Immigrants Are Essential: a vital art project shining a light on the frontline

Whooping and clanking has become a familiar evening ritual to New Yorkers, as every night over the past two months the city has been saluting its healthcare workers with applause and saucepans at 7pm.

After it’s over, most people return to their homes, scroll their phones, watch TV and fall asleep. While it’s undeniably well-intentioned, is it enough?

Related: 'This made me smile': our readers' favourite coronavirus street art

To shed light on the essential workers who are healing the sick, stocking our groceries, delivering our packages and cleaning our streets, there is a new political art campaign called Immigrants Are Essential. It’s a project of non-profits Resilience Force and the National Immigration Law Center, who are sharing the hashtag #ImmigrantsAreEssential alongside artworks that put a face to these workers, across social media.

“When the pandemic hit, people who were deemed unskilled became essential almost overnight,” said Saket Soni, the founder of Resilience Force. “A cultural celebration for them every night is extraordinary, but applause isn’t enough. What is the political will of what these workers need?”

Their main goal is to shift the conversation from applause to urging politicians to create policy change to protect immigrant workers, who are risking their lives on the frontlines of this pandemic.

“There is no essential workforce without immigrants,” says Marielena Hincapié, the director of NILC.

“What we’re seeing in this public health crisis is how interdependent we are as a society,” says Hincapié. “This is a moment where people are truly seeing immigrants and essential workers as human beings, it’s about their humanity and dignity.”

The main problem is how the country has underestimated and taken advantage of immigrant workers. “It’s only from the business perspective of, ‘How can we get cheap labor?’” she said.

“Immigrants are a great proportion of healthcare workers, food delivery personnel and farm workers,” said Hincapié. “We are arguing that safety, financial support and legal status, are real things that America needs to deliver these essential immigrant workers. This is the time to make the invisible visible. They need to be recognized more.”

It also taps into President Trump’s recent signing of an order that would force meat-processing plants to continue operating during the pandemic. “It forces meatpackers to go to work, undocumented workers,” said Soni.

“In politics, we talk about immigrants as being in the shadows,” he said. “It’s actually immigrants who are on the frontlines, while elected officials are hiding in the shadows, hiding from the truth, which is that immigrants are essential.

“If they are keeping America alive, they deserve to be treated as Americans,” said Soni.

The project, which kicked off on international workers day on 1 May, is slowly adding artists – including immigrant artists – to draw attention to the immigrants on the frontlines of the pandemic.

They are working with Soze creative agency, which is helping expand the roster of artists in the coming weeks and months (last year, the agency created a similar campaign called the I Stand With Immigrants Initiative).

The artworks range from portraits of nurses to emergency workers, and beyond.

“We need Congress to catch up with culture,” said Hincapié. “Hopefully, through art, we’ll reach more Americans to recognize immigrants as essential to our society, and to help change the conversation about immigrants, who are safeguarding our democracy.”

One of the pieces is a digital drawing by Nikkolas Smith, who has created a portrait of Jesus Contreras, a Daca recipient who lives in Houston working as an emergency medical technician.

“I believe that anyone who is willing to put their life on the line for American citizens should be recognized as a hero and should never be treated as an alien,” said Smith, who is selling prints of the artwork on his website, with a portion of proceeds going to an immigrant rights organization.

“This piece speaks to his service during these crazy times,” he said. “I haven’t met him in person, but we’ve chatted through social media; I went through articles that featured him, and his Instagram, to get an idea of his passion and mission in life.”

Another artwork in the portrait series shows Jose Aguiluz, a nurse who risks his life every day to help patients suffering from the virus in Maryland.

“He’s risking his life to save ours,” said the artist, Tracy Hetzel. “Jose might have a hand in saving your life – he is essential to the health and safety of this country. He’s a dreamer, a hero and, in my mind, an angel, and I wanted to portray him as such.”