Dreamers Help Keep the Country Running During the Coronavirus Pandemic

A health worker lifts a patient in to an ambulance, April 2020.

Since 2012, some 825,000 undocumented young adults who came to the United States as children have received permission to remain in the country and work lawfully under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) initiative.

In 2017, the Trump administration took steps to end DACA, triggering a number of legal actions that, so far, have delayed the effect of this decision on current recipients. The U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments late last year on a set of cases challenging the legality of the administration’s termination of DACA and could issue its decision at any time.

The timing of the ruling is expected to come amid a coronavirus pandemic that has claimed thousands of lives in the United States and sickened more than 1 million across the globe.

Like all Americans, DACA recipients are dealing with the new challenges of sheltering in place, working from home, maintaining social distance from neighbors, and keeping their children occupied during school closures that, in some districts, are expected to drag on through the end of the current academic year.

DACA recipients, like many other Americans, are also working to contain the outbreak and to provide vital goods and services to help keep the country running.

The DACA recipients interviewed for this column include a kindergarten teacher in Austin, Texas, whose nurturing concern for her students goes beyond the classroom and a food truck owner whose entrepreneurial zeal helps feed office workers in Denver, Colorado.

Others include a physician on the frontlines of fighting coronavirus at a hospital in Southern California as well as a paramedic who saved lives during Hurricane Harvey in Houston, Texas, and puts his life on the line responding to 911 calls, including from residents afflicted with COVID-19. These are just two of the estimated 27,000 DACAmented medical professionals whose skills and talents have never been in greater need as the pandemic continues its rampage.

Jesus Contreras, paramedic and first responder

Jesus Contreras was hailed for rescuing stranded residents when Hurricane Harvey battered Houston, Texas, in 2017. His work as a paramedic still has him responding to life-threatening injuries and illness, including from people infected with the coronavirus.

Contreras, 26, who came to the United States at the age of 6, found his calling as a paramedic during an EMT class he took as a senior in high school. Now, as the coronavirus pandemic worsens, the Supreme Court could end the protections that allow Dreamers like him to live and work in the United States.

“We’re dealing with a national emergency, as well as our own emergency,” Contreras said. “Right now, there are a lot of health care providers that are being either exposed to or infected with [coronavirus] because they’re dealing with patients.”

During Harvey, Contreras worked for days to rescue stranded Texans. “My final day on shift, the waters finally finished receding, and the president announced they were rescinding DACA,” he said. At the time, he described it as “an extra kick in the face when you’re already down.”

Contreras said the administration’s timing is terrible once again. The middle of a pandemic is the worst time imaginable for the court to make a decision that could leave hundreds of thousands of Dreamers in the lurch—while also straining America’s medical care system.

“A lot of us are in key roles in our healthcare system. We have a lot of health care providers—whether it’s nurses, paramedics, EMTs and doctors—that are DACA recipients,” he said. “There’s a lot of people like myself that are DACA recipients or immigrants who are doing things for the community at a time of need. Meanwhile, the administration is trying to tear that apart.”

DACA recipients “are doing so much for this country, we need to take this time to re-evaluate that,” Contreras said, adding that rather than revoking DACA, the Trump administration ought to be looking for ways to provide a pathway to citizenship for Dreamers and other undocumented immigrants.

“We have the potential to have a bigger workforce in health care because we have so many kids that are DACA eligible right now, but they can’t get their DACA because it’s on hold right now,” he explained. “Our immigrant community can do so much more for us, than we’re allowing them, and that’s never more apparent than it is at this moment.”

Karen Reyes, kindergarten teacher

Karen Reyes worries about much more than the educational needs of the children in her kindergarten classroom now that coronavirus has shuttered schools in Austin, Texas.

Reyes, 31, is a member of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) who serves children who are deaf and hard-of-hearing. “Schools provide so much more than learning: They’re places where kids can get meals. They’re places where they have access to services,” she explained.

The pandemic also has her feeling unsettled about the well-being of immigrants such as her mom, who is in her 60s, cleans houses for a living, and has a history of chronic illnesses. “She definitely is someone that would be susceptible to the coronavirus,” said Reyes.

“When you are undocumented there is no unemployment benefit, there is no health care, there is no sick leave,” she said. “If one of the families she works for cancels on her, that means that she’s not getting paid.”

Reyes was brought to the United States at the age of 2 from Monterrey, Mexico. Her life changed dramatically in 2012, after DACA gave her the right to remain in the U.S. without fear of deportation.

“It was a huge, immense relief,” she said. “I could put my degree to a good use. I could contribute. I could support my family. I could drive without fear, I could live without fear.”

The stress of teaching during the coronavirus outbreak is compounded by the knowledge that an adverse Supreme Court ruling on DACA could force her from her job.

She submitted a declaration in support of one of the lawsuits pending before the Supreme Court and hopes the decision can be delayed until life in Austin returns to something close to normal.

