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U.S. Immigration Policy Threatens Shake-Up In Home Health Business

Liliana Reyes instructs a home health aide class on human biology at Encuentro, an immigrant education center in Albuquerque. State-certified graduates of the program help elderly and disabled clients with activities like bathing, dressing, and taking medication on time.
Ina Jaffe/NPR
Liliana Reyes instructs a home health aide class on human biology at Encuentro, an immigrant education center in Albuquerque. State-certified graduates of the program help elderly and disabled clients with activities like bathing, dressing, and taking medication on time.

On a rare rainy night in Albuquerque, two dozen students are learning the proper way to care for older people. Teacher Liliana Reyes is reviewing the systems of the body — circulatory, respiratory and so on — to prepare them for an upcoming exam.

These students are seeking to join a workforce of about 3 million people who help older adults remain in their homes. They assist these clients with things like bathing, dressing, and taking medication on time.

About a quarter of these workers are immigrants. But as Congress and the White House consider changes to immigration policy, some people in the home care industry worry that there won't be enough people to care for the nation's growing number of elders.

What makes the Albuquerque class unusual is that it's taught entirely in Spanish. All of the students are immigrants, mostly from Mexico. The course is a joint project of Central New Mexico Community College and a community education center for immigrants called Encuentro. Everyone who passes the course becomes a state-certified home health aide.

But some of these students already care for older adults, even though they've lacked training. Zoila Gutierrez says the first job she had in this field paid $6 an hour for a shift that lasted from 7 at night to 7 in the morning.

"This course is going to open a lot of doors for me in terms of being able to get better work," she says. "But most importantly, I want to know about all the rules that I must follow to provide good care."

Gutierrez has a complicated life. She's 42 years old and came to Albuquerque from Mexico in 2004. She doesn't have papers. Her youngest child is a citizen. Her two older kids are both registered under DACA, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy. So, at the same time she's studying to improve her prospects in the United States, she and her children also discuss the possibility of going back to Mexico.

"We must have a Plan B," she says. "We don't want to give up our dreams, but we must think in the 'What if?' So, no, we don't want to leave. But it's an option ."

While Gutierrez worries about the Trump administration's crackdown on illegal immigration, others working in home care worry about the administration's proposals for restricting legal immigrants.

President Trump wants to focus on highly skilled, well-educated workers. But the policy change that would hurt the home care industry the most would be limiting family reunification, sometimes called chain migration. That's according to Robyn Stone, senior vice president for research at Leading Age, which represents the nonprofit side of long-term care.

"This immigrant population primarily came to the United States through family reunification," says Stone. "If we shift in our policy [on] immigration, the pipeline for this workforce could be substantially affected."

That's not just a theoretical concern for Sherwin Sheik. He's the founder and CEO of a company called CARELINX, which he describes as a cross between Uber and Match.com for connecting home care workers with clients.

"It takes a very special person to want to do these jobs," Sheik says. "They tend to be immigrants. If we have tighter policies, it's going to impact the industry, without a doubt."

The nation's rapidly aging population has made personal care assistants and home health aides (who have more specialized training around health issues) the fastest growing low-skilled occupations in the U.S.

But Steven Camerota isn't worried about a shortage in home care workers. He's the director of research at the Center for Immigration Studies, which advocates for restrictions on immigration. He points out that, despite the growing immigrant workforce, three-quarters of the people currently providing home care were born in the U.S.

There's no mystery to what it would take to increase that percentage, says Camerota. "Raise wages. Treat workers better."

Home care workers sometimes make as little as $10 an hour. At the same time, he says, "we have an enormous supply of less-educated [American citizens] currently not working who could easily fill these jobs if employers treat them reasonably well."

But this work isn't just a matter of money for Zoila Guttierrez. She finds meaning in taking care of older people.

"I like to care for them and make sure they're doing well — that they're OK," she says.

It will take at least a million more people who feel the same way to meet the needs of older adults over the next decade, whether those workers are immigrants or American-born.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ina Jaffe
Ina Jaffe is a veteran NPR correspondent covering the aging of America. Her stories on Morning Edition and All Things Considered have focused on older adults' involvement in politics and elections, dating and divorce, work and retirement, fashion and sports, as well as issues affecting long term care and end of life choices. In 2015, she was named one of the nation's top "Influencers in Aging" by PBS publication Next Avenue, which wrote "Jaffe has reinvented reporting on aging."