With DACA down to the wire, immigrant health-care workers fight the pandemic as possible deportation looms
By the end of June, the Supreme Court will settle one of the most consequential immigration cases of the Trump era, deciding whether Obama could legally create DACA.
When hospital CT technologist Louise Rogenski scans patients known or suspected to have COVID-19, she’s close enough to see the fear in their eyes.
She never lets it show that she’s anxious, too — and not only because of the coronavirus.
In a matter of months, the Trump administration could end Rogenski’s work helping the sick, potentially deporting her and other immigrant health-care providers to homelands they barely remember.
Rogenski is a DACA recipient, one of about 700,000 who as children were illegally brought to the United States by their parents, then permitted to live, learn, and work here under an Obama-era program. Trump ended Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals in 2017 and fought the legal rulings that have kept it alive all the way to the Supreme Court, which is expected to rule by the end of June.
“It bothers us that from a government standpoint, they want to get rid of us,” said Rogenski, 26, who was 12 when her parents came to the Philadelphia area from Brazil.
She buries her worries when at work because “we can’t let that stop us from helping the next person. We have to try to save the next person.”
In the battle against the coronavirus, she and many other DACA recipients serve at the point of the spear — an estimated 27,000 doctors, nurses, pharmacists, technicians, physician assistants, and home aides.
Rogenski pulls on an isolation gown, eye shield, mask, and gloves to scan patients at Jeanes Campus of Temple University Hospital, and often puts in extra shifts at Nazareth Hospital in Northeast Philadelphia and Lankenau Medical Center in Wynnewood.
Others work at doctors’ offices, clinics, and medical centers.
“It’s out of compassion, and the dire necessity we see in our communities,” said Jonatan Quintino Juarez, 23, a medical assistant at Penn Medicine Lancaster General Health. “Our parents couldn’t access health care. We saw that.”
His work exposes him to patients who could have COVID-19, but who might not speak English, who need to explain their symptoms in Spanish to a bilingual aide like him. Early in the pandemic, he worked at an outdoor screening station.
“It’s very likely I’ll end up getting it, that’s become very clear to me,” said Juarez, who is finishing nursing school. “It’s emotionally exhausting. I’m overthinking about it, and scaring myself, and more focusing on my job.”
His parents came to Lancaster from Mexico in 2000, seeking a better life for then-3-year-old Jonatan, his 2-year-old sister, and 5-year-old brother. The years-long uncertainty around DACA has become a weight.
“We are constantly trying to prove ourselves to a country that doesn’t want us, that doesn’t see us,” he said. “I’m here to do my job. I’m here to help people. … If anybody deserves a piece of paper that validates them, it’s my parents. I’ll be fine. Other countries will want me.”
The Supreme Court ruling will settle one of the most consequential immigration cases of the Trump era, deciding whether Barack Obama had the power to create DACA without congressional approval. DACA opponents say that he did not, and that immigration laws must be enforced without exceptions.
Recipients, also known as Dreamers, get no citizenship or legal status, but qualify for work permits and renewable, two-year deferments from deportation. The lower-court decisions have allowed those with DACA to continue filing for renewals, although acceptance of new applications has been halted.
“The kids — they’re young adults now — their stories speak for themselves, and their bravery speaks for itself,” said Philadelphia immigration lawyer Adam Solow, who represents DACA recipients at Solow, Isbell & Palladino LLC. “It’s a disgrace that our political system, which authorized $4 trillion in spending in less than a few weeks, without any real debate, has not come to a compromise to help DACA recipients after nearly a decade.”
University of Illinois at Chicago scholar Adam Goodman isn’t surprised that the U.S. might deport immigrant health workers in the teeth of a pandemic. The country’s mythical identity as a nation that welcomes immigrants simply doesn’t square with historical evidence, he said. Its anti-newcomer bent nears an apex under a Trump administration that portrays migrants as takers and criminals.
“The administration’s attempt to terminate DACA lays bare their real target — reducing or ending all immigration,” said Goodman, author of The Deportation Machine: America’s Long History of Expelling Immigrants.
When DACA youths hear talk of sending them “back to their country,” it takes a minute to register. Because the U.S. is their country, they say, the place where they grew up, went to school, found community.
“We are Americans,” said Jose Ramirez, 27, a licensed practical nurse at the UPMC hospital in Harrisburg, and whose parents brought him here from Mexico at age 8. “Any second I can lose everything that I’ve worked for … I don’t have a backup plan.”
Anel Medina was 5 when she and her parents left Mexico City for Kennett Square. Now, she’s a registered nurse, working in an oncology unit at a Philadelphia-area hospital she declined to name.
The threat of catching COVID-19 is real, but “as a nurse, as a DACA recipient, as someone who went into health care for the love of health care and the love of patients, I go in knowing I want to help others,” she said. “I go in with all my heart and soul, knowing I’m going to change someone’s life.”
Medina, 29, wants to become a nurse-practitioner — if she can raise the money, since DACA recipients aren’t eligible for federal school loans or aid. And if she isn’t forced from the U.S.
When people talk about health workers at the front lines, they’re talking about Mariana Galati, 27, a registered medical assistant at Jefferson Health, who works at a drive-up testing site in South Jersey.
She faces exposure to the virus all the time. And she takes every shift she’s offered.
“I have to be there. I want to be there,” she said. “I’m not scared, but I am scared at the same time. I know what the risks are. All the patients look at you, ‘Thank you, thank you so much for doing this. If we didn’t have you ...'”
She came to the United States at 5, when her mother brought her to Camden from Mexico, and now lives with her husband in Mount Laurel, about to start nursing school.
“I don’t have anything to go back to,” she said. “I don’t have any close family there. All of myself, everything I’ve learned, my entire schooling, has been here.”
For her, the doubts around DACA are “very frustrating, when I’ve done everything right every step of the way. I don’t have a criminal background. I’m a good citizen. I help out. There’s a shortage of nurses.”
Rogenski, the CT tech, has already been told by Jeanes administrators that she’ll be let go in June unless her work authorization is renewed. She filed months ago, but by the time her appointment for fingerprints arrived, that office had been closed by the crisis, she said. So now, “the hospital where I have been risking my life during this epidemic is threatening to terminate me.”
The stress is exhausting. Yet, when she gets home after working eight or 12 or 16 hours, sleep can be slow to come. If she develops a small cough, she wonders, Is this it? Have I caught the virus?
“My mom is especially worried,” Rogenski said. “ ‘If you get sick, I can’t even go take care of you.’ ”