From Dreamers to Heroes
DACA beneficiaries face a pandemic with the fear of being deported
In October 2018, officers in uniform arrived at a house in the Inland Empire, California area. They knocked on the door and asked for Osny Sorto-Vazquez Kidd. The young man was not at home. They said they were police officers, entered the apartment, and asked the family to call Osny on the phone. A couple of days later they came back and arrested Osny without a warrant. They were immigration agents.
Osny shouldn't have been detained. Originally from Honduras, he came to live in the United States in 2003, at the age of nine and has lived here ever since. He is the financial support of his mother and younger siblings, who are legally in the United States. He is married to a U.S. citizen and is a DACA beneficiary. The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, an executive order President Barack Obama issued in 2012, allowed the so-called “Dreamers” to stay in the country without fear of deportation.
Thanks to this program, Osny obtained a work permit that allowed him to practice as a certified nursing assistant. Yes, that's right: a young registered nurse, one of those who during the COVID-19 pandemic are called "heroes," was arrested, taken to the Adelanto Immigration Detention Center in California, and despite being protected by DACA, was there for three months.
With the spread of the pandemic, discussion about the essential jobs that immigrants hold has rekindled the debate about the need to regularize those who are undocumented or under temporary protection.
While members of the Trump administration have made statements about the need for essential workers in the United States, and in every city, they are called "heroes," the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) continues to carry out immigration detention and deportation, exposing the double standard of the system.
Osny's case is no exception. There are almost 700,000 young people in the United States who have been protected by DACA, and they have taken advantage of the opportunity: they have finished their studies, some have graduated with honors; they have become doctors, nurses, lawyers, activists; some have created small businesses that generate employment, and many are the main economic supporters of their families.
DACA beneficiaries have long been known to contribute to the U.S. economy, to its workforce, and now to combat COVID-19 by working on the front lines.
The official numbers give an idea of the importance of the role of these young people in the country's development. According to Census Bureau estimates in 2018, most DACA beneficiaries work in restaurants and food services –nearly 77,000 young people. They are followed by 43,000 who work in the health care and social assistance sector, including more than 10,000 who do this work in hospitals; 21,000 who work in warehouses and merchandise transport; 32,000 who work in supermarkets, pharmacies, and other businesses; 14,000 in the manufacturing sector, and more than 10,000 who do cleaning and waste management.
Almost a third of all the young beneficiaries of DACA are among those today that respond on the front lines of the battle against the virus. However, doing this work is not the biggest threat to the young "Dreamers.” Added to the pressure of risking their own health, and that of their loved ones by performing their daily tasks is additional anxiety.
In November 2019, the U.S. Supreme Court began a series of hearings to determine the legality of the Trump administration's 2017 decision to rescind DACA. The ruling could be announced in late June before the court goes into recess.
Just at the time when immigrant communities are most vulnerable, a direct blow could come to the generation with the strongest ties to the country.
Those who have felt during these weeks the anguish of the uncertainty about the future, about what will happen after the pandemic, can now have an idea of the constant tension in which the young people protected by DACA have been living with for years.
No matter how brilliant they are in their studies or how successful they are in their careers; no matter how much they love this country, or how much their families need them: every two years their lives are left in a rut while they go through the process of renewing their paperwork. An administrative failure, confusion, any pretext from the authorities, can end the life they have built and their plans for the future.
As the COVID-19 pandemic and the Supreme Court ruling coincide in time and space, more testimonies have come to light from DACA beneficiaries working in hospitals, and whose biggest concern is not the virus, but their status.
In a national newspaper, Hina Naveed, a young woman from Pakistan who has lived in the United States for two decades and who is a DACA beneficiary, and a law student who works as a nurse in New York City, shared her frustration a few days ago.
"I know firsthand how hard this new crisis is hitting our community," she said, but she assures that "what we are living through is the Supreme Court decision on whether the Trump administration can terminate DACA.”
It has been shocking to see testimony like Hina’s being repeated around the country over the last few weeks. A Texas newspaper reported how Josue Tayub, a 35-year-old nurse in an El Paso hospital emergency room, described the pressure of not knowing what will happen to DACA.
"It's something that's on my mind all the time. The uncertainty every day, it never goes away,” he said.
At 29, and with the experience of having treated some of the victims of the August 2019 Walmart shooting that left 23 dead and the same number of injured, Josue's main concern hangs on a court decision.
In Washington state, Jessica Esparza, a nurse in an intensive care unit (ICU) at a hospital two hours from Seattle, wrote: "I am new to the ICU, so I am concerned about the health of my patients, but at the same time about my status as a U.S. resident.” Jessica, originally from Mexico, was brought to this country when she was 11 years old.
If the Supreme Court ruling favors Donald Trump's initiative, and DACA were canceled, the 700,000 beneficiaries of the program would face the loss of their social security number and their temporary work permit, and with it, also the access to study and develop in a profession. The risk of being deported, with the consequent family separation, would also return.
Added to this is an element of additional impact: the cancellation of DACA would also directly affect 320,000 children who are U.S. citizens, whose parents are beneficiaries of the program.
The loss of the temporary work permit would also deprive them of the right to access unemployment insurance. At a time of extreme vulnerability for the entire population, these communities will be doubly exposed.
But beyond the implications that the cancellation of DACA may bring for these young people and their families –emotional, financial, psychological– the resolution would also generate an impact on the ranks of essential workers who in ordinary conditions represent a weak point for U.S. society.
According to figures from the Migration Policy Institute (MPI) published in April 2020, there are 6 million immigrant workers –with various legal statuses– in the total number of sectors considered to be lines of combat against the pandemic. Specifically, in the health sector, 17%are immigrants. But when analyzing their distribution by activity and location, the percentages increase: 29% of all doctors and surgeons in the country, and 38% of home health care providers, were born outside the United States.
This percentage rises when some states are considered individually:
In New York, 37% of healthcare workers are immigrants, 35% in California, 34% in New Jersey, and 30% in Florida. Immigrants also represent a high percentage among those working in hospital cleaning, and in the food production and distribution sector.
The same MPI analysis indicates that in the next 10 years there will be an increase in the need for health care workers in the United States, close to 2 million.
The population is aging and living longer, which represents a greater need for care and treatment for chronic diseases, and current health care workers are retiring, as are those who teach in medical and nursing schools. In addition, the difficulty in obtaining licenses to practice in each state reduces the possibility of geographic mobility for existing professionals.
Among the immigrants who will join the ranks of the next generation of healthcare workers are the beneficiaries of DACA, who despite having such protection, continue to live under the punitive threat of federal authorities. In the case of Osny Sorto-Vasquez Kidd, legal action has been filed by civil rights organizations to prevent these types of violations of immigrants' rights from continuing to occur at times of greatest vulnerability.
While one hand of the system recognizes workers on the front lines of response to COVID, and another criminalizes them, immigrant labor in essential service sectors remains critical.