Undocumented Immigrants and the Covid-19 Crisis

The United States is facing the most dire healthcare crisis in recent memory. Last week, NAE took a look at the role immigrants are playing in the fight against the coronavirus outbreak as healthcare workers and in supporting industries. Today, we examine the most vulnerable group of immigrants, the undocumented. The data reveals that undocumented immigrants too are serving in critical frontline healthcare roles as support workers as well as in industries that are keeping the rest of the U.S. economy functioning as best as it can during this time. 

In 2018, there were almost 280,000 undocumented workers in the healthcare industry, including 62,600 DACA-eligible individuals. 

Top 10 States for Undocumented Healthcare Workers, 2018

State Number of Undocumented Healthcare Workers
California 56,000
Texas 41,800
New York 40,100
Florida 21,700
Illinois 15,000
New Jersey 13,600
Massachusetts 7,000
Maryland 7,000
Pennsylvania 6,400
Virginia 6,300
Source: NAE Analysis of 2018 ACS Microdata, 1-year Sample, downloaded from IPUMS-USA.

While barred from most higher skilled medical and healthcare professions, the data shows that undocumented immigrants play a vital role as healthcare support workers, working as nursing assistants, as health aides, as well as the cleaners and building maintenance workers that keep medical and care facilities running. 

Top Occupations for Undocumented Healthcare Workers, 2018

Occupation Number of Undocumented Workers Undocumented Share of All Workers
Nursing Assistants 44,748 3.7%
Home Health Aides 29,697 6.9%
Personal Care Aides 25,688 4.4%
Medical Assistants 18,657 3.6%
Housekeepers and Cleaners 15,579 6.4%
Receptionists and Information Clerks 10,932 2.4%
Dental Assistants 9,110 3.1%
Registered Nurses 6,630 0.2%
Janitors and Building Cleaners 5,483 4.1%
Cooks 5,389 4.9%
Source: 2018 American Community Survey

We find that DACA-eligible immigrants, many of whom are allowed to work in higher skilled medical and health professions under the DACA program, are well represented in healthcare as registered nurses and medical assistants.

Top Occupations for DACA-Eligible Healthcare Workers

Occupation Number of DACA-Eligible Workers DACA-Eligible Share of All Workers
Medical Assistants 9,354 1.8%
Registered Nurses 6,630 0.2%
Nursing Assistants 5,813 0.5%
Receptionists and Information Clerks 5,245 1.1%
Licensed Practical and Licensed Vocational Nurses 4,517 0.6%
Source: 2018 American Community Survey

Outside the healthcare industry, undocumented immigrant workers often work in industries that are likely to be severely impacted by the economic fallout of the Covid-19 crisis. In particular, hotels and restaurants, which are already feeling the negative effects of shelter-in-place rules and declines in travel and food consumption, have high shares of undocumented workers.  

Undocumented Workers in Adversely Affected Industries

Industry Number of Undocumented Workers Undocumented Share of All Workers
Hotels and Accommodation 152,925 10.0%
Restaurants and Food Service 812,190 8.3%
Source: 2018 American Community Survey

Despite this, many undocumented immigrants also work in roles deemed “essential” from grocery store workers to auto repair mechanics. Delivery people have proven indispensable in getting food, medicines, and other supplies to people stuck at home. In New York, the epicenter of the outbreak in the United States, undocumented immigrants form an even more significant share of the delivery workforce, with almost 1 in 3 food delivery people being undocumented. 

Spotlight on Undocumented Delivery People

Essential Industry Number of Undocumented Delivery People, Nationwide Undocumented Share of Delivery People, Nationwide Number of Undocumented Delivery People, New York State Undocumented Share of Delivery People, New York State
Groceries and Supermarkets 9,870 6.8% 2,000 15.0%
Restaurants and Food Service 15,153 6.0% 6,453 32.6%
Source: 2018 American Community Survey

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New American Economy is a bipartisan research and advocacy organization fighting for smart federal, state, and local immigration policies that help grow our economy and create jobs for all Americans. More…