The Plight of the “Illegal” Nanny

Immigration reform must create a road to citizenship for the millions of workers who care for our families

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For years, immigration policy has focused almost exclusively on enforcement and deportations. Now there’s hope of a new, inclusive road to citizenship. The reforms being debated in Washington are particularly critical for the care workers who look after our children, parents, and grandparents. By 2020, one in six Americans will be over the age of 65, and America is at least one million workers short of filling the need for home-based elder care. Caretakers for the elderly, as well as nannies and housekeepers, are vital to our lives and our economy and must be prioritized in the process for citizenship.

(MORE: The Invisible World of Nannies, Housekeepers and Caretakers)

Direct care workers are already relegated to the unseen corners of our law and economy, but never more so for those who are undocumented immigrants. According to a new report by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research and the Caring Across Generations campaign, while the care industry as a whole is plagued by substandard wages and lack of labor law protections, care workers without legal status are even more likely to receive extremely low pay and suffer exploitation, harassment and abuse at work.

In my work organizing domestic workers, I have been touched by the love and care that so many immigrants bring to families across the United States — stories of home-care workers from Jamaica trading ackee and saltfish recipes with Jewish retirees making matzoh balls; stories of new mothers grateful for the skilled experience and tutelage of nannies who have seen it all before. But I have also heard horror story after horror story — nannies being paid less than $3 an hour; housekeepers having to handle raw sewage; elder care aides being fired without notice and not paid overdue back wages. That the immigrant workers who care for our families so lovingly and skillfully can be treated so badly should give pause to anyone who has a heart — and everyone charged with policy reform.

(MORE: TIME cover story: Not Legal, Not Leaving)

Unfortunately, the current options for becoming legal aren’t available to care workers— temporary work visas are available only for farm workers and science and engineering professionals. And within the current permanent residency application system, only 140,000 permanent employment visas are allowed each year — most are given to the family members of other admitted workers. It is far fewer than the United States needs to meet the demand for the current care workforce, let alone other industries.

To truly address the needs of our modern American economy and workforce, immigration reform must create a direct road to citizenship for care workers currently in the United States and establish a program for care workers who will come in the future. Like proposals for STEM workers, care workers should have the ability to come under temporary provisional status with the opportunity to apply for legal permanent residency after five years. And to prevent future abuse of immigrant care workers, the status must allow for job mobility and provide equal worker protections, so that workers pursuing citizenship aren’t subject to the exploitation of sponsoring employers. This will reduce abuse in the industry as a whole and raise wages and working conditions for all care workers, including citizens — a step in the right direction for everyone.

(MORE: Do Immigrants ‘Drain’ Society?)

Looking forward, our nation’s care industry needs to be ready — not with a legal and moral patchwork in the economic shadows, but with a robust industry prepared for the next aging wave. Every eight seconds, someone turns 65 in America today. That means every eight seconds, we have another reason to revamp the care industry for the sake of immigrant workers, our economy and all of us.

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