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What Has Been the Impact of the Pandemic on Immigrant Communities and U.S. Immigration Trends and Policies Two Years On? New Report Assesses
Press Release
Thursday, June 9, 2022

What Has Been the Impact of the Pandemic on Immigrant Communities and U.S. Immigration Trends and Policies Two Years On? New Report Assesses

WASHINGTON — The COVID-19 pandemic both revealed the ways in which the lives of the U.S. born and immigrants are interconnected and exposed the country’s social and economic divides. As the health crisis disrupted the food supply chain and the economy overall, the public gained new awareness of the contributions of foreign-born workers. Even as immigrants working in food processing, transportation and health care were among the essential workers hailed as heroes, the average immigrant household was hit harder than the average U.S.-born household by the spread of the virus and the economic dislocation of the early pandemic. Moreover, the pandemic drastically slowed in-migration, as the result of a dramatic halt to global mobility, slowed processing of applications and changing U.S. policies such as the imposition of travel bans and a border expulsions policy. These impacts continue to reverberate through the politics, labor force participation and overall state of the economy.

In a new Migration Policy Institute (MPI) report, COVID-19's Effects on U.S. Immigration and Immigrant Communities, Two Years On, analysts Julia Gelatt and Muzaffar Chishti examine the pandemic-related U.S. immigration policies that were implemented, changes to immigration flows and effects on the nation’s immigrant communities. Reviewing the literature on the pandemic’s impacts, they explore points of intersection between responses to the virus, the nation’s immigration policies and safety net policies that affect immigrants. In doing so, the report seeks to provide information that could help guide future policy choices related not just to this evolving pandemic but also to future public-health crises or natural disasters.

Among the report’s key findings:

  • The pandemic led to sharp drops in immigration to the United States, to levels not seen in decades. Issuance of visas for legal permanent residence fell 48 percent between fiscal years 2019 and 2020, while temporary visa issuance dropped 54 percent.
  • Foreign-born workers were employed at high rates in jobs essential to keeping the country running during lockdowns, representing for example 29 percent of physicians and 39 percent of food processing workers (the immigrant share of the overall U.S. workforce is 17 percent).
  • Immigrants experienced higher unemployment during the height of lockdowns (16.4 percent when jobless rates peaked in April 2020, as compared to 14.0 percent for U.S.-born workers), and many immigrant families have suffered economic hardship.
  • Early evidence from two states (California and Minnesota) suggests immigrants have had higher death rates from COVID-19 than the U.S. born.
  • As many immigrants, legal and unauthorized alike, were ineligible for key elements of the safety net and federal pandemic relief, a wide range of states, localities and nongovernmental actors have contributed public and private funding to fill some of the gaps.

The pandemic brought new attention to the precarious position of many foreign-born workers and the exclusion of many immigrants, both with and without legal status, from the benefits, such as paid sick leave, health insurance and unemployment insurance and public benefits that buffer many Americans from challenging times. At the same time, it did catalyze some important policy and social service innovations that have ultimately helped mixed-status and unauthorized immigrant families.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed, and at times exacerbated, deep inequities in the United States. These inequities were reflected in who could stay home during the virus’s uncontrolled spread during the first months of the pandemic and who was required to work in person; in who lost their jobs and who kept them; in who had the resources to weather job or income losses and who faced hardship; and in who contracted COVID-19 and who stayed safe from the virus,” Gelatt and Chishti write. “Immigration status was among the fault lines of these divides.”

You can read the report here: www.migrationpolicy.org/research/covid19-effects-us-immigration.

For a related interactive data tool that shows unemployment rates before and during the pandemic by nativity, gender, race/ethnicity, educational attainment and industry, visit: www.migrationpolicy.org/programs/migration-data-hub/us-unemployment-trends-during-pandemic.

And for all of MPI’s research on the pandemic, visit: www.migrationpolicy.org/topics/coronavirus.