The Heights

Immigrants face new fears for jobs and citizenship post-pandemic (Quick Read)

Part one explored current concerns for immigrants in the COVID-19 pandemic. Find it here: "At-risk and "often unseen," the pandemic hits different for immigrants in the Mid-South (Quick Read)" This conclusion looks at the post-pandemic fears of Memphis-area immigrants amid new and proposed national policies that will limit access to jobs and citizenship. 
“This is not the first time they’ve been through a crisis. They have been alienated before. They have been isolated before ... probably a good community for us to look to [in crisis.]" - Nicole Kennell


As a Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals or DACA recipient, Dorian Canales has temporary residency and work privileges. It's an Obama-era immigration policy, and the Trump administration announced a plan in 2017 to phase it out.

Its fate is now in the hands of the U.S. Supreme Court with a final decision slated for this year.

Canales, like the other 700,000 DACA recipients nationwide, would lose his ability to work if the program is rescinded. Canales is an economics major at a Memphis-area university. He isn’t sure if he’ll be able to get a job in his field after graduation. 

DACA also provides pathways to citizenship for people who immigrated to the U.S. as children.

“It’s frustrating because we’re all humans,” added Canales. “On top of that, we do contribute to society. We’ve been working relentlessly to contribute to the economy. We also find other ways to be assets to the community like volunteering.”

The end of DACA isn't the only concern. 

In response to COVID-19, the Trump administration issued a new order that puts a 60-day freeze on new applications for and the issuance of permanent residency status, known commonly as a green card. 

Most immigrants are sponsored by family members already living in the U.S. After they arrive, they have to obtain a green card to work and apply for citizenship. Their sponsors are responsibility for them financially until they can support themselves.

The Trump administration's goal is to ensure current U.S. citizens are first in line for jobs as the economy opens back up. There will undoubtedly be fewer jobs to go around.

For those who are working to become the newest Americans, the freeze is a wall separating them and their sponsors from economic stability in the recovery effort. 

If you aren't an immigrant, why should it matter? 

Reducing access to jobs for immigrants is a problem for the Mid-South as a whole. Immigrants are an important piece of the local workforce.

It's estimated that 40,000 to 60,000 people who are foreign-born live in Shelby County. Many are lower-income, shift workers who are essential to sustaining the city, as COVID-19 has shown. They're also educators, entrepreneurs, healthcare professionals, and business leaders.

An New American Economy COVID-19 special report showed immigrants are over-represented among front-line essential workers. They're just over 14% of the U.S. population but account for 36.5% of home health aids, 28.7% of physicians, and 15.7% of nurses. They also make up over 16% of grocery workers and over 18% of food delivery workers.

A second NAE report found immigrant households paid over $2.7 billion in taxes in Tennessee and held $8.2 billion in spending power in 2018. This includes undocumented workers.

Immigrants in Memphis have high rates of home ownership and the poverty rate among Latino households is shrinking. It's less than the poverty rate for Black Memphians but still nearly three times that of whites. Without access to jobs post-COVID, that gap may widen.

New Americans are also job creators. They're more likely to own their own business than those born states-side and those businesses generate millions of jobs nationwide.

By itself, the section of Summer Avenue running through Berclair and The Heights has business owners from 30-plus countries from around the globe.

The nonprofit Su Casa Family Ministries is located in The Heights, which is also home to the largest Latino community in Shelby County. Michael Phillips is its executive director. 

“You don’t have to look any further than Summer Avenue to know how much better we are as a city because we have our immigrant neighbors here with us,” said Phillips.

Mario Ramos, a HopeWorks student, participates in an English Language Learners class. (Submitted)


Nicole Kennell leads the Integrated English Literacy and Civic Education program at HopeWorks on Summer Avenue. She says the citizenship process can take up to five years without a national crisis and government closures.

For many applicants, that process is now at a standstill and their dreams of citizenship on hold.

“In addition to processing delays on applications, citizenship and immigration offices are currently closed to the public, including application support centers,” said Memphis-area immigration attorney Janeita Lentz.

“Appointments for fingerprinting, naturalization interviews, and naturalization oath ceremonies have been postponed and will likely continue to be postponed during the COVID-19 crisis.”

Some of HopeWorks' English-language classes are still being held online, but Kennell said many of their programs are on hold.

“One of the main reasons I hear that people want to learn English is that they want to pass the citizenship test,” Kennell said.

Despite setbacks, Kennell said most of her students are still attending class and going to work.

“This is not the first time they’ve been through a crisis,” she said. “They have been alienated before. They have been isolated before. They just handle it with such dignity and grace. [They're] probably a good community for us to look to [in crisis.]"

Find more resources and ways to help in both English and Spanish in our Memphis Area COVID-19 Resource Guide.

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Read more articles by Ashley Davis and Cole Bradley.