More than 70% of immigrants in the United States work in fields classified as “essential” — health care, food production, agriculture and more. They are our front-line workers in nursing homes. They pick the crops we buy from supermarkets. They were delivering food to our doors when no one even knew if it was safe for them. How can we call these workers essential to our health and economy but also criminalize them?
We need our immigrant essential workers, both documented and undocumented, now more than ever to rebuild, recover and thrive. We need bipartisan immigration solutions that support a path to legal status and permanent residence for those currently living and working in the United States without authorization.
Americans are nowhere near as divided on this issue as politicians would lead us to believe. Immigration reform is popular and bipartisan. More than 75% of American voters, including 89% of Democrats and 57% of Republicans, support creating a path for undocumented immigrants to achieve legal status, according to Pew Research. Americans understand the extent to which immigrants contribute their time, skills and money to our country’s well-being and economy. Between 2007 and 2017, for example, unauthorized immigrants contributed $100 billion more to Social Security than they drew down in benefits.
Florida, which has more immigrants than any other state, is often cast into the spotlight on immigration policy. More than one in five Florida residents and one in four Florida workers is an immigrant. They account for 42.4% percent of the state’s workers in travel and accommodation, contributing to Florida’s vital tourism industry that is only just reviving, especially with “an uptick of people driving” to the state, according to the Daytona Beach News-Journal. In Florida, reform is critical.
Here and nationwide, immigration reform is especially urgent for three kinds of immigrants.
First, an estimated 1 million Dreamers work in essential industries. Because they entered the United States as children, many of them have known no other life; some have never even learned the language of their birth country.
The Dream Act of 2021, a bipartisan bill introduced by Senators Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., would create the opportunity for Dreamers to apply for lawful permanent resident status and eventually citizenship, provided they meet certain requirements. Seventy-eight percent of Americans believe DACA recipients should be able to remain in America.
Immigrant agricultural workers are a second essential group. The Farm Workforce Modernization Act has bipartisan support and would offer the agriculture industry a stable, legal workforce. This is the industry that’s most reliant on undocumented workers.
According to the most recent data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, from 2014 to 2016, nearly half of crop farmworkers were unauthorized immigrants; today, that number is likely higher.
Finally, the contributions of immigrants with Temporary Protected Status have been anything but temporary. This humanitarian program allows immigrants to remain and work in the United States due to unsafe or unstable conditions in their home countries, and many have put down roots here. Congress must find a pathway to permanent residency or U.S. citizenship for the more than 400,000 immigrants with Temporary Protected Status, including more than 130,000 essential workers.
Last week, I joined hundreds of Florida business leaders, CEOs, faith leaders and bipartisan lawmakers — including former Gov. Jeb Bush, Rep. Mario Díaz-Balart, Florida Commissioner of Agriculture and Consumer Services Nikki Fried, Miami Archbishop Thomas Wenski and Florida Chamber of Commerce CEO Mark Wilson — for a virtual immigration summit called Florida Thriving: Bipartisan Immigration Solutions 2021. We are especially thankful to Congressman Díaz-Balart for his leadership on the Farm Worker Modernization Act, which was recently introduced in the House. Together, we charted a path forward for Florida’s and the country’s recovery — a path on which immigrants remain essential.
Let’s help our country to rebuild, our businesses fill essential roles legally and our law enforcement to focus their time and resources on public safety. Let’s move forward on bipartisan immigration reform that will help all Americans.
Mike Fernandez is CEO and chairman of MBF Healthcare Partners.