Commentary: To COVID-19, we are all Americans

SILICON VALLEY, CA – At a time when each of us is impacted by COVID-19, we are not thinking about all of us. Instead, whether or not we realize it, we are having a debate about who is, and what it means to be, American.

As some of you know, I decamped to California as soon as the National Immigration Forum went telework to help my parents. I am fortunate to have the flexibility to do this. So many families without this flexibility face far worse situations today. 

This morning, I was sent on a kitchen critical mission to secure rotis (we were down to two packs) and other goods from the local Indian grocery store. As I drove past the gleaming new Apple building in Cupertino, the next intersection took me into Sunnyvale and what felt like one of the last working-class suburbs in Silicon Valley.

The grocery store was in a strip mall like you would find in almost any city or town across the country. Small businesses driving the economy. In this case, each store seemed to cater to a different immigrant community.

And, with the exception of the grocery store, each was shuttered. Just like you would find in a growing number of communities across the country.

Also, similar to what you find across the country, the produce aisles were stocked and the shelves were packed. Someone was getting fruits and vegetable into a truck, to the store and onto the shelves.  A process that, in all likelihood, began with an immigrant farmworker.

Meanwhile, back in Washington, Democrats and Republicans were negotiating a massive coronavirus economic stimulus package that as I write this, leaves out many segments of the immigrant community. 

When some would say this is the time to prioritize Americans’ needs over those of all others, I would argue that when critical health care, agriculture and food service sectors are supported by the immigrant workforce, documented and not, we need to expand our sense of the American identity to include all those who are contributing. 

A quick list:  Seventy percent of farmworkers are undocumented and contributing $9 billion to the fruit and vegetable industry alone; immigrants make up 24 percent of direct care workers and 28 percent of highly skilled professionals in health care; tens of thousands of DACA recipients are a part of the health care sector and might lose their protection should SCOTUS support the administration’s position; and, immigrants make up 22 percent of all restaurant industry workers, and are 33 percent of all restaurant and hotel owners. 

Or, as José Andrés, immigrant, US citizen, restaurateur, philanthropist, super hero, writes in the Times, “But only those of us who work in restaurants can help revive the economy while feeding and building our communities at the same time.”

COVID-19 makes no distinction between citizens, permanent residents, visa holders, and people who are undocumented. To COVID-19, we are all Americans.

Which is why local, state ,and national leaders need to prioritize the health and safety of all community members — including immigrants and refugees. If these vulnerable populations that are part of the backbone of our economy are healthy, that means we all will be safer.

I understand all the reasons why this is incredibly difficult, particularly when little feels stable or safe. Because, as Donna Hicks wrote in “Dignity: Its Essential Role in Resolving Conflict” – “One’s identity requires a sense of safety and stability to evolve. Lacking safety and stability, our sense of who we are becomes frozen in time.”

Which is why the leadership and support of allies has never been more important. Helping the public understand why we are all American at this time of sacrifice is not easy. But I am not sure it has ever been more important.

Ali Noorani is a former Dorchester resident who worked at DotHouse Health and Codman Square Health Center. He is now the executive director of the National Immigration Forum.