Veronica Velasquez’s job as a physical therapist at a Los Angeles community hospital has become riskier as the number of coronavirus patients rises. But the risk of losing her working papers and being deported hasn’t changed at all.
Velasquez, 27, is among the nearly 700,000 young people brought illegally to the United States as children who rely on the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, that President Donald Trump wants to terminate. A Supreme Court ruling could come any day.
Her plight, along with those of an estimated 27,000 DACA recipients working as doctors, nurses, paramedics and other health care workers, is full of irony. At a time when her adopted country needs her most, she could be pulled from the workforce.
“I am treating people suspected of having COVID-19, and all I’m asking is to stay in this country and provide that care,” Velasquez says. "We're definitely helping them stay alive."
As the Supreme Court considers their fate, USA TODAY spoke with DACA recipients working in the health care field in California, Florida, Texas and in the suburbs of New York City, where the coronavirus has hit hardest. Some face a shortage of personal protective equipment, often wearing the same masks for an entire hospital shift. Others are well supplied but nervous nonetheless.
Jesus Contreras helped fight Hurricane Harvey in Houston three years ago, a monstrous storm that dumped 40 inches of rain and led to 17,000 rescues. The virus, he says, is a far bigger threat.
"We haven't seen its full potential yet," Contreras, 26, a paramedic who answers 911 calls, says. “My biggest concern is we’ll have to start turning patients away, deciding which patients get treatment.”
That's not his only concern. Contreras also must worry about contracting the virus himself, as well as staying in the country he came to from Mexico in 1999.
“I’m not so much worried but precautious, hyper-aware of the amount of risk that my line of work brings," he says. "We’re not only going to have to worry about this pandemic, but we’re going to have to worry about our immigration status and deportation.”
'Would be catastrophic'
President Barack Obama sought to alleviate those worries in 2012 by creating the program after failing to get a more ambitious plan through Congress. Four years later, federal courts shot down his effort to extend similar protections to more than 4 million undocumented adults.
The Trump administration was prodded into curtailing the program when Texas threatened a lawsuit. But federal courts from California to New York stepped in, leaving the program in place and setting up the current Supreme Court showdown.
During oral argument in November, the court's conservative majority appeared likely to side with the administration. If the justices simply refuse to overrule the Department of Homeland Security's decision, a new president just as easily could renew the program. If they declare the entire program unlawful, Congress would have to step in.
In legal papers submitted last October, the Association of American Medical Colleges cited federal warnings about "the risk of a pandemic" as a reason to keep DACA recipients contributing to a "robust health workforce."
"Infectious diseases can spread around the globe in a matter of days due to increased urbanization and international travel," the group warned. "These conditions pose a threat to America’s health security – its preparedness for and ability to withstand incidents with public-health consequences."
On Friday, a legal services organization at Yale Law School sent a letter to the high court urging that the administration's decision to terminate DACA should be blocked in light of the pandemic.
"Health care providers on the front lines of our nation’s fight against COVID-19 rely significantly upon DACA recipients to perform essential work," it said. "Termination of DACA during this national emergency would be catastrophic," the letter also said.
That effort took on political overtones Sunday when Democratic presidential frontrunner Joe Biden warned that such a decision "will leave a gaping hole in our health care system that is liable to cost American lives."
'Just my calling'
The lives of DACA recipients, also known as DREAMers, could be among them.
In northern California, Ana Cueva has been working 12-hour shifts as a nurse in the intensive care unit of a community hospital. Now 27, she decided on her future career at the age of 9, having recently arrived in Utah from Mexico.
“The hospitals are way underprepared for a pandemic on this scale. They ration the equipment out, specifically the masks," Cueva says.
"I did not really agree to being exposed to certain diseases – viruses, pandemics, whatever – because the government wasn’t prepared.”
In Fort Myers, Florida, paramedic Aldo Martinez worked a 48-hour shift late last week, helping a COVID-19 patient the second day.
A native of Mexico who arrived in the U.S. when he was 12, Martinez, now 26, has seen what happens when fellow health care workers need to self-quarantine, leading to staff shortages.
“It’s been hectic. It’s been crazy. We’re learning as we go,” he says. If DACA recipients were to lose their ability to work, he says, it would "create more chaos in an already chaotic situation.”
In northern New Jersey, about an hour outside New York City, a registered nurse who came from South Korea at age 11 lives in fear that he might infect his wife and parents. His hospital, like many, faces a shortage of protective equipment.
"This is very difficult," says Daniel, 32, who did not want to use his last name because of his immigration status. "Everybody's getting more anxious about it."
For Velasquez, a native of the Philippines who came to the United States when she was 11, the coronavirus has been a rude awakening after just five months as a physical therapist. Her hospital has set up three tents to prepare for the expected influx of patients.
“A lot of them do get weak, and they can’t even get out of bed due to their poor respiratory status, which causes weaknesses in their muscles," she says. "That’s where physical therapy comes in.”
“This is just my calling. I worked very hard to become a physical therapist, especially with DACA," she says. "I knew this was something I wanted to do, pandemic or no pandemic.”