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Our nation devalues essential immigrant labor | Price of Existence

Ahead of the 2024 presidential election, immigration has risen to the forefront of many Americans’ minds, ranking above and sometimes alongside the economy and inflation as the country’s “most important problem” in Gallup polls. What’s all the concern about?

Republican candidate and former president Donald Trump has repeatedly brought up his plans to curtail American immigration as a whole. This includes massive roundups of undocumented immigrants already residing in the U.S. to bring them to large camps to await deportation. He also wants to revive his previous “Muslim ban” and a COVID-era policy to refuse asylum claims on the basis of preventing migrants carrying other infectious diseases.

Lila Baltaxe | Senior Graphic Artist

There was a time in 2020 when countries around the world went into isolation, and in America, it seemed like life as we knew it had halted without warning.

But for an estimated 55 million people, that was not the case. Essential workers kept the country on its feet through a majority of the lockdown orders. In jobs determined to be “essential” by states, healthcare workers were the largest demographic and for obvious reasons, the most visible subset of essential workers. There were workers still active in transportation, grocery stores, childcare and energy industries, to name a few. 

They were not the only people who were working through a global pandemic. The food and agriculture sector was responsible for the continued growth, harvesting, shipping and processing of food items and materials for the entire country. A large population of undocumented laborers occupy these roles.

Farmworkers were given letters approved by the Department of Homeland Security to work a few weeks into lockdowns because their labor was needed for harvests across the country. Their “essential” roles in farms that provide huge amounts of food to the American population subsumed their “illegal” status.

Undocumented workers kept the rest of the country alive, putting themselves at serious risk of contracting the virus without proper protective measures officially in place at many farms. Yet, some Americans see immigration as a whole as a threat to their way of life.

America likes an immigrant story until it’s inconvenient. It enjoys hearing about the massive success of immigrants who arrived with money and support and miraculously moved up the social ladder to become upstanding American citizens — legally, of course. 

COVID-era labor exposed the bones of the American workforce to all, and the skeleton kept operating as was necessary despite being stripped of everything else. And still, a large proportion of the voting population either forgot everything that happened, or just doesn’t care that their lives still depend on “illegal” labor in more ways than can be observed.

But acknowledging these essential contributions to the greatest country in the world isn’t easy. Recognizing that there are constant work shortages that have agriculture executives scrambling to find migrant labor because Americans are not taking on these jobs is becoming increasingly difficult. College-educated work is better recognized and requires a certain level of wealth to attain, overshadowing the low-paid, undesirable and “unskilled” tasks that let our lives run smoothly.

The arguments surrounding immigration have somehow convinced the general public that new people entering the country is an assault on American life. But instead of focusing on the administrative incompetence putting migrants in camps and centers across the U.S., residents are directing their anger towards widely innocent individuals. 

A variety of factors are contributing to the influx of immigration into the U.S. that shouldn’t be misconstrued as entirely one administration’s fault. Many people find that President Biden is to blame, but in a post-COVID world, Trump’s threatening rhetoric compared to Biden’s more sympathetic language and a general trend towards migration needs to be in what is going on with the current migrant crisis.

The essential work that enabled stay-at-home measures for most should not be forgotten. But it appears that it already has been, along with the pandemic that nobody wishes to remember. America is currently at war with itself trying to claim that the labor undocumented workers provide shouldn’t be validated, despite its heavy reliance on that very labor becoming completely exposed just four years ago.

Even as their existence in this country is called into question, immigrant labor uplifts and retains the idea of the American greatness they constantly struggle to attain.

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