About 280,000 essential healthcare workers in the US are undocumented

Anel Medina, a 28-year-old DACA enrollee and oncology nurse for Penn Medicine in Philadelphia, outside the US Supreme Court.
Anel Medina, a 28-year-old DACA enrollee and oncology nurse for Penn Medicine in Philadelphia, outside the US Supreme Court.
Image: Reuters/ted Hessen
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Imagine being on the frontlines of the fight against coronavirus—tending to the sick and risking your life—while anxiously awaiting news about whether you’ll soon be deported to a country you left as a child, and scrambling to do immigration paperwork just in case you catch a break.

That is the situation that tens of thousands of essential healthcare workers in the US find themselves in today. And they are the lucky ones, the beneficiaries of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), a 2012 program the Trump administration halted in 2017, and which the Supreme Court is now considering.

“Right now, we are all dependent on every single healthcare and essential worker,” says Hannah Siegel, managing director of the New American Economy (NAE), a bipartisan nonprofit immigration research and advocacy group. “The DACA community is a part of that. According to NAE analysis, there are 62,600 DACA-eligible individuals working in healthcare today. In fact, undocumented immigrants overall play a huge role in our most critical workforce, [with] almost 280,000 total in healthcare,” she tells Quartz.

“Yet worries about deportation persist for many,” Siegel adds, “and the timing couldn’t be worse.”

Dream on

Young people who came to the US as children, were educated in American schools, and contribute to communities and the economy in myriad ways are totally American but for one critical thing, Siegel argues: They lack legal status, the papers that would allow them to remain, to invest in their American dreams without constant fear they will be sent “home” to places they do not know.

“The DACA program allowed them to…come out of the shadows without fear of deportation, to work, and in many places, to go to college, putting them on a path to future success, benefitting local and state economies and entire communities of people,” Siegel says.

It was a dream come true for many, and one that threatens to become a nightmare very soon.

DACA beneficiaries and their advocates challenged the program’s abrupt end in court, arguing that the Trump administration failed to adequately consider and outline the country’s reliance on them, as required by federal law when a major governmental endeavor is canceled. Hundreds of business and institutions signed “friend of the court” briefs supporting this claim, saying they need DACA to continue because its recipients’ contributions are integral to the work they do and to American society generally.

Indeed the Association of American Medical Colleges warned the high court last fall that a pandemic was likely to strike and devastate the already ailing US healthcare system. DACA recipients—including doctors, nurses, and medical assistants—would be key to pandemic management.

Now the warning seems eerily prescient. Advocates for the DACA beneficiaries have asked the high court to allow additional briefing on the reliance issues at stake in view of the coronavirus crisis—it’s an unusual request but not unheard of, and representatives told Quartz that they are still waiting for word from the court.

In any case, the justices’ decision in the case is expected sometime soon—likely by June, when the high court’s term traditionally ends. But if they find no error in the Trump administration’s abrupt cessation of the program, DACA beneficiaries will face deportation at just the time when their contribution to the nation has become widely evident and utterly undeniable.

Meanwhile, the many who haven’t been able to apply for the program, though they would qualify, will have no hope of coming out of the shadows. Having risked their own health to tend to Americans and to help keep critical institutions running during the pandemic, they’ll remain underground, legally speaking, living in fear not of disease but of immigration authorities.

Training in the shadows

A new report released today by NAE and the Presidents’ Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration—a nonpartisan coalition of 465 colleges and universities—indicates that nearly half million undocumented students are attending undergraduate and graduate programs. That’s important data, especially under the current circumstances.

“As the Covid-19 pandemic underscores severe shortages in healthcare sectors across the country, this report shows that undocumented students are a crucial part of the pipeline towards filling that gap,” it states.

The research is based on figures from the 2018 American Community Survey, conducted by the US Census Bureau. It reveals that undocumented students account for more than 450,000 enrollees, or about 2% of all students in postsecondary education in the US. Among the undocumented students, DACA and DACA-eligible students make up about 1%. The other 1% of students, or about 216,000 people, have no legal immigration status and no hope to qualify even if the high court decides the Trump administration improperly halted the program.

These figures underscore the urgency to ensure work permits, protection from deportation, and citizenship for this population, according to the report.

The findings reveal that there are far more undocumented youth graduating from high school and attending American institutions of higher learning than was previously known. The report concludes:

In their pursuit of higher education, undocumented students actively ready themselves to fill critical skills shortages, including in health, science, technology, engineering, and math, teaching, and business, and become better positioned to support their families, communities, and regional and national economies. US colleges and universities serve as key generators of social and economic mobility for undocumented students. The potential for access, economic mobility, and career advancement is especially evident for DACA recipients.

Scrambling amid a pandemic  

For the relatively lucky ones—the DACA recipients who have work authorization and must apply to renew it every two years—pandemic stress is compounded by fear that they may soon be ejected from the country they know and love but are not citizens of.

They must prepare for anything. That means applying for renewals in the hope that the high court finds the Trump administration didn’t adequately consider reliance, or that the justices order a slow rollback of the program, which might allow them to remain in the US a little while longer.

The problem now, however, is that applying for a renewal is particularly difficult amid the coronavirus crisis.

Maria Kutnick, pro bono counsel at the Chicago office of the law firm Winston and Strawn, has worked with nonprofit organizations and DACA-eligible immigrants on applications and renewals since 2012. She runs free DACA clinics that pair applicants with the firm’s attorneys to complete the needed paperwork under the supervision of counsel from immigration aid groups.

Since DACA was rolled back, however, the lawyers can only help with renewals, as immigration authorities no longer take applications. Theoretically, the renewals are relatively simple to do because the bulk of the evidence has already been submitted in initial applications. But in practice, with shelter-in-place orders keeping lawyers and their clients distanced and a slew of technical obstacles to overcome, even this easier process has become extremely challenging. “There are so many hoops to jump through,” she tells Quartz.

Unlike other immigration programs, there is no electronic filing for DACA, which means lawyers and clients must now communicate with each other electronically yet exchange physical paperwork sent via the mail. If a single section of an application is incomplete, the paperwork can be rejected and kicked back, so the painstaking work of ensuring everything is perfect—a review process normally done in person—must continue unchanged even while all else has been upended by the pandemic.

To make matters more complicated, the economic effects of the crisis have hit the firm’s pro bono DACA clients hard. Few have $500 to spare for the renewal application at a time when money is tighter than ever and they must contribute to their families’ survival. Kutnick suggests that immigration authorities could allow for fee waivers in view of the pandemic, and make other exceptions that reflect recognition of the circumstances.

None of that has happened, however.

Still, Kutnick is undeterred by the obstacles and determined to use technology to try to do what has previously been done in person. Given the urgency of the situation and the precarious position DACA beneficiaries now find themselves in, she’s running remote DACA clinics for the firm’s attorneys in San Francisco and Texas, as well as in Chicago, hoping to help process as many renewals as possible to prepare as many clients as she can for any eventuality.

“It’s important for us, for the firm, to help them the way they help us and our society,” Kutnick says. Now more than ever, she believes, “we must rise to the challenge.”