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Part of the series “Viewpoints on Resilient and Equitable Responses to the Pandemic” from the Center for Urban and Regional Studies at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

The COVID-19 pandemic is causing people around the world to question how this virus will affect the many public and private systems that we all use. We hope this collection of viewpoints will elevate the visibility of creative state and local solutions to the underlying equity and resilience challenges that COVID-19 is highlighting and exacerbating. To do this we have asked experts at UNC to discuss effective and equitable responses to the pandemic on subjects ranging from low-wage hospitality work, retooling manufacturing processes, supply chain complications, housing, transportation, the environment, and food security, among others.

Hannah Gill is an anthropologist and oral historian with a specialization in Latin American and Caribbean migration studies. She is an associate director of the Institute for the Study of the Americas at UNC-Chapel Hill and author of the book The Latino Migration Experience in North Carolina, New Roots in the Old North State. She’ll talk about the roles of immigrants in our labor force, particularly those considered essential workers.

Transcript – Viewpoints on Resilient & Equitable Responses to the Pandemic. Hannah Gill: Immigrant Workers

Immigrants as “Essential” workers

During the current COVID-19 crisis, we have heard a lot about “essential workers.” While definitions vary, essential workers are people who are considered indispensable and have continued to work during the coronavirus pandemic. Who are our essential workers? In today’s segment, we will be focusing on the role of immigrants as essential to the health, safety and well-being of all North Carolina residents. We will take a look at how immigrant communities across the state have been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, and consider some initiatives by local governments and organizations to support these essential workers and their families.

North Carolina is home to people from all over the world. Nearly eight percent of the state’s population, an estimated 800,000 people, was born in a foreign country. About half of the state’s immigrants have ancestry in Latin America, a little over a quarter in Asia, 10 percent from Europe, and seven percent from Africa. While immigrants reflect a huge diversity of experience and backgrounds, many share one common denominator: they or a family member were recruited to work in North Carolina.

Many immigrants have been considered essential workers during the pandemic. For example, immigrants and refugees are critical to the health care industry, working as doctors, nurses, home health aides, cleaners, interpreters and food service employees. In 2018, more than 2.6 million immigrants, including 314,000 refugees, were employed as health care workers. More than one quarter of doctors and nursing aides in the U.S. were born in foreign countries. In low-income communities across the country, immigrants make up an even higher 42 percent of medical professionals. In North Carolina, almost one in six physicians graduated from a foreign medical school, while more than six percent of the state’s nurses were born in a foreign country in 2014.

Immigrants are also on the frontlines of coronavirus vaccines and medicines. North Carolina has one of the strongest biotechnology industries in the nation, with specialties ranging from pharmaceutical manufacturing to health informatics. Biotech companies employ more people in North Carolina than in any other state, and recruit biochemists, biophysicists, and other scientists and engineers heavily from foreign countries. Immigrants represent more than 15 percent of all STEM workers in the state. North Carolina companies seeking a coronavirus vaccine or treatment are part of a group of major U.S. companies that have together received approvals from the U.S. Department of Labor to hire foreign workers with either green cards or H‑1B work visas more than 11,000 times in the last decade.

Another essential sector of our economy is food and agriculture. In the early days of the pandemic, empty shelves in the grocery stores reminded many people not to take the food supply for granted. Immigrants are the backbone of our agriculture system, harvesting crops and working in factories to slaughter and process chicken and pork. There are approximately 150,000 farmworkers and their dependents in North Carolina each growing season. Ninety-four percent of migrant farmworkers in North Carolina are native Spanish speakers born in Latin America. North Carolina ranks first in the nation for its recruitment of H2A foreign workers who are contracted to work on farms seasonally.

While many immigrants share a commonality in their recruitment to work in the U.S., conditions of their employment vary in significant ways. When an employer cannot provide an immigrant employee with access to a work visa or green card, the consequences can be devastating. Daily life becomes virtually impossible without a social security number, which is the key to unlocking so many social institutions, from driver’s licenses to library cards to in-state tuition. The specter of deportation and family separation is constant for immigrants living without legal status. Before the pandemic dominated headlines, news media frequently covered the crisis of undocumented immigration. An estimated 11 million people live and work in the U.S. without legal status. More than 200,000 U.S. citizens in North Carolina live with at least one family member who is undocumented. Undocumented immigrants and their families face disproportionate financial insecurity and poverty, and work in industries that provide low pay. For example, the average annual income for a farmworker in North Carolina is $11,000.

The biotech researchers and medical professionals I spoke of earlier are compensated with relatively high earnings and frequently receive an immigration visa sponsorship through their U.S. employer. By contrast, thousands of new North Carolinians provide essential services but with very little financial compensation and no legal sponsorship from their employers.

