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A Demographic and Economic Profile of Undocumented Workers on the Pandemic’s Front Lines

A mother puts a mask on her children as day laborers and their supporters participate in a "Caravan for Essential and Excluded Workers" in an effort to ensure that COVID-19-related emergency financial aid reaches day laborers, undocumented workers, and their families, Los Angeles, April 2020.

Across the United States, 5 million undocumented immigrants—nearly 3 in 4 of those in the workforce—are working alongside their neighbors to keep the country safe amid the coronavirus pandemic. These individuals are making sure that produce gets from the fields to our grocery stores and treating patients throughout the health care system; they are caring for our children and our grandparents and ensuring that the nation’s infrastructure remains safe.

Forty states are home to at least 10,000 undocumented essential workers, and in 12 states—California, Texas, New York, Florida, Illinois, New Jersey, Georgia, North Carolina, Virginia, Washington, Maryland, and Arizona—that number is more than 100,000.*

In addition to the work undocumented front-line workers do to keep the country moving amid the pandemic, they are major contributors to the economy through the taxes they pay and their spending. Each year, these workers and their households pay $47.6 billion in federal taxes and $25.5 billion in state and local taxes. Beyond the federal tax payments undocumented immigrants contribute to the social safety net, their employers pay an additional $14.3 billion in Medicare and Social Security taxes each year.

Undocumented essential workers and their households hold $195.2 billion in annual spending power, which is sent back to the local economy with every trip to a store for groceries or to a restaurant for takeout. And together, these individuals own 1.2 million homes across the country, paying $14.3 billion in mortgage payments and $33.9 billion in rental payments each year.

For state-level versions of the data presented in this column—including data on the family members and economic contributions of undocumented essential workers—please see this downloadable spreadsheet.

Beyond these important economic and fiscal contributions, undocumented essential workers have long ties to the country. On average, these workers have lived in the United States for 18 years, with three-quarters of undocumented essential workers having lived in the United States for more than a decade and almost one-fifth of these workers having lived in the country for at least 25 years.

But most importantly, the 5 million undocumented essential workers living in this country are community and family members. In fact, nearly 4.7 million people in the United States—1.2 million adults and 3.5 million children under 18—are married to or have a parent who is an undocumented essential worker. And more than 1.3 million of these family members—882,000 adults and 436,000 children—are undocumented Americans.

In 19 states—Texas, California, Florida, New York, Illinois, Georgia, North Carolina, New Jersey, Washington, Virginia, Arizona, Maryland, Colorado, Nevada, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Oregon, Oklahoma, and Indiana—more than 50,000 residents have a spouse or parent who is an undocumented essential worker.

Conclusion

Nearly a year into the pandemic, it is crucial that Congress and the Biden administration do not ignore the many ways these undocumented workers have kept the country running and what they mean to their families and communities. Therefore, efforts to lead the country out of the coronavirus crisis and get on a path toward a strong economic recovery must include legal status for these undocumented immigrants and their families. Congress should use all necessary tools to put these individuals on a pathway to citizenship. Not only is it the right way to honor these members of the American family, but it also ensures that the recovery will be as robust, resilient, and equitable as these challenging times demand.

Nicole Prchal Svajlenka is the associate director for research on the Immigration Policy team at the Center for American Progress.

*Author’s note: The findings presented in this column are based on CAP analysis of 2018 and 2019 1-year American Community Survey microdata, accessed via the University of Minnesota’s IPUMS USA database. Additional methodological details on occupations and industries as well as fiscal and economic contribution estimates can be found in the methodological appendix of “Protecting Undocumented Workers on the Pandemic’s Front Lines: Immigrants Are Essential to America’s Recovery.”

To find the latest CAP resources on the coronavirus, visit our coronavirus resource page.