“It’s in the best interest of everyone right now to delay that decision, because we need to focus on how we’re going to help each other through this time,” she said.

Even if the court allows the administration to terminate DACA, Reyes said that it doesn’t change the fact that her whole life has been built in the United States.

“I’m still going to be an educator,” said Reyes. “I may not be in a public school classroom, but this is our home. This is everything.”

Ever Arias, internal medicine resident physician

In normal times, as an internal medicine resident physician, Ever Arias might spend his days treating patients with chronic conditions such as diabetes or hypertension. These days, however, he has been deployed largely in the battle against the coronavirus.

Even with the Supreme Court’s decision on DACA looming, he said his undocumented status doesn’t affect how he is engaging in the fight.

“I see myself as part of the fabric of the United States, as part of the fabric of history now. When I look back, I want to be able to say I played a role in being on the frontlines and being part of the solution,” said Arias, 29.

Born in Michoacán, Mexico, he was brought to the United States by his parents as a 7-year old to Southern California, where he still lives. At the hospital where he works, he has seen the number of coronavirus cases balloon in a matter of weeks.

“If someone’s coming in saying I have fever or I have a headache or I have body aches, those could all be symptoms of flu, or they could all be symptoms of COVID-19,” said Arias, who is completing his training in pulmonary critical care and plans to specialize in intensive care medicine.

The profession has changed dramatically in the weeks since the outbreak. Not long ago, Arias said, a half dozen or more doctors at a time might be seen checking in on a patient. Now, just one doctor usually makes those rounds in order to reduce the risk of contracting the virus.

Arias said his work also has been made more challenging by the well-publicized shortages of essential medical equipment.

“We don’t have that many N-95 masks we need to protect ourselves from getting contaminated. So we’re just using extra precaution in managing chronic care now,” he said.

Amid those worries, the Supreme Court’s DACA decision looms. Arias says he knows that some Americans will never be convinced that he and other DACA recipients should be allowed to remain—despite the importance of the work they’re doing.

“You’re probably going to encounter one of us, whether you know it or not. To be honest, you may not even know that I’m taking care of you and I’m undocumented,” he said. “If they close the door to other immigrants, you’re essentially closing the door to the possibility of finding a cure for cancer, or finding a cure for novel management of medical diseases that we don’t have a cure for now.”

“Essentially, by saying no to immigrants and to DACA, you’re saying no to progress,” Arias said.

Alejandro Flores-Muñoz, entrepreneur and small business owner

Denver-based food truck owner Alejandro Flores-Muñoz is already thinking past the coronavirus pandemic to what comes next. He says small business owners, including undocumented people like himself, will play an important role in a recovering economy.

“Right now is the perfect opportunity for us to rely on those inner strengths that we have as immigrants, which is entrepreneurship,” said Flores-Muñoz “Specifically for those who are DACA recipients or even for undocumented, it is a perfect time to start up.”

“Entrepreneurship has seemed out of reach to undocumented people and immigrants,” said Flores-Muñoz, 30, co-owner of a converted VW bus serving poke to individual Denver customers as well as corporate clients.

“When you think about entrepreneurship you think about the Mark Zuckerbergs of the world, but not really about how we can create a tamale business into a thriving company.”

Business for Flores-Muñoz’s food truck and catering enterprise, which launched in 2018, plummeted once office workers began working from home because of the coronavirus. He said he’s seen a 95 percent drop in business—from serving 5,000 meals per month before the outbreak to fewer than 100 now.

When the country has finally gotten a better handle on the COVID-19 health crisis, he says business owners will have to adjust to the new reality.

“It means getting creative,” he said. “As things start re-opening, folks will start getting back to normal, but they’re still going to be very cautious of making sure that people stay safe.”

And regardless of how the Supreme Court rules on DACA, Flores-Muñoz said he expects immigrants to play a vital role as the country rebounds after the coronavirus.

“I honestly do feel that we have over and over proved that we are an asset to this country, and we are contributing in a positive way to this country—to economic growth, cultural growth.”

Alejandro is not wrong. DACA has had—and continues to have—positive impacts to the economy. The Center for American Progress has previously found that DACA recipients and their households hold $24.1 billion in spending power and pay $5.7 billion in federal taxes and $3.1 billion in state and local taxes annually. They are also directly responsible for $613.8 million in annual mortgage payments and pay $2.3 billion in rent to their landlords each year.

Allowing DACA to end would be cruel, leaving hundreds of thousands of young people—like Jesus, Karen, Ever, and Alejandro—vulnerable to deportation. It would also be counterproductive, jeopardizing the many economic and social contributions that DACA recipients are making every day to the country. As Americans come together to find solutions during this time of crisis, DACA recipients are playing their part. But every day, their lives are hanging on a thread, waiting for the Supreme Court to decide their fate.

Stephanie Griffith is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. Claudia Flores is the immigration campaign manager at the Center.

To find the latest CAP resources on the coronavirus, visit our coronavirus resource page.