Data Points | When COVID-19 meets structural inequity, Chicago's immigrant population suffers - Metropolitan Planning Council

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Data Points | When COVID-19 meets structural inequity, Chicago's immigrant population suffers

Part one of two: How housing, employment conditions, and legal status leave our immigrant community vulnerable to Coronavirus

Flickr user John Twohig (CC)

COVID-19 has raised questions about the underlying reasons why immigrants are being disproportionately impacted by the crisis. Racism and a legacy of unfair policies permeate immigrants’ lives, with devastating community outcomes. In this two-part Data Points series, MPC explores some structural and economic barriers that leave our immigrant community vulnerable to Coronavirus.

Chicago immigrant communities hit hardest by COVID-19 cases

The disparate impact of COVID-19 on Chicago’s Black population has made international headlines, in which a flurry of stories, first reported in April, captured that the vast majority of fatalities have been among Black people. Latinx populations have also experienced disproportionately high cases. However, MPC analysis reveals that COVID-19 cases among Chicago immigrants—including, but not limited to, Latinx residents—are also on the rise. Zip codes with a high number of immigrant residents are the ones hit the hardest by the pandemic (see Figure 1).

Figure 1. COVID-19 cases: COVID-19 hitting hardest in Chicago ZIP codes with greater % of foreign-born residents

In a city whose immigrants make up about 21% of the population, this dramatic rise in cases among immigrant residents calls for exploration: Why is Chicago's immigrant population now among the hardest hit by the pandemic?

This pandemic has exacerbated the wide range of barriers that many immigrant residents face, challenging their ability to meet their basic needs, ensure their safety, and improve their well-being. The trend we are seeing is a reflection of the conditions in which immigrants live and work, as well as their legal status. The following conditions make immigrants particularly vulnerable:

Immigrants tend to cohabitate with multiple family members. Most immigrants face greater challenges with social distancing at home. Multi-generational households, for instance, tend to be denser.

Figure 2. Average Household Size in Chicago by Citizenship Status, 2018: Immigrant owner- and renter-occupied households tend to be larger

Larger households often mean crowding. According to U.S. Census Bureau, only 2.3% of native-born Americans experience crowding compared to 8.4% of immigrants. Among immigrants, the crowding rate for non-U.S. citizens is almost two times higher than that of naturalized citizens.

Figure 3. Share of crowded housing units in Chicago by citizenship status, 2018: Foreign-born households are four times more likely to be crowded

Immigrants tend to work on jobs where social distancing is not possible. For most immigrants, working from home is not an option as their type of job requires them to go out and put themselves at risk of contracting COVID-19. Chicago immigrants tend to be concentrated in industries where sheltering in place is not possible and the risk of transmission is particularly high. Most immigrants (17.6%) work in educational services, health care, and social assistance. However, low-skill industries such as accommodation and food services, manufacturing and construction rely the most on immigrant labor, with manufacturing having the highest proportion of immigrant workers (14.4%) compared to their U.S.-born counterparts (6.1%).

Figure 4. Percentage of foreign-born and natives[3] by industry, 2018: Foreign-born workers disproportionately serve in “essential” settings where working from home is not an option

The COVID-19 crisis is particularly acute in the manufacturing industry where large plants dominate, putting thousands of workers under one ceiling. Particularly, meatpacking companies have been accused of failing to protect their workers. These plants employ large numbers of immigrants and refugees and have become centers of COVID-19 outbreaks. The outbreak in meatpacking plants has led to more than 14,800[4] cases in at least 186 plants in 31 states.

Legal status directly influences well-being. The data shows that legal status varies among Chicago's foreign-born population. Legal status directly influences immigrants’ well-being by defining available opportunities. A lack of citizenship excludes many immigrants from more stable jobs. Undocumented immigrants’ fear of deportation makes them one of the most vulnerable populations. With high unemployment rates, undocumented immigrants’ weak bargaining position puts them at risk to be exploited.

