A few months ago, we reached two national milestones, one tragic and the other hopeful. In early December, more than 15,000 Americans died from the coronavirus, including 299 North Carolinians, a weekly tally not seen since the virus’ first surge in April. That same week, a U.S. District Court rejected one of the Trump Administration’s last attempts to undermine the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which protects roughly 700,000 young undocumented immigrants from deportation.
These events may seem unrelated; in fact, they are deeply connected. Our country’s ability to recover from the pandemic depends not only on vaccine distribution, but on shoring up our struggling healthcare system — both today and in the future. We cannot do that as long as 280,000 essential health care workers — including 62,000 Dreamers — are undocumented and at risk for deportation. That’s why the Biden administration and Congress must build on December’s positive court ruling with legislation that gives these workers the permanent legal protections they deserve. Doing so will help us pull through COVID-19 and address our growing health care worker shortage.
Even before the pandemic, North Carolina was facing a massive deficit in healthcare workers. In 2018, there were 11 open health care jobs here for every unemployed health care worker, according to New American Economy. The 13-county region that includes Charlotte has been significantly understaffed throughout the pandemic. Of course, the same is true across all essential fields. In North Carolina, thousands of Dreamers and other undocumented immigrants are part of the crucial workforce that has labored in our food processing plants and delivered our much-needed supplies.
Leslie, a Dreamer from Guatemala graduated from Meredith College in Raleigh and became a public school teacher dedicated to educating the next generation of North Carolinians. Giovanni, a Dreamer from Mexico, worked his way through Barton College and now fills an important role as a financial crimes detection specialist. And Jonathan, also from Mexico, has been working tirelessly through the pandemic as a critical care nurse, putting himself at risk for North Carolinians every day.
Hard-working Dreamers like these young people and other undocumented immigrants will also be crucial to combating the recession. This past December, UNC Charlotte professor John Connaughton forecast our state would experience steady growth in 2021. That means drawing on the talent and ingenuity of our state’s entrepreneurs — nearly 25,000 of whom are undocumented yet employ Americans and pay taxes. In fact, North Carolina’s nearly 33,000 Dreamers annually pay $76 million in federal and $62 million in state and local taxes. Like all Charlotteans, Dreamers’ taxes help fund our libraries and schools, our hospitals and the arts. Unlike citizens, however, Dreamers are prevented from using many of the federal benefits their taxes help fund.
Over my three years on Charlotte City Council and through my role helping to pass the 2019 Charlotte Compact on Immigration, I have seen Dreamers strengthen the fabric of our city firsthand. It’s time we give Dreamers and their families permanent protection. The new administration and the 117th Congress must work together to pass just, wise and inclusive legislation that acknowledges the contributions of these hardworking immigrants. The pandemic has taught us that America needs Dreamers as much as Dreamers need America. Their security is our own.
The author represents District 1 on the Charlotte City Council