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DACA Workers Are Saving COVID-19 Patients’ Lives While Worrying About Their Own

The Supreme Court will soon decide the fate of 650,000 so-called Dreamers across the country. Lawyers say terminating protections for them during a pandemic would be ‘catastrophic.’

A protester holds up a sign during a rally outside of the U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday Nov. 12, 2019. Getty Images

Hina Naveed, a registered nurse from New York, works for a foster care agency while taking care of adult COVID-19 patients in Brooklyn on the weekends and attending law school at night. 

Jose Angel Mejia Martinez, a senior patient care assistant in the emergency room at Staten Island University Hospital, has been resuscitating patients and wrapping the bodies of other COVID-19 victims.  

The Trump administration, if it gets its way in the Supreme Court, wants to deport them. They are Dreamers, two of some 650,000 recipients of the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program that the administration announced it was terminating in 2017. The Court heard oral arguments in November over the legality of that move.  

During a tumultuous week that started with Trump tweeting that he was going to stop all immigration to the United States in response to the economic impact of COVID-19, observers of the Court waited to see if the justices would rule on DACA. They did not take action, but could do so any time before the end of the session in June. 

Earlier this week, the Court did signal that it recognizes the dire public health crisis. On Monday, it accepted a supplemental brief submitted on behalf of 27,000 health care workers like Naveed and Mejia who are on the front line of the pandemic. 

In a letter to the court, lawyers said the government had not considered the importance of workers in a pandemic, calling a potential termination of protections “catastrophic.” Mejia, 25, predicted it would lead to something else: “mayhem,” especially for the ravaged health care industry.  

“It will decrease the workforce for the United States, and it will turn into an economic downfall,” he said this week before his overnight shift at the hospital started. Mejia’s 30-year-old brother, Luigi, who also has DACA, works as a medical lab technologist at New York-Presbyterian Lower Manhattan Hospital. 

“Those people who have the skills and knowledge to do these jobs will be stuck in legal limbo and will have to rely on off-the-book jobs,” Mejia said.

In New York, where more people have died than in any other city in the nation, now is not the time to upend this crucial workforce, officials say.

“We’ve had shortages in our own city, we had to have support from across the country flown in to fortify our responses,” said Bitta Mostofi, the commissioner for the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs in New York. The city estimated in 2017 that some 30,000 New Yorkers have DACA, contributing $1.9 billion to the gross domestic product. 

“The notion that we would have to let go or not continue the support of our own New Yorkers, young people who grew up here and are, in every other way, Americans, is something unimaginable to consider,” she added. 

Dreamers have always been in limbo, owing to the temporary nature of the program, which offers a two-year renewable work permit, but not a path to citizenship. Those on the front lines are now dealing with the dual stress of keeping patients alive while wondering whether they have a future in the country they call home. Both take a physical and emotional toll.

Being labeled essential and a hero as a paramedic doesn’t mean much when there’s a bigger label slapped right over it that says Undocumented,” said Jesus Contreras, 26, a paramedic in Houston who was born in Mexico. He is a Dreamer referenced in the supplemental brief submitted by the plaintiffs, including the Jerome N. Frank Legal Services Organization at Yale Law School.

“We are much more aware of the inherent dangers this career carries and we are seeing what it means to sacrifice our own health and well-being for the sake of the country,” he added. “At the same time, we are also very aware of the inherent dangers of being a DACA recipient. We have seen that we can be thrown in detention centers, treated like we are nothing, and deported.

The supplemental filing, submitted on April 2, allowed plaintiffs in the case of Wolf, et al., v. Batalla Vidal, et. al., to put on the record the administration’s intent. The Court accepted the filing without receiving a response from the Trump administration.    

In January, the acting director of ICE, Matthew Albence, said that if the Court eliminated DACA, the agency could “actually effectuate” outstanding deportation orders for recipients. The brief noted that the acting secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, Chad Wolf, made “similar statements” before a Senate hearing in March. 

Those recipients who have orders of removal are estimated to be in the tens of thousands, according to ProPublica, which revealed in an article that ICE could access their personal information. These days, people are caught up in numbers, whether they be the rising death toll or the front-line workers who are Dreamers.  

“The numbers fail to portray the true picture,” said Naveed, the registered nurse. “Each of those 27,000 impact thousands of people who contribute to neighborhoods, communities, schools and societies.”

She added: “The reality is that [we have] sanitation workers that are keeping communities clean, we have delivery workers, grocery store workers who make sure that people are fed at home.”

The Center for American Progress published a study in early April that estimated the number of DACA recipients in front-line health care fields was closer to 29,000 and that the number in three essential fields—health care, food services, and education—was at 202,500 people. 

“This case is about hundreds of thousands of DACA recipients and their families,” said Camila Bustos, a Yale University law student on the legal team supporting the Supreme Court case. “The moment we’re in is highlighting a particular sector because of the reality we’re living in. This has never been about health care workers, but a huge number of people who are part of our community.”  

Take Gustavo Perez, 35, a Dreamer from Mexico. He and his brother were both sick with symptoms of the virus, but they did not get tested. They live across from Elmhurst Hospital in Queens, one of the hardest-hit hospitals in New York. While they lay ill in bed, they heard sirens nonstop. Now, the sounds of sirens have slowed. But both are unemployed because their dry cleaners in Upper Manhattan closed. 

“I don’t have a job now and I don’t know what’s going to happen,” said Perez, who came from Mexico when he was 16. “It’s politics, what can I do?”

A.J. Yusuf, who was born in Bangladesh, is studying to be a biomedical engineer. His father, a cancer researcher, brought his family to the U.S. on an employment visa, but lost his job in the 2009 recession. Yusuf, 28, works as a community organizer for the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs.  

“I’m hearing what DACA recipients are going through on an emotional level. A lot of them feel hopeless,” he said. “Many of them are considering going to Canada because they don’t see the fight moving forward. The hopelessness is very high, and it’s only been made worse by COVID-19.” 

Naveed, the nurse training to be a lawyer with an interest in human rights, said she keeps that feeling at bay through her work helping the public and advocating for immigration reform. She realizes that if she were to become undocumented again, she would not be alone.  

“I am literally surrounded by millions of immigrants in similar situations giving it their all,” said Naveed, who came to the country legally at age 11 from Pakistan when her sister needed life-saving medical treatment. She and her family members overstayed their visas. 

Naveed said she will find a way to pursue her studies while working. “I want to do that, despite not knowing whether I will continue to stay here, because I want to leave an impact that transcends me,” she said.