DACA health care workers worry about their status amid coronavirus pandemic

There are 27,000 DACA recipients working in health care professions.

April 9, 2020, 5:02 PM

For Aldo Martinez, a paramedic in Fort Myers, Fla., who often works a 37-hour shift, the long days have become routine since the coronavirus pandemic broke out -- several of his colleagues have had to self-quarantine out of fears they may have been exposed to COVID-19.

Aside from filling in for his colleagues, tending to the dozens of calls he receives each day, and keeping himself safe on the job, Aldo feels an extra degree of pressure as one of more nearly 680,000 young immigrants whose ability to work in the country would be threatened if the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program is not reinstated. The Supreme Court has been hearing oral arguments in a case challenging the Trump Administration’s 2017 decision to end DACA, an Obama-era program which allows young undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. under the age of 16, who don’t have a criminal record, and who have completed or are attending school to pay a fee and register with the government and obtain temporary residency and work privileges.

The program represents only a small percentage of so-called "Dreamers", or young people who came to the country as children.

Many DACA recipients are in mixed-status families and are helping bear the financial responsibilities for their parents, or other relatives who are undocumented and aren’t covered by health insurance.

“It’s a feeling of stress on top of the stress,” Martinez told ABC News, adding that his absence in the medical field would add to the shortage of medical personnel across the county. “If DACA ends, we’re putting a strain on an already strained system. We are putting the safety of the United States population at risk.”

PHOTO: Aldo Martinez, a paramedic in Fort Myers, Fla., is shown with red marks on his cheeks from wearing the N95 masks.
Aldo Martinez, a paramedic in Fort Myers, Fla., is shown with red marks on his cheeks from wearing the N95 masks.
Aldo Martinez

At a time when universities are asking medical students to graduate early to fill the need for professionals on the front lines of the pandemic, state governments are lowering requirements for foreign doctors to practice at their medical institutions, and unemployment rates are rising, a Supreme Court ruling on the future of DACA, set to be decided within weeks, could determine whether 27,000 DACA recipients working in health care professions like Aldo will be able to continue to work.

DACA recipients perform a wide range of jobs in the medical field including working as home health aides, paramedics, pharmacy technicians, nurses and physicians, among other roles. The Center for American Progress, a liberal-leaning public policy research organization, estimates that 27,000 DACA recipients are employed in “health care practitioner and support occupations”, which may include careers in professions that are essential in tackling on the pandemic on the frontline.

The Association of American Medical Colleges projects that the country will see a shortage of up to 121,000 physicians over the next 11 years.

Last October, the group, along with 32 other organizations including the American Medical Association and the American Public Health Organization, filed an amicus brief urging the Supreme Court to consider the effect that taking DACA health workers out of the workforce would have on the existing shortage of health care professionals and warned that rescinding DACA could weaken the country’s “preparedness for and ability to withstand incidents with public-health consequences” such as a pandemic.

“While state and local governments and hospitals are actively seeking to recruit more providers, we really need to do everything to keep the ones that we already have on the ground,” Matthew Shick, the Association of American Medical Colleges’ senior director of government relations told ABC News. “I think it’s a testament for those that have already completed their education and training and are choosing a profession in the health space where they’re giving back to society that now even with the risk of potentially losing their work authorization and their DACA status in the next three months, they’re still at the front lines risking their lives to treat those patients and address this pandemic.”

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Pending SCOTUS decision worries some DACA recipients entering medical field

The requirements to obtain a medical license vary by state. However, with the exception of California, all states require a social security number, which DACA recipients receive when they’re accepted into the program.

If DACA gets terminated, 49 states won’t allow licensure for these Dreamers and thousands of medical professions won’t be able to practice.

Federal courts have put the termination of the program on hold and the Department of Homeland Security continues to process renewals for immigrants already in the program although no new applications are being accepted.

In the meantime, some lawmakers, including Colorado Gov. Jared Polis are asking the administration to extend all DACA recipients' work authorizations--due to expire this fall--during the pandemic given difficulties in accessing adequate legal help.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement did not respond to questions of whether extensions would be considered or special exception given to DACA recipients who perform so-called "essential jobs" such as those in the health care field.

ICE said last month it would scale back some arrests of non-criminal offenders and continue its pre-coronavirus focus on those that pose “public safety risks.” ICE spokesperson Danielle Bennett said Wednesday the agency plans to continue its practice of generally avoiding hospitals and health clinics.

