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The essential nature of dignity

Approximately 1,194 days after taking office, President Trump realized the immigrant worker is essential to the American worker and their family.

Sort of.

On April 28, the president used the powers of the Defense Production Act, “to ensure that meat and poultry processors continue operations consistent with the guidance for their operations jointly issued by the CDC and OSHA.”

The meat and poultry industry employs more than 500,000 workers. According to the Government Accountability Office, “About 28.7 percent of meat and poultry workers were foreign-born noncitizens in 2015 compared to about 9.5 percent of all manufacturing workers.”

Based on the Trump administration’s eagerness to raid meat-packing plants over the past three years, it is fair to assume a significant percentage of the industry’s workforce is undocumented.

While attention is focused on those slaughtering or packaging meat, surrounding industries are raising livestock, cleaning facilities, transporting product to market. All of which have sizeable immigrant workforces — 16% of truck drivers are foreign born, for example.

Now, according to South Dakota News Watch, “As much as 30% of America’s pork processing capacity, as well as up to 25% of the nation’s beef processing capacity, has been shut down due to plant closures as the disease has run rampant among workers.”

According to USA Today and the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting, “More than 150 of America’s largest meat processing plants operate in counties where the rate of coronavirus infection is already among the nation’s highest, based on the media outlets’ analysis of slaughterhouse locations and county-level COVID-19 infection rates. These facilities represent more than 1 in 3 of the nation’s biggest beef, pork and poultry processing plants. Rates of infection around these plants are higher than those of 75% of other U.S. counties, the analysis found.”

With such a high prevalence of the disease, one would assume the president’s order would put in place measures to protect this essential workforce.

Two days after Trump’s order, Chris Young, executive director of the American Association of Meat Processors wrote to his membership of 1,300 medium-sized and smaller meat, poultry and food businesses, “Something that is not fully discussed in the order is the prioritization of industry employees receiving access to personal protective equipment, such as masks and testing availability.”

Don’t assume voices on the left are the only ones stunned by the hypocrisy.

In The Bulwark, former Reagan official, Linda Chavez of the Becoming American Initiative, writes, “Until companies can test every worker who walks through its doors in real time, workers will continue to be put at undue risk. And yet, the president has no plans in place to ensure that the tests will be made available at the worksites, along with the personnel to administer them quickly and reliably.”

The seething also comes from Brent Orrell, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. “The meat packers — like the doctors, nurses, and janitors who heal our sick and clean our hospitals — are essential workers all the time, not just during a crisis. We need these workers, and it is time we started treating them that way.”

It would be easy to over-simplify this crisis as a threat to the White House’s supply of Big Macs. Some people might say that. But I never would.

Rather, this disconnect between the worker as a producer and the worker as a human being speaks to a much larger problem.

“In a time of pandemic,” offers the new #AllofUS campaign, “we are reminded of what matters: that all human beings are made in the image of God, and that each, therefore, carries an inherent dignity; that all human life is precious; and, that we all need one another.”

Even before Trump, our immigration debate was moving to a place where we wanted guest workers, not immigrants. Because, in the abstract world of politics and policy, immigrant workers are easier to deem essential if their families are not essential.

But, as the chairman of Tyson Foods outlined the measures they are taking to protect the health and safety of their team members, he wrote, “we aren’t just feeding the nation; we are feeding communities, our friends, our neighbors — and our own families.”

Whether or not he realizes it, over the past month, from farmworkers to meatpackers, has recognized the immigrant, documented or not, as essential.

Even if millions of immigrants are blocked from CARES Act financial and health relief. Even if millions with DACA or TPS face an uncertain future. Even if tens of thousands remain detained in dangerous, cramped, detention facilities.

We need to go beyond deeming immigrant workers as economically essential. We need to ensure they have access to stimulus money, testing and health care, and, finally, the protections and privileges that come with citizenship.

Our policies may not recognize the inherent dignity of every worker, whoever they may be essential for, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t.

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