Immigrants have been front-line warriors fighting the coronavirus outbreak in the United States, providing medical care, picking field crops, disinfecting buildings, and delivering food and groceries to your front door. In the same vein, these workers will be critical, once the pandemic abates, to kickstart a decimated economy — but only if the Trump administration drops its misguided attacks on undocumented workers.
One of those immigrants is Paola Sanchez, an Ashland resident who works at a suburban hospital helping uninsured patients get coverage, mostly through MassHealth. The 30-year-old native of Bolivia is able to work legally because of a program instituted by the Obama administration that protects from deportation those immigrants unlawfully brought to this country as children and grants them work authorization. Sanchez, who was 14 years old when she arrived in the United States, is part of a population of nearly 700,000 immigrants protected by the program whose fate sits in the hands of the US Supreme Court after Trump attempted to kill the protections two-and-a-half years ago.
Now the Trump administration has a straightforward opportunity to ensure that those young adults, known as Dreamers, at the very least remain in the workforce: Trump should reinstate the program, which has had a huge social and economic impact not just on its beneficiaries but also on their entire households, including an estimated 250,000 children who are US citizens. America cannot afford to lose such a productive part of its labor force during a global pandemic.
Here’s one reason why: Last year, a study found that the United States will experience a shortage of more than 120,000 physicians by 2032. And the global COVID-19 outbreak is already exacerbating this deficit. Major hospitals in the Boston area are becoming overwhelmed with an exponential rise in the number of infections, including a growing number of hospital staffers who have tested positive. On Thursday, four medical schools in Massachusetts announced they’ll fast-track the graduation of their medical students in an effort to expand the state’s capacity to deal with COVID-19. In New York state, where the infection has reached alarming levels, Governor Andrew Cuomo is waiving some licensing requirements so foreign-educated physicians can work in the state.
Roughly 27,000 undocumented immigrants currently protected from deportation through the program work in the medical sector as doctors, nurses, and home health aides, among other health care professions. The health care industry is clearly not ready, particularly during this emergency, to offset the loss if those immigrants are erased from the workforce.
Sanchez, who is saving money to return to MassBay Community College to finish her nursing degree, saw her first COVID-19 patient this week, an undocumented worker for whom she helped get limited MassHealth coverage. “This person doesn’t speak English, has no family here, and is out of work not making any money,” said Sanchez, who said she cried after talking to this patient. “I was their only support, I became their friend for a minute.”
The federal litigation isn’t the only threat Sanchez faces. The federal agency in charge of processing visas and permits to foreign nationals, US Citizenship and Immigration Services, has suspended in-person services until April 1 because of the coronavirus. This will delay some enrollees in the program from renewing their status, including Sanchez. She’s been part of the program, formally known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, since 2013, but her authorization expires in early June.
On Friday, plaintiffs in one of the cases that challenged Trump’s decision to terminate DACA sent a letter to the Supreme Court asking justices to consider the grave impact of COVID-19 as they weigh the program’s fate. The letter lists a few examples of health care providers who are now protected by the program, including Dr. Dalia Larios, a physician at Mass. General Hospital and Brigham and Women’s Hospital.
The Trump administration has latitude to automatically extend the work permits of everyone currently in the program. Better yet — the government could moot the case by dropping its effort to abolish the protections. The public health emergency caused by COVID-19 only makes the preservation of the protections against deportation more urgent.
“I can’t give up now that I’ve worked so hard,” said Sanchez. “I came here with no family and speaking no English. I’m going to keep fighting for my dream of being a nurse. This is my home, this is my country.”
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