Permanent protections for immigrant essential workers are needed to boost COVID-19 recovery

The majority of voters from both parties support establishing a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.”

Congress can ensure that the United States can best respond to and recover from the COVID-19 pandemic by allowing immigrant essential workers to more fully contribute. This includes providing permanent protections to undocumented and temporary immigrants serving in the midst of the pandemic, and allowing permanent resident essential workers to expedite their naturalization process. This would enable immigrants working in essential industries, many of which have remained at nearly full employment through the pandemic, to contribute more fully to our economic recovery. It would also be worthy recognition of their sacrifices, and would provide long-needed certainty and security for mixed-status American families.

Immigrants are a critical part of the essential workforce, but their contributions are limited by their immigration status

New analysis from shows that immigrants are a substantial and critical part of America’s essential COVID-19 workforce. Numbering nearly 23 million workers, these medical, agricultural, food service, and other immigrant essential workers make up nearly 1 in 5 of the total U.S. essential workforce.1 Roughly half are naturalized citizens, while the others are permanent residents, temporary visa holders, or undocumented workers, including nearly 1 million Dreamers.

Many immigrant essential workers have been excluded from COVID-19 relief, and faced additional barriers as a result of new immigration bans and restrictions imposed by the Trump Administration throughout the pandemic, despite their sacrifices the increased risk resulting from their work on the frontlines.

The lives of these essential workers, and the critical role they will continue to play in America’s recovery, cannot be left up to chance. President Biden must work with Congress to facilitate the immigration process for these essential workers, providing safety and security for their families, communities, and the U.S. economy.2

We propose that Congress establish permanent protections and dedicated pathways for immigrant essential workers working in the U.S. during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Senators Alex Padilla (D-CA) and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) have introduced the Citizenship for Essential Workers Act (S. 747), while Representatives Joaquín Castro (R-TX) and Ted Lieu (D-CA) have introduced a companion bill (H.R. 1909). This legislation is a promising and powerful starting point for solutions that would strengthen our country’s public health and economic recovery.

Expedited naturalization for immigrants working in essential industries

Congress should waive residency requirements and provide expedited naturalization for lawful permanent residents working in essential industries during the COVID-19 pandemic.

An expedited naturalization process would be worthy recognition of the risk taken on by essential workers, and would provide much-needed security and support to them and their families. Immigration law already provides an expedited naturalization process for certain immigrants working on behalf of the national interest, such as immigrants who serve in the military, a policy that strengthens the military while acknowledging their sacrifice.

Citizenship would allow immigrant essential workers to fill more jobs, including federal contracts, travel more easily, and provide their families certainty. Naturalization also facilitates successful integration and is associated with “improved economic outcomes, such as higher incomes and homeownership,” according to the Migration Policy Institute.

Permanent pathways for essential workers on temporary visas

Congress should also allow immigrants on temporary visas who have worked in an essential occupation to efficiently adjust to permanent residency, maximizing their contributions and ensuring they can stay and continue working in the U.S.

Many immigrants working in essential industries are on temporary visas. These include frontline healthcare workers treating patients, agriculture and seasonal workers maintaining the food supply chain, and researchers and engineers helping develop treatments and vaccines.

Laws governing temporary visas limit what work and where the employee can do, when, and where they can do it. These restrictions have prevented healthcare workers from responding to emergencies, barring them from changing worksites or treating patients outside of their designated specialty.

It is also difficult for individuals on temporary visas to adjust to permanent status, and swelling backlogs mean wait times of years, even decades, before a green card is available. While in temporary status, essential workers and essential businesses are vulnerable to rapid changes in immigration policy.3

These challenges are partly why the government has exercised flexibility and implemented temporary measures to keep the H-2A and H-2B visa programs functioning throughout the pandemic. Unfortunately, that flexibility hasn’t been provided for other visa programs.4

Pathway to citizenship for undocumented workers in essential industries

To ensure that immigrants can fully contribute to our recovery, Congress should allow undocumented immigrants in essential industries to apply for lawful permanent residency, and ultimately pursue citizenship. This includes waiving bars of inadmissibility like the “unlawful presence” bar, and applying to have these conditions removed after some years of working in an essential industry.5 research shows that more than 5 million essential workers in the U.S. are undocumented, including 1 million Dreamers who came to the U.S. as children and have grown up here. Two-thirds of undocumented workers are serving in frontline, essential jobs, like healthcare, food production, and transportation. Many undocumented immigrants have temporary deportation protection and work and travel authorization through Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and Temporary Protected Status (TPS).

These workers are doing critical and grueling work that exposes them to substantial risk of contracting the virus. Undocumented frontline workers have also carried out their work in the face of historic natural disasters like wildfires and tropical storms. Despite their contributions, their undocumented status excludes them from federal COVID relief legislation and public benefits, including healthcare services.6

Our research shows that most undocumented essential workers have lived in the U.S. for more than a decade, live with U.S. citizen household members, and are financially stable. Even so, many undocumented essential workers have no way to change their immigration status. Outdated laws like the the three- and ten-year bars prevent millions of undocumented immigrants from adjusting to a legal status, even if they qualify, forcing them to live and work every day under the threat of deportation and, in many cases, family separation.

Allowing these longtime residents to apply to adjust to a legal status would stabilize a critical part of our workforce, reducing risk for workers and employers alike. It would also allow hardworking immigrant families to access lifesaving healthcare and COVID-relief benefits, keeping them and their communities safe and healthy in the midst of the pandemic.

The majority of voters from both parties support establishing a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants living in the United States. This would be a significant starting point for broader immigration reform that the American people have demanded from Congress for years.

Significant benefits across industries and the country

Providing permanent protections to immigrant essential workers would provide stability and support for workers in some of the country’s most important industries where immigrant essential workers are highly represented. analysis shows that immigrant essential workers, including undocumented essential workers, make up substantial, and thus critical, shares of workers in essential industries like agriculture, housing and facilities, food services and production, transportation, and health. Many of these industries remained near full employment during the pandemic, and some regions facing the worst of the pandemic depend on millions of immigrant essential workers.

To ensure that immigrant essential workers are safe, healthy, and able to fully contribute to response and recovery, Congress should establish permanent protections and dedicated pathways for immigrant essential workers. We urge Congress to act swiftly, and to use the Citizenship for Essential Workers Act as a starting point.

Get in touch with us:

Andrew Moriarty

Deputy Director of Federal Policy


  1. Essential workers are those in industry sectors deemed essential by the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) in its August 2020 memorandum (available at
  2. Immigrant essential workers are also a sizable part of the U.S. economy, and their economic contributions are critical to bolstering recovery. According to analysis, immigrant essential workers in 2019 are estimated to have held a combined $860 billion of spending power, disposable income after the payment of up to $239 billion in federal and payroll taxes, and an additional, estimated $115 billion in state and local taxes. Undocumented immigrant essential workers alone had an estimated $144 billion of spending power after the payment of up to $48 billion in combined taxes. For more, see
  3. For example, experts have warned recent restrictions on H-1B visas could prevent hospitals from hiring foreign-born doctors and researchers, and could prevent current H-1B visa holders from extending their status or adjusting to permanent residency, forcing them to leave the U.S. For more, see
  4. The Farm Workforce Modernization Act (H.R. 5038), passed by the House in 2019, provides a helpful framework for a clear path to residency for essential temporary workers. For more, see
  5. A similar process to model is outlined in the American Dream and Promise Act (H.R. 6), passed by the House in 2019. See
  6. Healthcare coverage under the Affordable Care Act, Medicaid, and Medicare are not available to undocumented workers, and the majority of undocumented immigrants are not provided healthcare coverage from their employers.