been reported at four major packing facilities.

Nationally, 28 percent of agriculture workers and 29 percent of food processing workers are foreign-born, according to the pro-immigration New American Economy Research Fund.

Most immigrant workers have legal status, but many don’t. Some of those who are legal have family members who are undocumented. An influx of cash would help bring some stability to struggling families so they can weather the crisis.


At the same time we are asking essential workers to risk their health to sustain us, the anti-immigration lobby has used the pandemic as an opportunity to ramp up their campaign to cut off the flow of workers across borders. As one recent example, four GOP senators — including Iowa’s Sen. Chuck Grassley — sent a letter this week to the Trump administration, asking for guest worker visas to be suspended until next year.

In the pandemic, the idea of giving people money quickly gained political support. Direct payments are not mucked up by the corporate cronyism that plagues traditional economic development, a la checks to companies and targeted tax breaks. When politicians and bureaucrats pick certain businesses to stimulate, they do a bad job.

As long as the government is doing stimulus, the best avenue is writing checks to individuals. People need to buy stuff and as long as the economy limps on, they can buy stuff with money. Immigrants are people, even if they came here illegally. They are also workers, caretakers and taxpayers.

Direct payments would not be a special kickback or a reward for people living in the country illegally. It would be just like the $1,200 direct deposit I got from the government. It comes with a recognition that they are the same as us, important contributors of our culture and economy who are victims of an unworkable legal system.

If the federal government won’t do it, Iowa should.; (319) 339-3156

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