As New York continues to battle the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s also at risk of losing more than 9,000 immigrant essential workers who cover crucial positions in the healthcare, education and food-related industries, among others.
Their fate hangs in the balance as the Supreme Court will decide as early as this week on the legality of the Trump administration’s 2017 decision to terminate the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which grants temporary work permits and deportation deferrals to 690,000 undocumented immigrants who were brought into the U.S. as children before 2007.
More than 200,000 DACA recipients nationwide are considered essential workers in the pandemic, according to the policy institute Center for American Progress (CAP). In New York, they include Hina Naveed, a nurse working in Staten Island and a DACA recipient.
Naveed, 29, works with a foster-care agency, a job she’s now doing remotely under lockdown. She’s the main point of contact for dozens of foster families, providing them with information and emotional support and connecting them with doctors if needed. As she awaits the Supreme Court’s decision, she worries about what would happen to her clients should she be targeted for deportation.
“I worry about the families I serve because there would be a hole, a gap in their lives. I work in foster care, where children have already experienced a lot of trauma and pain, so I worry that they would lose another person, someone that has been consistent over the years in terms of coordinating their care,” she says.
Naveed, who arrived in the U.S. with her parents when she was 10 years old, says New York and the nation would suffer should DACA recipients like her be lost from the workforce.
“The community has already been hard hit by the pandemic, so to take away 200,000 essential workers that are DACA recipients adds extra stress to the country and generates concern for the already overwhelmed healthcare system,” she says.
Although it’s impossible to predict how the Supreme Court will rule, its five conservative justices and four liberal ones might spell trouble for DACA, which was initiated in 2012 through an executive order by President Barack Obama. The deportations of DACA recipients — also known as DREAMers — could start as soon as the court’s decision is rendered, something that’s expected to take place no later than June 20.
“[When] DACA is done away with by the Supreme Court, we can actually effectuate those removal orders,” Matthew Albence, acting director of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), said in January.
He was referring specifically to DACA recipients with previous deportation orders; the exact number of DREAMers who fit in that category isn’t publicly known, although advocates estimate that it could be in the tens of thousands.
While it would be logistically difficult for ICE to deport the nation’s DREAMers in large numbers, advocates say it’s possible, especially in light of recent revelations that ICE has access to DACA recipients’ personal data, such as home addresses, despite previous pledges by the Trump administration that such information would not be shared with immigration officials, ProPublica reported last month.
DREAMers working in front line jobs say they’re living with that uncertainty while still heading to work each day.
“Every day, I wake up without knowing if DACA will end or if I will be deported. That is the hard reality I face,” says Denisse Rojas, a 30-year-old medical student currently working as a volunteer at Mount Sinai’s free clinic in Harlem, where she has provided care to more than 30 COVID-19 patients in one of the hardest-hit communities in the country.
A minimum of 202,500 positions considered essential by state governments are held by DREAMers across the country, including 9,200 in New York. Out of that figure, the state registers 1,700 DREAMers who are working directly in the healthcare sector, from a nationwide total of 29,000, according to CAP.
“The repercussions would be enormous if almost 30,000 individuals like myself that are practicing healthcare professionals should no longer be able to work and use our skills and talents to care for those in need,” says Rojas, who arrived in New York City in 1999, just months after she was born.
Judith Ernestina García is a DREAMer who manages a hotel in Kingston alongside the Hudson Riverin Ulster County, housing dozens of the linemen, construction workers and trailer drivers that keep New York City running. As she suffers from MPGN, a condition that involves an abnormal immune response that affects the kidneys’ filtering capacity, García is at high risk if she contracts COVID-19.
“My job at the hotel is my main source of income. My mother pays for my necessities, while I pay for my car insurance, my car gas, and everything else, including my health insurance since I have a pre-existing medical condition,” says García, a 20-year-old who is also pursuing a career as a licensed nurse, having arrived as a four-year-old in the United States.
In spite of her concerns about the Supreme Court decision, García considers herself lucky for having a stable job in the middle of a crisis.
