Over-Represented Among the Vulnerable, Under-Protected In the Pandemic: Georgia Immigrants Deserve Better

As the pandemic continues, one glaring outcome has been increased disparities between certain groups. During the beginning of the pandemic and the immunization stage, 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 that has been disproportionately and negatively affected by the pandemic is the immigrant community, which continues to be overrepresented at both the national and state level when it comes to things like unemployment and lack of health access

Nationwide View

The United States has relied on the labor of essential workers to help us through the pandemic. As the world stood still to try to brace for the unknown, essential workers reported to work at construction sites, grocery stores and hospitals. Many of those essential workers on the frontlines of the pandemic were and are immigrants. Immigrants make up 13.7 percent of the U.S. population. Yet nationally, immigrants make up 18 percent of the essential workforce, and 16 percent work in the health care sector. Of the total working immigrant population, 69 percent work in “essential critical infrastructure” which includes health, infrastructure, manufacturing, service, food and safety. Despite making up a huge portion of the essential worker population, foreign-born workers accounted for 38.4 percent of the overall decline in the labor force from 2019 to 2020.

Georgia View

Georgia has no concrete number for how many immigrants are essential workers; however, we know that 14 percent of the overall Georgia workforce is foreign-born. Immigrants also make up 16.1 percent of the service industry, 23.1 percent of the natural resources, construction and maintenance industry and 16.6 percent of the production, transportation and material moving industry.

Thanks to a survey done by the Latino Community Fund and New American Economy, we are able to get a snapshot of how the pandemic affected Georgia’s immigrant community. The survey revealed that, compared to native-born groups, immigrants were more likely to experience reduced work hours or job loss due to the pandemic. Immigrants were also less likely to be able to work remotely or have paid sick leave, and were more likely to work in industries made vulnerable by the pandemic, such as the service sector and construction. Also, there are about 170,000 undocumented essential workers in Georgia, and their lack of legal status puts them at an increased risk of job loss.

Nationally and here at home, employers rely on immigrants for their labor, yet those same employers are willing to get rid of immigrant workers when they face an economic downturn. According to a study done by the Urban Institute before the pandemic, 52 percent of children from immigrant families in Georgia lived on an income less than 200 percent of the federal poverty level, which equals an annual income of $43,920 for a family of three. This fact, paired with the high national unemployment rate—15.3 percent for immigrants compared to 12.4 percent for the US-born at the height of the pandemic—puts immigrants at a great disadvantage if we ever hope to have an equitable recovery.

Health outcomes are not much better. Immigrants make up 21.4[1] percent of those who are uninsured in Georgia. Georgia is also one of a few states that have opted out of providing care for lawful permanent residents (LPRs) who are pregnant or under the age of 18. The only way LPRs can access affordable health care is to comply with a five-year waiting period before they can qualify for Medicaid or 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 relationship between the foreign-born population and the vaccination rate, which is promising. Yet, the results from a national study paint a bleak picture of the elevated COVID risk that immigrants face. For example, undocumented immigrants are up to 80 times as likely to be hospitalized for COVID, and up to 7,900 times more likely to die from COVID. At times, Georgia immigrants’ elevated risk has also intersected with Georgia’s aggressive immigration enforcement, with Stewart Detention Center in Southwest Georgia emerging as a major hot spot. This handful of data points provide a glimpse of what Georgia immigrants have been through and highlight the need for robust data collection to fully understand the pandemic’s impact on the immigrant community.

As previously stated, immigrants were less likely to be able to work remotely or get paid sick leave, which means that in order to survive this pandemic, immigrants had to show up and work. This affected when some were able to get vaccinated. We have stories of community members not being able to get paid time off in order to get the vaccine or secure sick days to recover from it. In many cases that meant having to put off getting vaccinated. The pandemic has underscored the inequities that have contributed to the disadvantages immigrants in our nation and the state have had to deal with 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 especially help the immigrant community, such as allowing undocumented children to qualify for the Child Tax Credit. This would help at least 15,000 undocumented children and their families be able to afford groceries or pay utilities.

BBB should also provide immigration relief for undocumented immigrants. Although this proposal is far from comprehensive, providing some relief to at least 339,000 undocumented Georgians is a welcomed start.

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

Lastly, going forward, the state should view investment in our health infrastructure as a priority. Georgia’s spending on public health resources has steadily decreased since 2014 going from $69.94 in spending per resident to $63.41 in 2022. The Department of Public Health deals with various areas including immunizations, epidemiology, and provides numerous health programs for vulnerable populations. Improving funding is critical to improving the health outcomes of Georgia immigrants.


[1] GBPI analysis of ACS 1-year microdata.

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