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‘Dreamers’ tell Supreme Court ending DACA during pandemic would be ‘catastrophic’

Demonstrators gathered in front of the United States Supreme Court, where justices heard arguments on a DACA case on Tuesday, Nov. 12, 2019, in Washington.
Demonstrators gathered in front of the United States Supreme Court, where justices heard arguments on a DACA case on Tuesday, Nov. 12, 2019, in Washington.Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post

WASHINGTON — Aldo Martinez, a paramedic in Fort Myers, Florida, is one of about 27,000 young immigrants in the country illegally known as Dreamers who work in health care, many of them on the front lines in the fight against the coronavirus pandemic.

“It’s an all-hands-on-deck situation that we have going on,” he said Friday, halfway through a 48-hour shift.

Martinez, 26, came to the United States from Mexico when he was 12, and he is able to work thanks to a program announced by President Barack Obama in 2012, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA. The Trump administration wants to end the program, and at a Supreme Court argument in November, a majority of the justices seemed inclined to let it.

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Martinez said it would be foolish to take an army of doctors, nurses, pharmacists, technicians, researchers and other health care workers off the battlefield in the middle of a pandemic.

“It’s imperative that the Supreme Court take account of conditions that did not exist back in November,” he said. “It seems nonsensical to invite even more chaos into an already chaotic time.”

The status of health case workers like Martinez was the subject of an unusual Supreme Court filing Friday, one that urged the justices to take account of a new reality.

“Termination of DACA during this national emergency would be catastrophic,” the filing said.

Ramis Wadood, a student at Yale Law School who helped prepare the filing, said the contributions made by the program’s recipients are well known.

“It’s always been important, and it’s a point we’ve been driving home since the beginning,” he said. “But this pandemic just brings those interests front and center.”

A prescient supporting brief filed in the case in October by the Association of American Medical Colleges and other groups seemed to anticipate the current crisis. The nation, the brief said, was not prepared “to fill the loss that would result if DACA recipients were excluded from the health care workforce.”

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“The risk of a pandemic also continues to grow,” the brief said, “since infectious diseases can spread around the globe in a matter of days due to increased urbanization and international travel. These conditions pose a threat to America’s health security — its preparedness for and ability to withstand incidents with public-health consequences.

“To ensure health security, the country needs a robust health workforce,” the brief said. “Rescinding DACA, however, would deprive the public of domestically educated, well-trained and otherwise qualified health care professionals.”

Muneer I. Ahmad, a law professor at Yale who represents the DACA recipients in Friday’s filing, said the basic arguments were not new. Still, he said, “the pandemic casts into sharp relief how catastrophic the termination of DACA would be at this point.”

In the past, President Trump has praised the program’s goals and suggested he wanted to preserve it. “Does anybody really want to throw out good, educated and accomplished young people who have jobs, some serving in the military?” he asked on Twitter in 2017.

But when the Supreme Court heard arguments in November, the president struck a different tone. “Many of the people in DACA, no longer very young, are far from ‘angels,’” he wrote on Twitter. “Some are very tough, hardened criminals.”

In fact, the program has strict requirements. To be eligible, applicants had to show that they had committed no serious crimes; had arrived in the United States before they turned 16 and were no older than 30; had lived in the United States for at least the previous five years, and were in school; had graduated from high school or received a high school equivalency diploma; or were an honorably discharged veteran.

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The status lasts for two years and is renewable, but it does not provide a path to citizenship.

The Trump administration, which ordinarily takes a broad view of executive power, said Obama had acted unlawfully in creating the program. Lower courts rejected that rationale for shutting it down.

The 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals, in San Francisco, for instance, acknowledged that presidents have broad powers to alter the policies of earlier administrations but said the legal rationale offered by the Trump administration did not withstand scrutiny. The court also questioned “the cruelty and wastefulness of deporting productive young people to countries with which they have no ties.”

When the case was argued in November, Solicitor General Noel J. Francisco, representing the administration, said it was entitled to end the program.

“DACA was always meant to be a temporary stopgap measure that could be rescinded at any time, which is why it was only granted in two-year increments,” he said. “So I don’t think anybody could have reasonably assumed that DACA was going to remain in effect in perpetuity.”

Martinez, the paramedic, said he and his colleagues faced mounting challenges. “The Fort Myers population is very old,” he said. “They have preexisting conditions that make them more at risk because of the virus. And we have had to put some of our paramedics and emergency medical technicians into quarantine, so that creates a lack of personnel.”

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If the Supreme Court sustains the DACA program, Martinez said, he hopes to pursue a career as a trauma surgeon. He added that all sort of immigrants in the country illegally had been bearing a disproportionate share of the burdens of the current crisis.

“We are part of the workforce,” he said. “A great amount of us are considered essential — janitors, workers in grocery stores, people like myself, nurses, doctors. All of us are working toward protecting the public. If we are unable to do that, we will have an even harder time trying to deal with this pandemic.”