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Migrants are the unsung heroes of the pandemic

Source: WASHINGTONPOST.COM | April 2, 2020

From almost the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak, politicians and pundits have emphasized the importance of national borders. As the number of infections grew in the United States, President Trump reiterated his campaign promise of a wall on the U.S. southern border. Other leaders demonized interloping migrants as bearers of an alien disease.

The response to the pandemic, argued some commentators, marked a resurrection of the nation-stateas the dominant actor in an age of fear and lockdowns. It hit the brakes on our interconnected world, with supply chains shut down, trade disrupted and travel temporarily halted. Some analysts even view the pandemic as the precursor to a new era, one in which globalization unravels and countries turn inward and seek greater self-reliance.

In other words, it’s a time for nationalists and citizens. To be a migrant, refugee or asylum seeker during this global crisis is to find yourself even more out of luck than you were before.

No matter the desperate entreaties of aid agencies, there’s even less international capacity to attend to the world’s cramped, ramshackle refugee camps where the outbreak is starting to spread. Things aren’t much better for those fleeing conflict or deprivation: The Trump administration, for one, has fast-tracked the deportations of asylum seekers arriving at the U.S. border, while nonprofit groups warn of the administration’s negligent treatment of immigrants exposed to the virus in detention centers.

And yet you can argue that migrants are the unsung, front-line heroes of the pandemic. From hospitals to farmlands, migrants are providing vital labor to keep societies afloat. They are also society’s most vulnerable people — see the scenes of rural migrants being forced by lockdowns to walk hundreds of miles home from India’s major cities.

Elsewhere, their absence has deepened the sense of crisis. My colleagues reported earlier this week on the troubles European countries are facing now that border closures and travel bans have deprived them of the migratory labor on which their agricultural sectors depend.

“Farms across Western Europe are deeply dependent on Eastern Europeans who travel for work during the growing season,” they reported. “Yet with lockdowns in place as agriculture wakes up from its winter slumber, German asparagus may start rotting in the field and French strawberries may suffer from a lack of tending. European countries say they have enough food, for now. But there are concerns about what could happen if the crisis drags deep into the growing season, as well as fears for the livelihoods of their farmers.”

In the United States, the food and restaurant industries are arguably dependent on migrant labor. Of the approximately 400,000 agricultural workers in California, some 60 to 75 percent may be undocumented migrants, mostly from Mexico. As most of America’s workforce stays home, they remain in the fields, categorized as “essential” labor.

“For many workers, the fact that they are now considered both illegal and essential is an irony that is not lost on them, nor is it for employers who have long had to navigate a legal thicket to maintain a work force in the fields,” noted a piece in the New York Times.

“It’s sad that it takes a health crisis like this to highlight the farmworkers’ importance,” Hector Lujan, chief executive of Reiter Brothers, a large family-owned berry grower based in Oxnard, Calif., told the Times.

And, as the Guardian reported, many of these workers are subjected to adverse conditions with little to no safety equipment, no social distancing and no additional support or pay. The $2 trillion coronavirus stimulus package passed by Congress offers nothing for undocumented people. (Compare that with a temporary move taken by the Portuguese government, which conferred de facto citizenship status on migrants and asylum seekers so they could access public health services.)

“They’re getting paid the same, yet they’re exposing themselves to more dangers,” Irene de Barraicua, spokesperson for Líderes Campesinas, an advocacy organization of Californian female farmworkers, told the Guardian. “There is no standard for safety orientation. Sometimes we’re hearing they just get a five-minute talk — stay six feet apart, don’t do this, don’t do that — but they’re working in big crowds. It feels like it’s not being taken seriously because the money is more important.”