DACA recipients on the coronavirus front line await Supreme Court ruling

©The Seattle Times

Ellen M. Banner/Seattle Times/TNS

SEATTLE — Andrea Muñoz Vargas says her immigration status is the last thing on her mind during 12-hour night shifts in a Wenatchee hospital’s intensive care unit, where she works as a nurse caring for coronavirus patients. “I just need to stay focused.”

COVID-19 is so new that doctors need every piece of information they can get as they figure out what’s working and what’s not. So Muñoz Vargas watches her patients carefully for any changes that could indicate their organs are failing. Or maybe that they’re improving enough to get off a ventilator.

She said her observations are crucial not only to helping her current patients but to building up a knowledge base for a possible second wave.

Lately, though, she’s begun to wonder how long she can continue working as a nurse — something that also might be of interest to the U.S. Supreme Court during the pandemic.

This month, the court is expected to rule on whether President Donald Trump’s attempt to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program was legal. An Obama-era program, DACA gives quasi-legal status and work permits to undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. as children.

The Mexican-born Muñoz Vargas, who has been living in the U.S. since she was 4, is a DACA recipient. If the program ends, the 28-year-old said: “The only thing I can think of is maybe going to Mexico and practicing as a nurse.” If she stayed in the U.S., what options would she have? Possibly a fruit-packing shed, she said.

Roughly 16,000 DACA recipients in Washington — 650,000 in the U.S., as of December — will be affected by the long-awaited decision. While polls show broad support for DACA recipients, the politics are polarized, as with everything related to immigration. And now the pandemic brings even more intensity to the debate and a new wrinkle for the court to consider.

“Healthcare providers on the frontlines of our nation’s fight against COVID-19 rely significantly upon DACA recipients to perform essential work,” reads an April supplemental plaintiffs’ brief, atypically accepted by the court though oral arguments had happened months before.

Activists critical of DACA remain unmoved by recipients’ role in the pandemic.

There are no precise figures on how many work in health care. The Center for American Progress, a liberal research organization that analyzed American Community Survey data between 2016 and 2018, estimates there are 29,000 nationwide. As detailed by the plaintiffs’ brief to the Supreme Court, they include “nurses, dentists, pharmacists, physician assistants, home health aides, technicians” and almost 200 medical students and doctors.

At Confluence Health’s Central Washington campus in Wenatchee, Muñoz Vargas works alongside another nurse who is a DACA recipient, Jessica Esparza. “Jessica and Andrea are vital team members helping to run ventilators keeping those most affected by COVID-19 alive,” said hospital spokesman Andrew Canning.

As the coronavirus claims a disproportionately large number of Latinos, Muñoz Vargas says she and Esparza are often the only staffers on their shifts who can speak Spanish with patients and their families.

DACA recipients also perform other types of work classified as essential during the pandemic. One is a salesperson for a vendor at an Eastern Washington Costco, another a fast-food cashier in the Seattle suburbs using her wages to earn a teaching degree. Yet another is a Kennewick pest control technician driving out the bugs that the homebound are noticing as they clean out their garages, bedrooms and basements.

To be sure, DACA recipients hold all kinds of jobs, not just ones keeping the world going during the current crisis. How much the pandemic, and who’s doing what during it, will weigh on justices’ minds is anybody’s guess.

Many of plaintiffs’ arguments rest on something called the Administrative Procedure Act, which compels the government to consider all the consequences of rescinding an existing policy.

One thing the government didn’t take into account, DACA’s defenders say, is that the program’s young workers would be needed in the event of a pandemic — a scenario envisioned in a prescient amicus brief filed by the Association of American Medical Colleges in October.

The Trump administration has not responded to that issue, letting its broader arguments rest: that it had to act because the DACA program violates immigration law, and that in any case the court shouldn’t review an action that falls within the scope of executive authority.

The court’s finding, after three years with the program in limbo, will be momentous. But it is unlikely to be the last word.

If the court rules Trump moved to end the program improperly, he could try again with a more thorough process. And if the court vindicates Trump, it remains to be seen how he will move ahead, including whether he will try to deport those suddenly recast into a netherworld.

