‘Dreamers’ in health care sector help save COVID patients while in legal limbo

About 29,000 immigrants protected by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program work as nurses and other health care professionals - amid deportation fears. 

A protester holds up a sign during a rally outside of the U.S. Supreme Court last November.  (CQ Roll Call)
A protester holds up a sign during a rally outside of the U.S. Supreme Court last November. (CQ Roll Call)
Posted April 13, 2020 at 2:50pm

Every day for nearly a month, Natalia, a registered nurse in Chicago, has put herself on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic, all the while knowing that her days living in the U.S. may be numbered if the Supreme Court decides against upholding the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. 

Natalia is one of nearly 29,000 immigrant DACA recipients, or “Dreamers,” working in the health care industry. Many of them work as nurses, lab technicians, or home health aides, and a majority of them work in states with a high volume of coronavirus cases, including California, New York and Illinois, according to the left-leaning Center for American Progress.  

Natalia, who was born in Poland and came to the U.S. when she was 5, has worked as a post-surgical nurse for almost three years. But her unit now exclusively serves patients with COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. She provides primary care to these patients, taking their vitals, bathing them and giving out medication.

“We have to go to work every day and take care of these patients,” said Natalia, who did not want to disclose her last name in fear of retribution.

Like other medical staff members, Natalia worries about having enough personal protective gear while assisting patients — and about the health risk she poses to her family members. But unlike other medical personnel, Natalia fears she might not be able to do her job at all one day because of her immigration status. 

“We try to not worry that we have it, but it's always in the back of our minds,” she said. “Taking away DACA from Dreamers, especially those who are currently on the front lines is a big slap in the face. Not only are we helping this country, but we are putting ourselves and our families at risk every single day.” 

In 2017, shortly after he was sworn into office, President Donald Trump announced he would end DACA, an Obama-era program intended to shield immigrants illegally brought to this country as children. Trump's efforts were thwarted, however, by a series of federal court decisions. The Supreme Court took up the case last fall after several unsuccessful attempts by Congress to pass legislation to protect Dreamers. A decision is expected by this summer. 

The acting director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has promised his agency would move forward with deporting Dreamers if the high court rescinds the program.

“If DACA is done away with by the Supreme Court, we can actually effectuate those removal orders,” Matthew Albence said during a February news conference. He repeated his pledge a month later during a congressional hearing, saying that Dreamers, “if they come to our attention, will be subject to removal.”

The DACA program was created in 2012 under the Obama administration to guarantee its recipients the right to work and live in the country without the fear of deportation. Approximately 652,880 individuals held DACA status as of Sept. 30, according to the Center for American Progress. 

Immigration advocacy groups, Democratic lawmakers and state officials have urged the Trump administration to automatically renew DACA status during the coronavirus pandemic, highlighting their contributions to the workforce and assistance in the coronavirus pandemic, particularly amid a national shortage of nurses and doctors.

Last month, The Jerome N. Frank Legal Services Organization at Yale Law School, a plaintiff in one of the lawsuits challenging the Trump administration’s termination of DACA, urged Supreme Court justices in a letter to protect Dreamers in light of how many of them were working in the health care sector.

“Termination of DACA during this national emergency would be catastrophic,” the group wrote, adding that “to ensure health security, the country needs a robust health workforce. Rescinding DACA, however, would deprive the public of domestically educated, well-trained, and otherwise qualified health care professionals.”

But Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, which advocates for lower  immigration levels, disagrees. He told CQ Roll Call that immigration groups are using the pandemic as part of a “political campaign” to help keep Dreamers in the U.S.

“The whole campaign to exploit the current virus emergency is designed to extend DACA work permits as long as possible,” he said. “In other words, it doesn't really have to do with the health care industry. It doesn't have to do with even the Supreme Court decision.”

Julio Flores, a 27-year-old registered nurse who works in a hospital outside of Chicago, argued otherwise. He said Dreamers like himself are trying to help their communities as much as possible. But the coronavirus pandemic has taken an enormous emotional toll. 

Julio Flores, a registered nurse and "Dreamer," is helping COVID patients in Chicago.

Flores works in his hospital’s emergency department, treating hundreds of patients with a wide range of symptoms of COVID-19. 

Illinois has seen an uptick in confirmed COVID-19 cases. There were at least 20,852 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 720 deaths as of April 12, according to the Illinois Department of Public Health. 

Flores, who came to the U.S. from Mexico when he was 7, said he feels scared about the health risks he faces at work, where there is not enough protective equipment for medical staff. He also fears for his legal future, although he tries to stay positive. 

!“I would not be doing what I'm doing if I didn't have the love and the passion for what I do,” he told CQ Roll Call. “I would just hope that the government helps us because we're in the front lines as well. We're not hiding away. We're with everyone and want to see the same type of opportunities and options that everyone else has.”