Overrepresented among the vulnerable, underprotected in the pandemic: Georgia immigrants deserve better

As the pandemic continues, one glaring result is the increasing disparities between certain groups. At the beginning of the pandemic and during the vaccination phase, the numbers and percentages of those infected and vaccinated gave us a clear indication that this pandemic was disproportionately affecting some more than others. One group disproportionately and negatively affected by the pandemic is the immigrant community, which remains overrepresented at both national and state levels when it comes to things like unemployment and lack of access to health care

Nationwide view

The United States has relied on the labor of key workers to help us through the pandemic. As the world stood still to prepare for the unknown, essential workers at construction sites, grocery stores and hospitals turned up. Many of these key workers on the front lines of the pandemic have been and continue to be immigrants. Immigrants make up 13.7 percent of the US population. Nonetheless, immigrants make up 18 percent of the country’s essential workforce and 16 percent work in the health sector. Of the total working immigrant population, 69 percent work in “essential critical infrastructure,” which includes health, infrastructure, manufacturing, services, food and security. Despite making up a large portion of the essential labor force, foreign-born workers accounted for 38.4 percent of the total labor force decline from 2019-2020.

Georgia view

Georgia does not have a specific figure for how many immigrants are key workers; However, we do know that 14 percent of the entire Georgia workforce is foreign-born. Immigrants also account for 16.1 percent of the service industry, 23.1 percent of the resource, construction, and maintenance industry, and 16.6 percent of the manufacturing, transportation, and material-handling industry.

Thanks to a survey by the Latino Community Fund and the New American Economy, we can get an overview of how the pandemic has affected the immigrant community in Georgia. The survey found that immigrants were more likely to experience reduced working hours or job losses due to the pandemic compared to native-born groups. Immigrants were also less likely to be able to work remotely or take paid sick leave, and were more likely to work in industries made vulnerable by the pandemic, such as the service sector and construction. In addition, there are approximately 170,000 undocumented people in Georgia who are essential and their lack of legal status puts them at increased risk of job loss.

At the national level and here at home, employers rely on immigrants for their workforce, yet these same employers are willing to ditch immigrant workers when faced with an economic downturn. According to a study conducted by the Urban Institute before the pandemic, 52 percent of Georgia’s immigrant children lived on incomes less than 200 percent of the federal poverty line, which equates to an annual income of $43,920 for a family of three. That fact, coupled with the high national unemployment rate — 15.3 percent for immigrants compared to 12.4 percent for US-borns at the height of the pandemic — places immigrants at a severe disadvantage if we ever hope for an equitable recovery.

Health outcomes aren’t much better. Immigrants make 21.4[1] Percent of those who are uninsured in Georgia. Georgia is also one of the few states that has opted not to care for pregnant or under-18 legal permanent residents (LPRs). The only way LPRs can get affordable health care is to complete a five-year waiting period before they can qualify for Medicaid or the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP). This leaves thousands of new Georgians without access to critical care.

Pandemic data for the immigrant community has been scarce, and virtually no readily available data shows the infection rate, death rate, or vaccination rate for the immigrant community. But thanks to a recent Georgia study, it was found that there is a positive association between the foreign-born population and vaccination coverage, which is promising. But the results of a national study paint a bleak picture of the increased risk of COVID-19 migrants face. For example, undocumented immigrants are up to 80 times more likely to be hospitalized for COVID and up to 7,900 times more likely to die from COVID. At times, the heightened risk of Georgia immigrants also overlaps with aggressive Georgia immigration enforcement, with the Stewart Detention Center in southwest Georgia emerging as a major focus. These handful of data points provide insight into what Georgia immigrants have been through and underscore the need for robust data collection to fully understand the impact of the pandemic on the immigrant community.

As previously mentioned, immigrants were less likely to be able to work remotely or receive paid sick leave, meaning that in order to survive this pandemic, immigrants had to show up and work. This played out when some could be vaccinated. We have stories of community members who have been unable to get paid time off to get the vaccine or secure sick days to recover from it. In many cases, this meant that the vaccination had to be postponed. The pandemic has underscored the inequalities that have contributed to the disadvantages immigrants have faced in our country and state for years. We must ensure that all Georgians, native and foreign-born, have access to economic and health resources.

policy recommendations

First, Congress should pass the Build Back Better (BBB) ​​Bill. BBB has several benefits that would help all Americans, but there are a few provisions that would particularly help the immigrant community, such as: This would help at least 15,000 undocumented children and their families to afford groceries or pay utilities.

BBB should also offer immigration facilities for undocumented immigrants. While this proposal is far from comprehensive, it’s a welcome start in bringing some relief to at least 339,000 undocumented Georgians.

Georgia should also eliminate the five-year waiting period that prevents lawful permanent residents from qualifying for Medicaid. Most states have already allowed children and/or pregnant women to bypass the waiting period to ensure they have access to medical resources and preventive care. Georgia should follow suit and implement this simple policy change that will help thousands of new Georgians.

Finally, the state should consider investments in our healthcare infrastructure as a priority in the future. Georgia’s spending on public health resources has steadily decreased since 2014, from $69.94 per capita to $63.41 in 2022. The Department of Public Health deals with various areas, including immunization and epidemiology, and offers numerous health programs for vulnerable populations. Improving funding is critical to improving health outcomes for immigrants from Georgia.


[1] GBPI analysis of ACS 1 year micro data.