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Legalization of Migrant Workers under Covid 19: A Tale of Two Countries

December 14, 2020


Giulia Crescini, Association for Juridical Studies on Immigration (ASGI)

America Hernandez, Kids in Need of Defense (KIND)

Alexandra Malangone, Center for Constitutional

Nina Hall, Johns Hopkins SAIS

The Bologna Institute for Policy Research (BIPR) hosted a virtual seminar on the legalization of migrant workers during Covid-19, taking a closer look at Italy and the United States. 

Malangone introduces the Italian context stating that Italy has faced criticism for the working conditions of its (migrant) workers with systemic violations of labor legislation, occupational, health and safety provisions, trafficking and labor exploitation being normalized in various sectors of Italian economy. Italian agricultural sector is heavily dependent on seasonal migrant workers, mainly from Eastern Europe and North Africa, who make up one third of the seasonal legal workforce. This year, because of travel restrictions, there was a shortfall of 250,000 workers, according to Italy’s biggest agriculture association Coldiretti. The gap could have been filled by the estimated 200,000 undocumented farmworkers, mainly from sub-Saharan Africa, says Sagnet, founder of No Cap. Malangone asks Crescini if the legalization of migrant workers during Covid19 as implemented by the new Article 103 of the Law 34 of 19 May 2020, has achieved its objectives.

Crescini starts the discussion by saying that the new regularization law was initially greeted by some as a major step forward for workers rights and as an example of good migration policy during the coronavirus pandemic, Yet, it remains an extraordinary measure, one of the 9 regularizations held in the past 35 years. Crescini continues by describing the changes introduced by the provisions of the Law on regularization of migrant workers in Italy, focusing specifically on migrant workers in the agricultural field.

Crescini emphasizes that receiving residency permits is necessary for expanding rights and protections for migrants in the agricultural industry, particularly at a time when COVID-19 limits the resources available to ensure basic natural rights. Crescini argues that legalization and residency permits primarily serve workers to be able to demand fair wages, acceptable hours and related compliance with the basic human rights, like social guarantees. New Italian law does not seem to fully address these needs. Long-term regularization solutions, such as repealing the so-called security decrees of the previous executive, approving the reform of the law on Italian citizenship and giving a residence permit to those who do not have it or have it temporarily, released from the will of the employers only, are needed.

Next, Malangone introduces the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), which allows undocumented “Dreamers” who came to the United States as children to get temporary legal status and to live and work legally without the constant looming threat of immigration enforcement officers knocking on their doors. Many of these cca 700.000 young people have grown up almost entirely in the US and are deeply rooted in their communities. DACA recipients currently make up an important part of the U.S. workforce. According to a study by the Migration Policy Institute, 23% of DACA recipients who are working are in the accommodations and agrifood services industry, 14% are in retail trade, 11% are in construction, 11% are in educational, health and social services, and 10% are in professional, scientific, management, administrative, or waste management jobs. The US Supreme Court with a tight 5-4 vote upheld the lower courts rulings in June 2020, that the program – risking its cancellation under the Trump administration - will not be revoked.

Hernandez, herself a Dreamer continues the discussion by addressing DACA from her personal experience, highlighting that she herself is also as a daughter of farmworkers. Hernandez argues that DACA is of upmost importance for young immigrants in the U.S., although its protections should be expanded. Expanding DACA protections would allow young immigrant workers to speak out on violations of their human rights either by employers or third-party actors. Hernandez underscores the importance of DACA giving immigrants peace and stability, especially at a time when COVID is economically dismantling family savings. It is also important to note that DACA is limited in its scope (only a temporary immigration relief).

Hernandez also discusses Deferred Action for Parental Accountability (DAPA), which is similar to the DACA program and allows eligible parents of DACA to apply for temporary relief from deportation and work authorization. A very rough estimate of farmworkers eligible for DAPA is 450,000. Hernandez discusses DAPA in connection to DACA and answers Alexandra’s question whether DAPA in connection to DACA has to potential to fulfill the aim of improving protection of migrant workers rights, tackling systemic exploitation and violations labor laws legislates. Hernandez confirms that further systemic reforms and immigration relief expansions, including better understanding of the U visa and T visa are needed.

Crescini concludes with outlining alternative proposals for residency permits in Italy. One residency permit proposed was the convertibility of previous permits in which after a permit has expired, it could become a work permit. Comparatively, another proposal is to reintroduce permits for humanitarian reasons, allowing many migrants to be granted a first residence permission that lasts for two years. These permits would then become work permits after the two years are up. Crescini argues that it is first and foremost vital to regularize migrants, which would give them independence in looking for work, increase their agency, foster their empowerment, and avoid linking their residence permit to one employer from the outset.