MINNEAPOLIS — Immigrants who worked essential jobs in agriculture, food processing, health care and other fields during the coronavirus pandemic would be granted a pathway to U.S. citizenship under a proposal backed by U.S. Sen. Tina Smith.

Smith on Friday, July 16, unveiled the plan alongside Minneapolis business leaders and frontline workers. The legislation would allow undocumented essential workers, Deferred Action of Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients and temporary protected status recipients and their families to immediately apply for a green card. After five years, those individuals could apply for citizenship.

The framework could become law as part of a broader budget bill up for debate in Congress. But that's only if it could gain enough support evenly split Senate to pass it. Smith said she and her colleagues were working to build support on both sides of the political aisle and remained hopeful that the provision would be included in a bill set to come up for a vote later this summer.

"Undocumented workers have provided a national service to this country during the pandemic and we should create a fair path to citizenship for them in recognition of their service," Smith, a Minnesota Democrat, said.

Immigrants who work in essential jobs, business leaders and immigrant advocacy heads said the pathway to citizenship would be a good first step in re-writing the country's laws around citizenship. The people who helped keep the nation going during the pandemic should be rewarded for their work, they said.

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They estimated that 92,000 undocumented people live and work in Minnesota and likely two-thirds of those work in fields like health care, sanitation, agriculture or food service that were deemed essential during the pandemic and whose workers continued to show up in-person despite stay at home orders.

"We cannot be essential and invisible. We cannot be essential and undermined. We cannot be essential and disposable," essential worker Emilio Gonzalez said. Gonzalez said he became ill with COVID-19 in November and still experiencing lingering side effects months later. "I am here fighting with my brothers and sisters that have DACA and TPS fighting for all of us to have the Senate give us the chance to come out of the shadows once and for all."

The Minneapolis Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Jonathan Weinhagen said that immigrants make up 42% of the city's essential workers. And he said the group supported the pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants in essential jobs.

"Creating a pathway for the essential workers that risked their lives over the last year and a half is not only the right thing to do but it is also going to help our regional economy to emerge stronger than ever before," he said.

Follow Dana Ferguson on Twitter @bydanaferguson, call 651-290-0707 or email dferguson@forumcomm.com