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How to Reward Essential Workers: Give Those Risking Their Lives During the Coronavirus a Path to Citizenship

By Jodi Ziesemer and Melissa Chua
Daily News

Every night at 7 p.m. in New York City, we clap and make noise for essential and frontline workers. In 2017, more than 15% of the health-care labor force were immigrants, and a larger percentage are home health aides, cleaning and support staff, yet immigrant communities continue to be under attack. Many undocumented immigrants and their families are left out of lifesaving benefits like unemployment insurance and stimulus payments. The Trump administration continues to ramp up its deportation machine, the president tweets that he will suspend some immigration, and ICE detainees continue to be at risk to catch COVID-19 with no release in sight.

We can show appreciation for immigrants and the important ways they are keeping us safe, healthy and fed, by allowing them to continue to work and by providing clear pathways to citizenship.

Those on the front lines of this crisis are delivery and grocery workers, food preparers, nursing home and hospital staff, janitors, and agricultural laborers. They don’t have the luxury of not going to work; they are essential. They always have been essential, it’s just now clearer than ever.

The U.S. has long had special protections and paths to lawful status for immigrants who serve in our military during “periods of hostility.” Presidents designate when the nation is under a period of hostility to trigger this statute and allow immigrants who are risking their lives for our country to move quickly through the legal process to obtain U.S. citizenship. President George W. Bush designated such a period that is still active after 9/11.

Although we are now fighting a very different enemy, the rationale for invoking such an exceptional law is the same. Our essential immigrant workers are putting their lives on the line to protect and serve our communities.

This idea is no more radical that executive action to suspend immigration or to ban travel from more than 11 countries. We need a vision for our immigration system that reflects the most American of values: public service, sacrifice and inclusion.

However, there is another option that may feel more attainable: Automatically extend employment authorization cards. This would help asylees fleeing violence, DACA recipients, TPS (temporary protection status) holders and others who are already working in the U.S. legally, but in this crisis have extreme barriers to gain extensions. The administrative arm of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) still requires paper applications, with copies of documents, passport photos and checks be mailed to their offices to initiate the renewal of a work authorization card.

This is a cumbersome administrative hurdle in the best of times, both for the immigrants and also for the government employees who process these applications. But in the current environment, it is dangerous.

This is why the president should automatically extend work authorization. DHS already does this on a regular basis to automatically extend work authorizations for tens of thousands of TPS recipients while their applications are pending. It is time to employ this tool again for all of our nation’s work-authorized immigrants.

Instead of scapegoating immigrants for a public health catastrophe we have the opportunity to lift them up and recognize how essential they are to our community.

Ziesemer is director and Chua is associate director of New York Legal Assistance Group’s Immigrant Protection Unit.

Originally published in the Daily News on April 27, 2020.

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