To add to financial and legal precarity, immigrants are employed in industries that have difficult and dangerous worksites. Poultry processing factories have high injury rates due to the speed of production lines used for cutting up meat. Farmworkers who pick crops suffer from heatstroke and pesticide poisoning. Undocumented workers have little recourse to legal aid in the case of workplace injuries or disputes. Foreign-born contract workers in restaurants, agriculture, cleaning and sanitation, hospitality, health care and many other industries do not have health insurance.

Now, COVID-19 has increased hazardous conditions, particularly in agricultural jobs where people work in close proximity. During April, COVID-19 spread through meat processing plants across the country, including in North Carolina. Companies closed factories and meat production dwindled, until April 26 when President Trump signed an executive order to reopen meat processing plants. By the end of May, nearly all the plants had started back up.

This mandate to continue meat production despite its human toll has had devastating impacts in throughout North Carolina. COVID-19 outbreaks at Tyson Foods in Wilkes County, Mountaire Farms in Siler City, Smithfield Foods in Wilson and Tar Heel and several other factories have sickened and killed workers and their families. North Carolina now leads the nation in outbreaks in meat processing plants. Ironically, these plants have been the site of ICE raids in recent years, which have resulted in the detention and deportation of workers that federal leaders now label essential.

The COVID-19 death toll has been greatest in African American and other communities of color. Epidemiologists are finding an alarming disparity in the infection rates among U.S. residents with Latin American ancestry, and particularly those who live in states with more recently arrived immigrants, like North Carolina. “In 42 states plus Washington DC, Latinos make up a greater share of confirmed cases than their share of the population.” Although North Carolinians with Latin American ancestry make up 10 percent of the population, they represent 40 percent of COVID-19 cases in the state.

To compound the disproportionate impact of COVID-19, immigrants living and working in the U.S. without a social security number are not eligible for federal unemployment benefits and stimulus checks that millions of U.S. citizens are receiving during the crisis. Immigrant business owners accounted for nearly 12 percent of all self-employed North Carolina residents in 2015 and generated $1 billion in business income, but have had difficulty accessing small business relief funds from the federal government due to language and digital connectivity barriers. This ineligibility and lack of access is unconscionable, given the fact that immigrants are suffering the highest rates of infection and death, they are on the frontlines of the coronavirus battle as essential workers, and they pay billions of dollars in federal and state taxes annually.

Some state and local government leaders have worked to support immigrant and refugee residents. California Governor Gavin Newsom’s coronavirus emergency assistance plan was the first to financially help workers without legal status. Eligible immigrant families will be able to receive up to $1,000 per household.

In North Carolina, local nonprofit organizations, grassroots groups and some towns and cities are working hard to communicate with and provide resources for immigrant and refugee residents. Faith and nonprofit organizations across the state have set up funds to support people not eligible for the stimulus checks. They have assisted families needing quarantine housing, helped eligible immigrants apply for unemployment and pressured meat processing companies to provide testing and healthcare coverage for sick workers and their families.

Towns and cities that have established relationships with immigrant community organizations and created language access plans have been better situated to mitigate the devastating impacts of COVID-19. For example, the Town of Chapel Hill passed a language access plan in November 2019, which committed resources to hiring bilingual staff and mandated that critical information be shared in four community languages: Spanish, Mandarin Chinese, Karen and Burmese. During the pandemic, the Town has released multilingual safety information and videos, sponsored food drives in locations accessible to immigrant and refugee residents, and conducted a survey about resident needs in partnership with a community organization. The City of Charlotte created an Office of Equity, Mobility and Immigrant Integration in 2019, with the goal of improving communication and enhancing access to government services and economic opportunity. When the pandemic started, the City quickly sent out messages in English on how to slow the spread of COVID-19, and worked to translate them into other community languages. The City of Winston-Salem, which has offered newcomer orientations for years in multiple languages, has mobilized community partners to disseminate information regarding fair housing law protections to residents with limited English proficiency.

These examples illustrate a willingness to address the underlying inequities that have plagued so many new Americans in the past, and made coronavirus so much worse in the present. If America deems immigrant workers essential, then local, state and federal leaders should provide access to essential foundations of well-being: financial security, health care and legal immigration status.

To learn more about building leadership in immigrant and refugee communities in North Carolina, visit The Institute for the Study of the America’s Latino Migration Project ( and Building Integrated Communities, which is a community planning and leadership initiative that partners with North Carolina local governments to create inclusive practices and policies for residents born in other countries.


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