Congress could step in, as many have been urging, launching more expansive arguments that would surely touch on the pandemic.

There’s a moral dimension, said Luis Cortes Romero, a Kent lawyer who is one of dozens representing plaintiffs in the Supreme Court case. Ending DACA would be “turning your back on people who really saved this country when it needed it the most.”

The 31-year-old is himself both a DACA recipient and an essential worker, continuing to meet with clients and attend court hearings at the Northwest detention center in Tacoma.

Activists in favor of sharp curbs on immigration, in contrast, see the pandemic as irrelevant. The number of DACA recipients in health care is a “tiny” share of the workforce in the field, said Roy Beck, president of NumbersUSA. They are not indispensable, he added, because “there are a gigantic number of health care workers who have been laid off.”

“I’m not saying that they aren’t doing heroic things,” he continued. “But there are Americans who will do these heroic things.”

Ira Mehlman, a Seattle-based spokesperson for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, said immigrants of all kinds don’t need special consideration for risks they take on during the pandemic. “Bottom line: They are being rewarded for their labor by means of a paycheck.”

Urania Mendoza Martinez was in her early 20s, working in the orchards of Eastern Washington, when DACA came around in 2012. “It changed my life.”

A Mexican native who had come to the U.S. when she was 13, she went back to school for a certified nursing assistant degree and got a job at an adult family home, where she is now a manager. Then, she returned to school again for a medical assistant degree.

It offers more options and generally more money but she has stayed put, much to the confusion of some people she knows who tell her they don’t know how she can do such “dirty” work.

“Don’t tell me about my job. I love it,” she said, recalling those exchanges.

The adult family home cares for six residents ages 60 to 85, some with debilitating conditions. “To see them smile because of something you did … it’s something nobody can imagine,” she said.

Residents are shut in now with no visitors, like most older people who are especially vulnerable to COVID-19. Mendoza Martinez said she and other staff try to make the time pass by reading to them and helping them do crossword puzzles.

Mendoza Martinez and the home’s owner take turns shopping for residents’ medications, groceries and, for a recent 82nd birthday celebration, special snacks.

They wear masks and gloves but Mendoza Martinez said she knows such outings involve possible exposure to the coronavirus. She hopes that will count for something as the fate of DACA recipients is decided.

“We’re doing this because it’s our job and because we care about America,” she said.

She has two kids born in the U.S., 4 and 14, and her older one has been asking what will happen if their mom can no longer live here. Mendoza Martinez said she worries, too, because the part of Mexico she is from is very dangerous, but they would go as a family and face it together.

DACA also altered the course of nurse Muñoz Vargas’s life.

The child of agricultural workers, she was in her senior year of high school, about to apply to four-year colleges with a 3.7 grade point average, when a mentor sat her down to explain that her undocumented status would be a stumbling block.

She could still apply — and was ultimately accepted to five state schools, including her top pick, the University of Washington — but limited financial aid made it an unworkable prospect.

She said she was rather aimlessly attending community college when DACA began. She dived into a nursing program and got an associate degree last year. She is now studying for a bachelor of science in nursing while working nights at Confluence.

She and co-worker Esparza didn’t realize both were DACA recipients until they connected on Facebook. Both started as nurses in the ICU just as COVID-19 hit, adding whole other physical and emotional dimensions to the work: donning and doffing personal protective equipment, turning patients onto their stomachs so they can breathe better, caring for them for weeks on end without seeing their faces.

Esparza, 26, who came to the U.S. from Mexico when she was 11, said it would be heartbreaking for her to be told she couldn’t work as a nurse. Her two-year work permit is up at the end of the year and she’s renewing early, figuring like others that the permit will run its course no matter how the Supreme Court rules.

Muñoz Vargas said that if she had to, she could work in a packing shed.

“A lot of our people work there,” some without valid work permits. “It’s not like I consider it degrading work.”

She’s done it before, during high school summers, for 12 hours a day.

“At least, I saw a finish line,” she said of her 16-year-old self. As her unending future, that would be another thing entirely.

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©2020 The Seattle Times