More than 200,000 “dreamers” on the frontlines of the coronavirus pandemic saw their jobs preserved for now after the U.S. Supreme Court upheld an Obama-era program that allows young, undocumented immigrants to stay and work in the country.
“This ruling is a deep sigh of relief for hundreds of thousands of dreamers” who participate in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival program, said
DACA recipients who are essential workers include 142,000 in food-related occupations and industries, 29,000 in health-care roles, 13,000 supporting health-care settings, and 15,000 teachers, according to data from the Center for American Progress.
And the larger DACA community of about 700,000 people “is much more broad than just the essential occupations; they have long-term ties to the community as well,” said Nicole Svajlenka, an associate director for research at CAP.
Dreamers pay $5.6 billion in federal taxes and $3.1 billion in state and local taxes each year, Svajlenka said. “At a time when budgets are really constrained in response to the pandemic, their economic contributions are really critical to continue functioning governments.”
In addition to the dreamers working in health care, DACA recipients also are working on the front lines in health-care settings serving food to patients or keeping hospitals clean, Svajlenka said.
About 4,100 DACA recipients work in hospitals and 1,700 work in residential facilities such as nursing homes, which have been hit hardest by the pandemic, according to data CAP pulled from the American Community Survey administered by the U.S. Census Bureau.
“It means for the thousands of DACA recipients who are keeping our country moving, who are taking care of people who have Covid, they can rest a little easier knowing that the protections that they have aren’t going to be taken away from them,” Svajlenka said.
If the Supreme Court had allowed the Trump administration to end the program, these workers could have lost their jobs at a time when health-care workers are essential.
“There are a lot of health-care workers, but right now we don’t have any to spare,” said Steven Wallace, a professor of public health at the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research, who’s focused on health policies for immigrant populations.
An Uncertain Future
Denisse Rojas was a baby when her parents brought her to the U.S. from Mexico in search of better economic opportunities. Now 30, she’s in her last year of medical school at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City where she’s been working at a free clinic in East Harlem. Many of her patients there have had the coronavirus.
Thursday’s ruling brought so many mixed emotions, she said.
“First is a sigh of relief,” she said. “I was prepared for the worst. You sort of have to, to plan out next steps and for me that was really terrifying because I’m submitting my residency applications.”
Rojas’s work authorization was set to expire the day she graduates from medical school.
“Without this decision that would have been the end of the line for me in terms of my training,” she said.
But the court’s ruling may provide only a temporary sense of relief for DACA recipients like Rojas.
Wallace and others noted that the court ruled the administration didn’t follow the proper rules when it ended the program, but it didn’t preclude the administration from trying again.
“We don’t know what the Trump administration’s next move will be,” said Tiffany Joseph, an associate professor of sociology and international affairs at Northeastern University. Although DACA recipients can stay in the country, “their lives are still at risk,” she said.
DHS Acting Secretary Chad Wolf maintained that the program was “created out of thin air and implemented illegally.”
“DACA recipients deserve closure and finality surrounding their status here in the U.S. Unfortunately, today’s Supreme Court decision fails to provide that certainty,” Wolf said in a statement. “This ruling usurps the clear authority of the Executive Branch to end unlawful programs.”
Attorney Diamela Del Castillo-Payet called the court’s ruling “a Band-Aid of sorts.”
“What they really need is a permanent solution,” said Castillo-Payet, a partner at Shutts & Bowen LLP in Miami. “Hopefully that’s what we will see as the next chapter for this group.”
Businesses Applaud Decision
Businesses operating during the pandemic voiced support for the program and its participants in the wake of Thursday’s high court ruling.
“The retail industry employs thousands of DACA program recipients. Dreamers’ contributions were particularly evident during COVID-19, as Dreamers were among those who helped to keep stores open, stocked, and safe,” said the Retail Industry Leaders Association in a statement. “Today’s decision gives these workers some hope that the program they depend upon to work legally in the country that is their home can be saved.”
App-based food delivery service Postmates applauded the court’s decision “to refuse to allow the Trump administration to move forward with its misguided and illegal plans to roll back DACA protections at this time.”
“As an immigrant-founded company, Postmates is deeply committed to supporting and protecting Dreamers—the young people who contribute to our platform and American businesses across the country; who teach our kids at school; who serve in our military; and who are working on the frontlines of the COVID-19 pandemic to keep our communities safe,” it said in a statement.
Employers view DACA employees as “some of the best,” said
Dreamers are educated in the U.S., and highly motivated to work, Peck said. “And so that kind of an employee is highly motivated to please an employer and do a great job.”
Eyes on Congress
RILA and others have renewed calls for Congress to act on a long-term remedy to address the legal status of DACA participants.
The Democratic majority in the House passed the Dream and Promise Act a year ago, but the measure hasn’t been taken up by the Republican-led Senate.
Opponents of the ruling say it undercuts the enforcement of immigration policies in the U.S.
“In addition to its unconstitutionality, DACA sends the message that U.S. immigration law is malleable and subject to political whims,” said Dale Wilcox, executive director and general counsel of the Immigration Reform Law Institute. “These kinds of decisions give prospective immigrants little incentive to comply with our laws. We are allowing an anti-borders philosophy to take root, so more disrespect for our laws is sure to come.”
IRLI is the litigation affiliate of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which supports lower immigration levels.
Rojas knows there’s still a big fight ahead for DACA recipients, but she doesn’t want to think about that now.
“It’s important just to celebrate the victory,” she said. “All of us have sacrificed so much to get here today, so I think I want to equally celebrate the achievement, celebrate the milestone and go back to fighting tomorrow.”