The moves come amid concerns that the threat of deportation could prompt some to avoid seeking medical treatment or make some in the health care field nervous about going to work.

PHOTO: In this Nov. 12, 2019, file photo, DACA recipient Jirayut Latthivongskorn, center, speaks after oral arguments were heard in the case of President Trump's decision to end the DACA program, at the Supreme Court in Washington.
In this Nov. 12, 2019, file photo, DACA recipient Jirayut Latthivongskorn, center, speaks after oral arguments were heard in the case of President Trump's decision to end the DACA program, at the Supreme Court in Washington.
Alex Brandon/AP, FILE

Dr. Jirayut “New” Latthivongskorn, a DACA recipient who was a plaintiff in the Supreme Court case last November hopes that the justices will take the current pandemic in consideration when they deliver their decision.

“I think that if they don’t it’s going to be ignoring reality and what’s going on in our country in terms of this current moment and pandemic that will probably affect us for a long time to come in ways that we don’t even know yet,” he said.

Latthivongskorn, a co-founder of Pre-Health Dreamers, an organization that connects undocumented immigrants pursuing careers in the medical field to available scholarships, was the first undocumented student to graduate from the University of California San Francisco’s medical school.

Now a medical resident in the delivery room at Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital, he has helped instruct new parents on how to protect their infants from COVID-19.

His DACA status will expire in August if he’s unable to renew his application.

“The patients who need care at this point need all hands on deck. Anyone who can work, should work,” he said. “It doesn’t make sense at all right now for the court to allow DACA to be terminated.”

Krissia Rivera is a third-year medical student at Brown University and is volunteering at the Rhode Island Department of Health to call patients who test positive for the virus to check up on them in collaboration with the National Guard. She’s also working for a hotline helping to answer COVID-19 questions from communities in English and Spanish.

PHOTO: Krissia Rivera is shown wearing Personal Protective Equipment.
Krissia Rivera is shown wearing Personal Protective Equipment.
Krissia Rivera

“My DACA expires this fall, which means that if a favorable decision isn’t made by the Supreme Court, I will graduate with an ‘MD’ next to my name, but without being able to practice in the United States and fulfill my dream of becoming a neurosurgeon,” Rivera said.

Amid stories of medical professionals who have died because of being infected by the disease, Denisse Rojas, a medical student at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, has been volunteering by answering calls and emails from vendors of personal protective equipment and connecting them to hospitals that need it. She’s currently also pursuing a master’s degree in public policy at Harvard University, but will be returning to New York City to finish out her last year of medical school and graduating in May of 2021, the same month her DACA expires if she’s unable to renew it.

Still, she said she’s more prepared than ever to sacrifice her life to help others.

“We very much signed up to help people no matter what and it’s something I would definitely be prepared to do,” she said. “No question at all.”

DACA recipients on the front lines of the pandemic say they just want to continue to help

Aldo estimates that about 20 of his colleagues have had to self-quarantine after coming into contact with people infected with COVID-19. It’s a microcosm, he explains, of the strain being felt at medical institutions across the world as more medical professionals on the front lines are being infected with the disease.

“Every single one of those paramedics and EMTs are out there running calls and answering emergencies. So now imagine if 27,000— medical doctors, nurses, paramedics like myself are suddenly not able to work,” he said.

United States has over 330,000 diagnosed cases of COVID-19 and has registered over 10,000 deaths. As the pandemic continues to grow, hospitals across the country have struggled with shortages of personnel, personal protective equipment, and critical care equipment such as ventilators.

“Every day I wake up with the uncertainty, not knowing if DACA will end or if I may be deported, and that’s a hard reality to face,” said Rojas, who is also a co-founder of Pre-Health Dreamers. But she adds that volunteering and helping during pandemic has given her strength to put her fears aside.

PHOTO: Denisse Rojas is shown at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.
Denisse Rojas is shown at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.
Denisse Rojas

“You would think these are mundane tasks," she said. "But for me, knowing that I am part of helping get more ventilators to the hospitals is giving me so much motivation."

For DACA recipients on the front lines of the pandemic, the imminent decision from the Supreme Court looms over their ability to continue doing the work they’ve trained for.

“What I’ve been thinking about lately is all the people that I want to help and not being able to do that because of this potential immigration policy change,” Rojas said. “I’m feeling grief, not only for myself, but all the people I want to help.”