California’s Economy Relies on Undocumented Immigrants; Two New Bills Finally Recognize that Fact

Immigrants are a fabric of our communities and our economy. We need the Senate to pass these important pieces of immigrants legislation to ensure a safe roadmap for the future. UNITE-LA’s Vice President of Education Policy & Public Affairs explains why.

By Sonia Campos-Rivera, Vice President of Public Policy and Public Affairs, UNITE-LA

Throughout the pandemic, 27-year-old physical therapist Veronica Velasquez has treated patients at a Los Angeles community hospital, while fearing both the rising cases of Covid-19 and the threat of her own possible deportation. Velasquez isn’t unique. She’s one of almost 280,000 undocumented health care workers who have spent the pandemic caring for Americans despite their lack of legal status. It’s a situation that is especially common here in California, which relies on the labor of undocumented workers across industries, from health care to agriculture.

These essential workers are embedded in our communities, and their contributions impact both our state’s COVID-19 response and economic recovery. Yet, U.S. immigration policy forces them to work under constant duress. At UNITE-LA, a business intermediary that works across the cradle-to-career spectrum (including increasing access to high-quality early childhood education, developing career pathways for youth in high-growth industries, improving college access and success, and ensuring workforce readiness—especially for individuals with high barriers into employment), we see how this situation hurts Angelenos—and our city’s economy—daily. That's why we desperately need the Senate to pass landmark pieces of immigration legislation: The Dream and Promise Act and the Farm Workforce Modernization Act. These bills would finally give Los Angeles' undocumented population the protection and security they need and deserve—and, by extension, help Americans throughout California.

Dream and Promise would provide a pathway to citizenship for the nation’s 1.2 million Dreamers—young people who were brought to this country as children. Like Veronica Velasquez, who came to California at age 11 from the Philippines, they grew up here, graduated from our public schools, work in our communities, and feel American in their hearts. Over half a million are essential workers, including 62,600 who work in health care, according to the bipartisan nonprofit New American Economy (NAE). California has the nation’s largest Dreamer population—well over a quarter of a million people. Over 10,000 of the Dreamers are entrepreneurs, providing important services and employing Americans. As a group, our state’s Dreamers earn 6.6 billion in annual household income and pay 1.5 billion in taxes. The Dream and Promise Act would recognize their contributions and, as important, realize their dream to become American.

The Farm Workforce Modernization Act would also legalize a vast workforce that has toiled without protection for too long: one million farmworkers. California is America's agricultural mecca, and yet an estimated 75 percent of our state’s farm workers are undocumented. (Nationwide, 50-75 percent of all farmworkers lack papers.) The new bill would provide a pathway to citizenship for many long-time field workers along with badly needed reforms to the temporary worker H-2A visa system. Both provisions would shore up the food supply across major urban centers like Los Angeles. Wide-spread labor shortages have forced California farms to downsize or fold altogether. This is reducing the food supply and driving up costs for Los Angelenos. Our state’s farmers deserve better, and so do we.

You can’t tell who’s undocumented by looking. But when two million Californians lack legal status, you can be sure we interact with undocumented immigrants daily. In Los Angeles, these individuals pay a combined $7 billion in taxes. If they had legal status, they’d be able to obtain higher-paying jobs, more easily afford college and dramatically increase their spending power. Their already-high rates of entrepreneurship would rise even further. Immigrants, including those without papers, are nearly 40 percent more likely to be business founders than native-born Angelenos. But documentation would give them access to small business resources and loans to grow their enterprises and hire more people. We need to be encouraging job creation however possible. Keeping people in the shadows suppresses business growth.

Los Angeles County is one of the world’s economic leaders. If we were a stand-alone country, we would have the 19th largest economy in the world. We are a main point of entry for global markets, a hub for technology and innovation, and the center of the entertainment industry. We are home to more than 10 million people, 3.5 million of whom are immigrants. World-class colleges and universities have made L.A. a gateway for talented domestic and foreign students who have helped position our region and state as national leaders in job creation and economic growth.

Today, Americans have shown widespread support for Dreamers and farmworkers alike. Last July, Gallup found that 77 percent of Americans believe that immigration is good for the country. According to a Politico/Morning Consult poll from last June, 68 percent of Republicans—including the vast majority of those who voted for the former president in 2016—said Dreamers should be protected. There’s also bipartisan support for protecting undocumented farmworkers. The Farm Workforce Modernization Act, co-sponsored by Reps. Dan Newhouse, R-Wash., and California’s own Zoe Lofgren, passed in late March, with 30 Republicans voting in favor.

There's no question the majority of the public supports our immigrant neighbors, colleagues and friends. Bipartisan passage of the Dream and Promise Act and the Farm Workforce Modernization Act in the Senate would be historic; it would signify that America is finally ready to take on comprehensive immigration reform, correcting our past mistakes while providing a pragmatic and safe roadmap for the future. Every worker, and every sector of our economy, is interconnected. It’s time our immigration policies reflect this reality.

Sonia Campos-Rivera is Vice President of Public Policy and Public Affairs for the organization UNITE-LA.

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