DACA recipients labor on front lines; Medical workers in limbo

Approximately 27,000 frontline healthcare workers’ lives are in limbo as the Supreme Court determines whether to uphold the Trump administration’s 2018 decision to end renewals for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.

The potential decision to end the program would bar recipients from legally living and working in the United States and leave the 616,000 men and women who have been able to renew their status since injunctions re-opened the renewal process in January 2018 eligible for deportation.

The Supreme Court’s ruling is expected “at any moment” between now and the end of June, with the next decision day scheduled for April 20, according to Zaira Garcia, Texas State Director for FWD.us. The potential end of the program would leave the nearly 30,000 recipients working in healthcare without jobs, health insurance, and in Texas, without the ability to obtain a drivers’ license in the middle of a pandemic.

“It’s a crisis on top of another crisis. Texas has the second-largest population of DACA recipients. And we have about 4,000 to 4,500 healthcare workers who are DACA recipients. It’s scary to think about those folks being pulled out of the workforce at a moment’s notice when we need all hands on deck,” said Garcia.

In October, the Association of American Medical Colleges and other organizations marked the number of medical professionals with DACA status – including nurses, dentists, pharmacists, physician assistants, home health aides, technicians, and others – at 27,000. “The number also includes nearly 200 medical students, medical residents, and physicians who depend on DACA for their eligibility to practice medicine,” the brief stated.

The document cited a shortage of physicians and other healthcare professionals in the United States and the growing risk of pandemic due to increased urbanization and international travel. “Rescinding DACA, however, would deprive the public of domestically educated, well-trained, and otherwise qualified healthcare professionals who have been provided education in reliance on their ability to continue to work in the United States…” the association argued last year.

On Friday, attorneys for plaintiffs in the case filed a brief asking for an opportunity to address whether remand for reconsideration of the decision to terminate DACA is appropriate “in light of the extraordinary public health emergency.”

The spread of COVID-19 “throws into sharp relief DACA recipients’ important contributions to the country and the significant adverse consequences of eliminating their ability to live and work without fear of imminent deportation,” attorneys wrote.

Jesus Contreras, a Houston-based paramedic who worked to rescue residents after Hurricane Harvey, said the uncertainty over his legal status is added stress on top of a rapidly shifting work environment. “It’s changing every day, it’s a very fluid situation,” he said.

“We’re usually able to get to a person’s house and immediately treat a patient. If a patient has symptoms, we have to treat them like they’re COVID-positive. Calls in the ambulance are taking longer. It takes longer to clean up because we have to disinfect everything. The hospitals are screening patients at the doors.”

Contreras was born in Nuevo Laredo and emigrated to the U.S. at the age of 6. He came to reside in Houston and has lived in the city for over 20 years. “I know the city like the back of my hand,” he said.

The paramedic took an EMT program in high school and discovered he had a knack for emergency response. He was unable to take his national registry exam upon completion of the course because he did not have a social security number or a driver’s license. When the Obama administration implemented the DACA program during his freshman year of college, Contreras qualified.

Contreras called the decision to end DACA renewals “impractical” and “counterintuitive” as he explained his attachment to Houston. “It’s pretty much the only place I know. For anybody to tell me to go back home or to find another home – it’s unreal,” he said.

“It’s stressful and frustrating because we know this issue is being overshadowed by COVID-19. A lot of the help we would normally receive from the community is invested into fighting the virus. The administration could subtly, sneakily remove the program without anyone noticing,” he said.

An end to the program during COVID-19 would be devastating for Texas’s essential workers, who support not only themselves and families, but also bolster local economies and response efforts as the virus spreads. “We’re talking about around 200,000 DACA recipients who are employed in essential industries,” said Garcia.

Should Texas’s DACA recipients lose their status all at once, over 100,000 members of the workforce would lose their ability to contribute to the economy in a moment of unprecedented instability.

Texas’s mixed-status families would feel the brunt of the decision, she explained. “If I can’t make my rent because I no longer have the ability to legally work, that means I no longer have housing security.”

An increased police presence on roadways under shelter in place would further disenfranchise DACA recipients pushed out of the workforce in Texas where undocumented residents cannot obtain driver’s licenses.

Harlingen resident Julio Maldonado, 22, received his DACA permit at the age of 16. With his new status, he quickly found work as a dish washer and saved, eventually graduating from Texas A&M University with a background in computer science.

He now works as a software engineer for a company based in Seattle. When COVID-19 exploded along the West Coast, he headed back home to work remotely. He explained that immigration status is highly personal and that many DACA recipients he’s in contact with “feel like it’s this giant secret we have to keep”.

“I’m pretty vocal about DACA online. But in person, I can probably count the number of people I’ve told on my fingertips.”

DACA recipients are required to renew their status every two years. Each renewal costs $500. Maldonado has renewed his status four times. “That’s about $2,000 I’ve had to pay to the government to continue my DACA,” he said.

“There are 800,000 of us. It’s a lot of money that’s going straight to the government. We’re paying taxes and a lot of us will be getting that $1,200 check because we have been contributing to the economy for the last – who knows how many years- for me, for the last six years.”

Maldonado said at 16, he wasn’t thinking about the long-term consequences of stepping forward and providing the government with his information. That changed during the 2016 election. “I remember thinking, ‘This guy’s going to build a wall, this guy’s going to deport all of us, and we just gave them all of our information. They know exactly where we’re at.”

Even with the legal status that DACA provides professionals like Maldonado, getting interviews for new positions can be challenging as some employers will automatically filter out applicants who are not U.S.-citizens and would need sponsorship to live and work in the United States. DACA recipients are legally authorized to work, but with the future of DACA in the air, the job search could be challenging, Maldonado explained.

Asked what he wanted people to know about those in his situation, he re-centered some of the Valley’s most vulnerable residents. “Undocumented people who don’t have DACA, who don’t have an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN) – lots of people can’t work. They’re completely out of money. If you can find a fund to donate to, that could really save someone’s life right now.”