By W. John Vandenberg

As Pennsylvania gets back to work after the COVID-19 shutdown, with some counties moving to green and others moving into yellow, it is important to remember that the immigrant community is an economic driver in Pennsylvania.  They are already working in industries on the front line of the COVID-19 fight, and they will also be crucial to the recovery.

The community ranges from small business owners on main street to tech workers in research centers to undocumented workers in construction and landscaping.  Immigrants comprise approximately 7% of Pennsylvania’s population, yet account for 10% of the entrepreneurs in the state, employing more than 189,000 workers statewide. In 2016, according to a report from the New American Economy, foreign born entrepreneurs generated $120 million in Allegheny county alone. The Pennsylvania SBDC noted that immigrant business owners generated over $2bn in total net business income as of 2010.  And as of 2018, immigrant-owned firms recorded total sales of $31.1b and commanded spending power of $24.6bn while paying $10.2bn in taxes.    

The positive impact of immigrants during COVID-19 is just as pronounced.  A full 16.5% of healthcare workers in the United States are foreign born; more than a quarter of all physicians are foreign born. Outside of health care, immigrants disproportionately serve in the riskiest jobs – almost 35% of meat processing workers are immigrants (resulting in a significant number of COVID-19 cases), and immigrants critical to the food supply chain number make up almost a quarter of all workers. 

The take-away – the immigrant community is crucial to Pennsylvania’s struggle to getting the state back to work and mitigating the duration and severity of the COVID-19 pandemic, not to mention the aftermath of recent demonstrations.  Pennsylvania and other status have a significant stake in supporting the immigrant community and facilitating its role in getting everyone back to work safely and effectively. 

  1. Ensure that cities and counties post testing and treatment information in other languages, and publicize that testing does NOT require status and treatment does not affect eligibility for permanent residency.  Testing is crucial to effectively identifying, quarantining, and mitigating the spread of COVID-19. Publicizing and ensuring language access to existing testing and treatment will be crucial.  Successful examples include Pennsylvania Health Access Network, Community Legal Services in Philadelphia, and the Rite-Aid sponsored Project Baseline. Additional resources should be expanded, especially in Spanish and other languages, according to the region’s language needs.
  • Ensure that immigrants are aware of programs to help them to get back on their feet financially.   Immigrants without Social Security Numbers or families where one or more persons had an Individual Taxpayer ID number were excluded from the COVID-19 Stimulus Checks, even though undocumented immigrants pay more than $11.7b in state and federal taxes nationally, and more than $139m in Pennsylvania state and local taxes.  Pennsylvania’s Emergency Assistance Program to Help Low-Income Families only provided assistance through June 12, so long as funds were still available.   
  • Ensure immigrant-owned businesses are aware of and have access to resources to get resources and money circulating in the communities they serve, and forge active partnerships in the community.  Already, immigrants often start their own businesses through their personal savings.  In one study in Allegheny county found that 52.5% of immigrants utilized their personal savings to start their business.  In the same study, only 2.5% utilized a Small Business Loan.  Language barriers can exacerbate the normal challenges to starting their own businesses, in that obtaining the necessary licenses and permits require both documentation and contact with city officials who may or may not have the language skills necessary to successfully complete the process.  Allegheny County has its own Resources for Immigrants and Internationals.  The City of Philadelphia’s Office of Immigrant Affairs has successfully paired with non-profit organizations to assist business owners to navigate the process of beginning a business and facilitating the entry of high-skilled immigrants into the market.      
  • Ensure that immigrant communities are aware of wage-theft issues and their recourse for recouping lost wages.  In the wake of Hurricane Harvey in Houston, more than a quarter of immigrant workers were victims of wage theft.  As Pennsylvania recovers from COVID-19 and the more recent demonstrations that dealt small businesses a one-two punch, rebuilding will be done by many immigrants, both documented and undocumented.  Protecting their rights, ensuring fair treatment, and assisting those who are taken advantage of will be important to a full recovery.  The state can play an important role in educating workers, in languages they understand, that wage theft and discrimination are unlawful.

As Pennsylvania moves forward, it must harness every resource at its disposal.  Every financial model shows that the United States is in a recession due to the measures necessary to blunt the COVID-19 pandemic.  The curve of this recovery will be determined in large part by the efforts of the Commonwealth to capitalize on every advantage it has to limit the duration of the recession, and manage its effect on the population.  Pennsylvania’s immigrant community can and will aid in this effort, and the state of Pennsylvania can use the above four points to ensure that all inhabitants of the Commonwealth do their part with the greatest effect. 

If you need legal advice, or would like to review your immigration options, please contact our office at (610) 664-6271 or visit our website to schedule a consultation. 

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