WASHINGTON — In a country where nearly one-third of all doctors are foreign-born, immigrants have been at the center of the COVID-19 pandemic response. But the chairwoman of the House Subcommittee on Immigration and Citizenship said Wednesday that undocumented immigrant essential workers are not getting the help they need from the federal government.

“Each day, they risk their lives to ensure that America is safe,” California Democratic Rep. Zoe Lofgren, the subcommittee’s chairwoman, as she launched a subcommittee hearing on the issue. “Many immigrant essential workers are undocumented and live under constant threat of removal. Many others are protected by temporary programs—but they, too, live in fear. They all deserve better.”

Lofgren said many of the federal programs created through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act are not available to undocumented immigrants; they also cannot access health care through Medicaid, Medicare or Social Security.

Rep. Ken Buck, R-Colo., however, argued that the government’s response should be focused on protecting Americans. “We have a lot of Americans who are out of work,” he said.

“While we have to recognize those who are legally in this country, who are assisting in fighting a terrible disease, we also need to recognize that illegal immigrants should not be in this country,” said Buck, who is the top Republican on the subcommittee. “We are making a serious mistake when we don’t allow Americans to fill jobs that are filled now by illegal immigrants.”

Around 19.8 million immigrants in the U.S. work in “essential critical infrastructure” sectors, a new Center for Migration Studies report released earlier this month indicates. This accounts for nearly 70% of all immigrants; in comparison, to 65% of people born in the U.S. carry out essential tasks.

Immigrants, including those without documents are “members of the U.S. society,” CMS Executive Director Donald Kerwin, one of the authors of the study, said in a telephone interview. “At this point in our nation’s history, given that [immigrants] are disproportionately represented among essential workers, they’re on the frontlines of the pandemic. if we’re not extending full benefits and services to them, we’re doing something wrong.”

Tom Jawetz, vice president for immigration policy at the left-leaning Center for American Progress, told the subcommittee that as “the country comes to appreciate the essential work immigrants are doing during this pandemic … [they] didn’t just become essential.”

“People didn’t just start doing this work, and many of these jobs didn’t just become hazardous for the health and safety of workers,” he said. “This is work, and these are workers, who have long been essential to the functioning of this country and its economy.”