Commentary

We can’t ‘Build Back Better’ without immigrant workers

December 14, 2021 12:02 am

DACA recipients and their supporters rally outside the U.S. Supreme Court on June 18, 2020 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

By Jaime Contreras  

As our nation faces the unprecedented crisis of a worker shortage, a perfect solution is staring members of Congress right in the face. By investing in the men and women who build and maintain our nation’s infrastructure, Congress can actually ‘Build Back Better’ through a work permit legalization proposal to protect millions of hard-working immigrants from the threat of deportation.

Our nation has not been this close to real immigration reform in 36 years.

That’s why it’s incumbent upon responsible leaders, like Virginia Sens. Tim Kaine and Mark Warner to rise above the partisanship that blocks relief and make this historic breakthrough possible.

An overwhelmingly immigrant-essential workforce kept our economy from total collapse during the pandemic. They paid with their lives, getting sick and dying of COVID-19 at some of the highest rates to build back our economy, working at a higher rate (88 percent) than the overall population (63 percent), doing the jobs that most Americans won’t do.

The facts are plain to see throughout the Washington-Maryland-Virignia area where nearly 40,000 Salvadoran TPS holders have lived and worked legally for decades, holding together the region’s service industry that would lose tens of thousands of workers in construction, hotels, restaurants and child care should these workers face deportation. Over 10,000 “Dreamers” in Virginia were brought to this country by their parents, gained an education, became gainfully employed, law-abiding taxpayers and even served our nation in the military through the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA).

As a devout Catholic, there’s no doubt that Sen. Kaine has been moved by the gut-wrenching, emotional appeals from Dreamers and TPS holders, who know that Kaine is one of the few in Congress whom they can rely on. Because Sen. Warner has strong business sense and experience, he understands the dramatic impact DACA and TPS has on Virginia’s economy.

Businesses that would otherwise lose employees as well as their customers are counting on Virginia’s senators to do the right thing. Economists widely agree that that restricting immigration would restrain growth and that steady immigration is key to a diverse and healthy economy, with population growth alone making an important contribution.

Even the U.S. Chamber of Commerce wants to ensure more than 1 million individuals who are currently allowed to work here legally can stay in the U.S., including Dreamers who are currently allowed to work here legally – but are at risk of losing that status. Deporting Dreamers and TPS holders will not create a single job but it would in fact exacerbate our workers shortage.

This hits close to home for local businesses like Total Quality, a janitorial services company that employs hundreds of immigrants with Temporary Protective Status (TPS), who maintain federal office buildings throughout the Washington area. If we end TPS for Salvadorans, the company would immediately lose 26 percent of its workers and would have to terminate contracts just to avoid breaking the law.

That’s why it’s critical for Kaine and Warner to stand firm against efforts to verify workers’ status in the workplace — such as E-verify — that will lead to unfair firings, racial profiling and enormous discrimination of workers, regardless of their lawful status. It will also push workers further into the underground economy, eroding wages for all workers.

Because the overwhelming majority of Americans support Dreamers and TPS holders, protecting these groups is not politically risky. Recent polling shows broad support for a path to citizenship and other forms of legalization, including battleground voters (take note Virginia) who strongly support Congress passing lasting protections for undocumented immigrants, especially among unmotivated Democratic voters who are crucial turnout voters in the midterm election.

Most of these young Dreamers in the Commonwealth would be sent back to El Salvador, a nation I fled at age 13, to avoid imminent death during a bloody civil war. I still remember helping my father, an ambulance driver prop up our mattress against the door to block the gunshots that often rained into homes, intentionally and accidentally claiming lives every day. Sadly, El Salvador is even more dangerous and uninhabitable today.

When I served our country in the U.S. Navy, after coming here undocumented in the 1990s, I was protecting American values of freedom and democracy. We urge Sens. Kaine and Warner to do everything in their power to restore those values by protecting Dreamers and TPS holders, who share their love and commitment to this nation. It was immigrants who built this nation and now die for this nation.

Jaime Contreras, a naturalized U.S. citizen and U.S. Navy veteran, is a vice president at 32BJ SEIU.  The union represents over 175,000 property services workers in 11 East Coast states, including 20,000 in the Washington, D.C. area, the majority whom hail from El Salvador.

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