Immigrants can be divided into those who have become U.S. citizens and those who remain non-U.S. citizens. Measured side by side, non-U.S. citizens and naturalized citizens differ in how they fit into specific industries (see Figure 5). Naturalized citizens better resemble native-born Americans since they are nearly as likely as natives to work in educational services, and health care and social assistance, while non-U.S. citizens are over-represented in accommodation and food services (17.9%). The construction industry shows a similar disparity, accounting for 10% of non-U.S. citizens and only half of that of naturalized citizens (4.9%).

Figure 5. Share of Chicago’s immigrant workers across industries: Non-U.S. Citizen workers are even more disproportionately in sectors such as food and manufacturing that make social distancing difficult

Immigrants made 77 percent of the earnings of their native-born counterparts. The industries where immigrants are concentrated tend to offer insecure, low-paid jobs, leaving Chicago immigrants’ incomes among the lowest of all residents. During 2018[5], Chicago immigrants’ median household income was 17.1% less than that of native-born residents. Among immigrants, citizenship status influenced their income level. The median family income of naturalized citizens was as high as that of natives, while the income gap between non-U.S. citizens and natives was the greatest. When examining mean earnings[6], non-U.S. citizens and naturalized citizens also differed, with immigrants earning 77 cents for every dollar earned by natives, and non-U.S. citizens earning 65 cents.

Figure 6. Median household income in Chicago by Citizenship Status, 2018: Immigrant populations are more likely income insecure

Among immigrants, non-U.S.-citizen workers are more vulnerable. For some, their undocumented status makes them less likely to seek medical care if they do get sick, demand proper work conditions and protections or file claims when their rights have been violated. When laid off, immigrants are ineligible for unemployment insurance, stimulus payments and extra protections offered under the COVID-19 emergency bill. All of this creates an environment of inequality in which they are most at risk.

Immigrants have long been an integral part of the U.S workforce, but the data paints a picture of an immigrant community living and working in conditions where the risk of transmission is particularly high. Self-isolation can be impossible in crowded homes, and working from home and social distancing can be impossible in insecure, low-paid service occupations.

Immigrants’ overrepresentation in industries that are facing overwhelming lay-offs during the current COVID-19 crisis forces them to accept insecure work rather that none at all. Most immigrants working in such jobs lack basic work protections like paid sick leave, family leave, and employer-based health insurance. These immigrants are likely to be hit the hardest by the recession that follows.

This pandemic has exposed what has always been a hard reality for many immigrants: Despite providing essential services that we depend on, they are at high risk of losing their economic security. For immigrants, the financial burden of COVID-19 is inevitable. They need to keep working or looking for employment no matter the severity of the spread.

We cannot ignore the barriers of discrimination and structural racism that exist in our society, which contribute to immigrants being more likely to suffer from poverty and work in insecure, low-paid jobs. Calls to the government to increase safety measures and oversight to protect essential immigrant workers from COVID-19 infections are necessary. We must change the terrible working conditions of migrant workers.

In the second part of this Data Point series, we will discuss how some other factors, like lack of insurance and language barriers, may be also putting immigrants at higher risk for COVID-19.


[1] For the purpose of this post, the term ‘immigrants’ refers to anyone who is not a U.S citizen at birth, including those who become U.S citizens through naturalization.

[2] Non-U.S. Citizens include lawful permanent residents, temporary migrants (such as persons with student or work visas), humanitarian migrants (such as refugees and asylees), and undocumented migrants.

[3] Natives refer to people residing in the United States who are U.S. citizens who were born: 1) in one of the 50 states or the District of Columbia, 2) in the U.S. Insular Areas such as Puerto Rico or Guam, or 3) abroad of a U.S citizen parent. 

[4] https://investigatemidwest.org/2020/04/16/tracking-covid-19s-impact-on-meatpacking-workers-and-industry/

[5] 2018 is the latest American Community Survey data on immigrants available, a year when by many measures the economy was growing.

[6] Source: U.S. Census Bureau, 2014-2018 American Community Survey 5-Year Estimates

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