COVID-19 has disproportionately affected immigrants in Northern Virginia who are the most vulnerable to the economic stresses caused by the pandemic, according to a new report.
The Immigrants in Northern Virginia Report was released Wednesday before a virtual webinar hosted by panelists representing the Northern Virginia Regional Commission, the Community Foundation for Northern Virginia and New American Economy, a research and advocacy organization.
The report’s authors painted a grim picture of how immigrants are especially vulnerable to gaps in the country’s social safety net, facing issues such as language barriers, less access to health insurance, and increased infection risks associated with frontline and essential work.
According to the report, as of 2018, immigrants made up 27.4% of the population and 47.9% of all essential workers in Northern Virginia.
Mo Kantner, director of state and local initiatives for New American Economy, said the role of immigrants in essential industries, such as healthcare, food manufacturing, and construction, among others, is vital to the emergency response in Northern Virginia and eventually its economic recovery.
“Immigrants account for almost 57% of workers in essential services, which include certain categories, like veterinarian services, services, and buildings and dwellings, waste management services, child day care services, and on an incredibly morbid front, funeral homes and cemetery workers,” Kantner said. “But overall, we can see the incredibly important role that immigrants are playing during these unprecedented times.”
Jill Kaneff, the senior regional demographer for the regional commission, said the Hispanic community in Northern Virginia is especially vulnerable during the COVID-19 pandemic because a larger percentage are frontline workers.
“The Hispanic share of cases has been three times their overall population,” she added. “So that is a very huge disparity.”
Kaneff and Kantner underscored the importance of immigrants to the local economy, where they continue to play an essential role in filling workforce gaps, as well as being significant consumers.
“If we look at the top essential industries for foreign-born workers across Northern Virginia, we see immigrants playing an outsized role in a wide variety of industries from over 50% of food service workers to over 40% of healthcare workers and over 28% of utility workers, which, considering most of us are attending this webinar from the comfort of our own homes, is incredibly important,” Kantner said.
But Kaneff and Kantner warned that because immigrants, such as Hispanics, play an outsized role in the local economy as essential workers, it is necessary to provide these communities with more resources to combat the coronavirus. According to the report, immigrants have faced greater difficulty combating the virus in their communities because of things like language barriers and less access to health insurance.
“This disease does not care if you were born here, if you were a refugee, if you're a naturalized citizen,” Kantner said. “And it certainly doesn’t care if you speak English. So getting health and public safety information, as well as economic resources and support information to everyone in the community, is really critical.”
Likewise, according to the report, despite making up 27.6% of Northern Virginia's population, immigrants made up almost 65% of all uninsured residents in the region.
“Not all areas provide free care, and even when care is offered for those suffering from COVID symptoms, it can be very difficult and confusing to navigate the system,” Kantner said.
The panelists concluded that part of the solution going forward will be providing more resources to immigrant communities to keep the local economy afloat and decreasing the spread of infection.