Two-thirds of Asian American health, food workers fighting COVID-19 are immigrants, report says

Immigrant doctors constitute 40 percent of the rural physician workforce.
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Healthcare workers during National Nurse Day outside NYU Langone Health during the coronavirus outbreak in Manhattan, N.Y., on May 6, 2020.Andrew Kelly / Reuters

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By Agnes Constante

Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders who are immigrants are critical in supporting essential industries during the COVID-19 crisis, particularly in the health care and food supply industries, where more than two-thirds of AAPIs helping fight the virus are immigrants, according to data released late last month.

New American Economy, a research organization that advocates for immigration policies that bolster the economy, launched an Immigrants and COVID-19 Portal this year to show the vital role immigrants play in the country's fight against the coronavirus pandemic, as well as its response and recovery.

The report noted that in health care, AAPIs account for more than 20 percent of physicians and surgeons, about 14 percent of whom are immigrants. And 1 in 11 nurses are AAPI, about 75 percent of whom are immigrants. AAPIs also support the country’s food supply chain by working in farms, food processing factories, grocery stores and restaurants.

Some of the data it released last month, which was based on the 2018 American Community Survey, highlighted the contributions of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders for Asian Pacific American Heritage Month.

Asian Americans accounted for nearly 7 percent of the U.S. population in 2017, yet they are disproportionately represented in health care compared to their share of the population. In some states, their influence is even more outsized. In Hawaii, AAPIs make up about 72 percent of health care workers, and more than 26 percent in California, according to the report. And in New York, the state hit hardest by the pandemic, they comprise almost 12 percent of health care workers.

“You think about immigrants making up only about 14 percent of the population,” Andrew Lim, director of quantitative research at the organization, told NBC News. “That’s a huge punching above their weight if you think about it that way, how important immigrants are to the health care system.”

Data also showed that AAPIs account for nearly 1 in 6 workers in the pharmaceutical manufacturing industry, 1.2 million in the food sector — working in restaurants, grocery stores and on farms — and nearly 950,000 in child care and education.

Lim said that while Asian immigrants and AAPIs are typically believed to be the model minority, data shows the community's diversity of skills and diversity across economic sectors.

“For the AAPI community and health care for example, yes, you see a lot of doctors. But you also see a lot of nurses, a lot of people providing day-to-day care,” he told NBC Asian America. “It’s not just about these high prestigious jobs. It’s also very much about the people who keep entire industries running. It’s the day-to-day people and the people who are putting their lives out there at risk.”

Dr. Ram Sanjeev Alur, president of Physicians for American Healthcare Access, a group dedicated to increasing health care access in underserved communities and whose members are virtually all immigrant physicians, responded to the data by noting that immigrant doctors constitute 40 percent of the rural physician workforce.

“Their service is critical for access to health care in their communities, and they are a force for the economy,” he said in an email. According to the American Medical Association's 2018 economic impact report, physicians supported more than 12.5 million jobs and more than $1 trillion in wages and benefits.

Alur previously told NBC Asian America that many of the country's immigrant doctors who are on temporary visas are experiencing a heightened fear of deportation amid the COVID-19 pandemic. The majority of America's immigrant doctors come from Asian countries and make up nearly 25 percent of the country's licensed physicians.

“It’s not just a tangential part of health care access that we’re talking about,” Greg Siskind, an immigration attorney who specializes in physician immigration cases, told NBC Asian America in May. “It's a pretty core part.”

Lim said that the data released last month is a testament to the specialized roles that AAPIs have managed to carve out for themselves in a wide range of fields.

“A lot of this backlash that we've seen with increasing xenophobia and derogatory remarks about Chinese Americans or Asian Americans in general, obviously these rumors are false,” he said. “They’re part of the solution. They’re the ones that are helping us recover and helping us build a sustainable road towards recovery.”