“There are so many immigrants who work hard in jobs that are also essential for the community, without receiving any benefits and, on top of that, are being stigmatized,” says García.
DREAMers are indeed eligible to receive the federal government’s COVID-19 relief check for residents with social security numbers and — at least in New York — are eligible for full unemployment assistance. Nonetheless, they would not benefit from the $6 billion of federal aid given to colleges and universities to provide emergency cash grants to struggling students, according to the Department of Education guidelines.
The decision of the Supreme Court, as momentous as it is, would not cancel DACA. The justices are just considering if the Trump administration followed proper procedures when it tried to phase out the program in 2017.
In a one-page memo, then-U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions argued at the time that DACA is unconstitutional and that the administration should end it to avoid lawsuits. Lower courts concluded, however, that the administration’s decision to end the program was “arbitrary and capricious” under the Administrative Procedure Act, which governs the process by which federal agencies develop and issue regulations.
If the Supreme Court upholds the federal government’s decision, the responsibility for ending the program would rest squarely with President Trump’s government. If the Supreme Court sides with the lower courts, the Trump administration could still present a new legal argument to shut down DACA, despite the fact that most Americans support the program.
“They would do so at their own political peril,” says Tom Jawetz, vice-president of Immigration Policy at the Center for American Progress Action Fund (CAPAF) and former chief counsel on the Immigration Subcommittee of the House Judiciary Committee.
An April poll by CAPAF found that seventy percent of voters support DACA, while 21 percent oppose it. The results are consistent with public opinion polls since 2017.
“There’s widespread support in the polls, including among Republicans and Trump supporters, for extending protections for DACA recipients right now and for Trump to provide, even in the event of a win before the Supreme Court, permanent protections for DACA recipients,” says Jawetz.
However, Trump has proposed in the past that he would use the program to extract other policy concessions from Democrats, in order to accelerate deportations of undocumented immigrants without DACA and restrict immigration even further – measures which would inevitably affect DREAMers’ families, too.
But using DACA recipients as bargaining chips, especially when so many of them are essential workers in the pandemic, constitutes a high stakes political gamble for the president, particularly if he’s looking to capture some of the Latino vote in the upcoming election.
“For the administration to jeopardize hundreds of thousands of individuals lives, including tens of thousands who are healthcare workers, during the pandemic… to throw these lives into jeopardy and then to try to extract concessions… how small would that be? How little would that make us as a country?” says Jawetz.
Given the importance of the role played by DACA recipients in COVID-19 relief efforts, on April 20 the Supreme Court made the rare decision of accepting a supplemental brief, filed by legal counsel for the plaintiffs (The Jerome Frank Legal Services Organization, along with two nonprofits: Make the Road NY and the National Immigration Law Center), long after last November when the justices heard the oral arguments of the case.
The brief argues that the pandemic reflects the Trump administration’s failure to consider “reliance interests” when terminating DACA, including the potential impact of losing the 200,000 DREAMers who are also essential workers during a crisis.
Massive deportations of qualified professionals would be damaging now and downright devastating in a recession as profound as the Great Depression, says Leezia Dhalla, spokesperson for FWD.us, a bipartisan political organization. Having already contracted 4.3 percent in the first quarter of 2020, the economy could shrink further in the second quarter by as much as 40 percent, according to JP Morgan bank analysts.
New York state households with DACA recipients also pay $612.9 million annually in federal and state taxes, and have a spending power of $1.3 billion, according to an April CAP report. “The end of DACA would reverberate well beyond recipients themselves,” states the document.
Losing that revenue, as well as the services provided by essential workers who are DREAMers, would be a major blow, according to experts.
“DACA recipients are critical now in responding to the pandemic as well as in the future, for the revival of the U.S. economy,” says Dhalla.
“Deporting immigrants at this time would be dangerous to our country’s long-term stability, particularly when immigrants have demonstrated to be such huge drivers of entrepreneurship.”