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As the Supreme Court weighs their fate, thousands of DACA recipients have become their families’ sole providers because of coronavirus

Luz Chavez set the table for dinner in her family's Maryland home.
Luz Chavez set the table for dinner in her family's Maryland home.Scott Serio for the Boston Globe

WASHINGTON — Luz Chavez has marched to the Capitol building, occupied senators’ offices, and rallied outside the Supreme Court in a desperate bid to prevent the federal government from snatching her life from under her.

The coronavirus outbreak has only made her effort more urgent.

A junior at Trinity Washington University and a political organizer, Chavez, 22, is one of more than 640,000 people who have been in limbo since the Trump administration ended the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, a temporary protective status for immigrants who were brought to the country illegally as children.

Since November, Chavez has been waiting for the Supreme Court to decide the fate of the initiative and thus her own, a ruling that could come any time in June. But nothing could have prepared her for this second crisis, which has raised the stakes even higher on that decision because now her family is dependent more than ever on the money she brings into the household.

Her mother saw it coming first: As fears of the virus spread across China and some countries shut down their borders, the hotels where her mother worked emptied out and cut back her hours. She took odd jobs cleaning houses and baby-sitting until those were gone, too.

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No more meals out, her mother urged. Start putting more money into your savings.

Within a week, her mother was laid off. Chavez’s sister, Daniela, 19, and her brother, Teddy, 17, lost their jobs at day-care centers. Their father, who was let go from his work loading goods at a distribution center before the pandemic struck, was getting nowhere with his search for new employment. The Globe agreed not to name the parents because of their immigration status.

Overnight, it seemed, Chavez became one of likely hundreds of DACA recipients who are now the sole breadwinners in their households, with parents denied federal stimulus checks and other virus relief because they are not legal residents.

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“We were completely caught off guard,” she said.

Luz Chavez talked with her father after one of her Zoom meetings.
Luz Chavez talked with her father after one of her Zoom meetings. Scott Serio for the Boston Globe

The limited demographic data that exists on the impact of the virus shows Black and Latino residents, often from low-income and immigrant backgrounds, have been hospitalized at higher rates, and in many places are more likely to die from the disease. Widespread job losses have hit Latino immigrants especially hard, while many who remain in the workforce are often at the front lines as doctors, nurses, and health care aides.

The full scope of the health and economic realities is harder to capture — and likely bleaker — for some 10.7 million unauthorized immigrants living in the United States.

DACA gave researchers a glimpse into the full economic power of a small slice of this population when the program was established under former President Barack Obama in 2012. DACA allowed anyone under 30 to apply for temporary protection from deportation or legal action on their immigration cases if they had not committed a crime, had been younger than 16 when they were brought to the country, and went to work or school, among other requirements. The young immigrants who fought for its creation became known as Dreamers.

At its peak, more than 800,000 were able to join the legal workforce. The number has gradually dwindled after Trump officials rolled back DACA in 2017, saying Obama administration officials breached their constitutional authority and sparking a slew of legal challenges. As of March there were about 643,560 active participants, including almost 24,000 in Massachusetts.

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Many were the sole providers for their families before the pandemic hit. An estimated 40,000 were small business owners, another 9,000 teachers, and about 14,000 worked in the health care industry as of 2017, according to the nonpartisan think tank Migration Policy Institute. A 2018 report from the House of Representatives Small Business Committee found DACA recipients brought home annual average earnings of $36,000, higher than the median personal income in the United States, though many were still in school.

Educators, businesses, and state attorneys general, including Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey, have filed briefs to the Supreme Court in support of DACA, often citing the devastating blow terminating the program could have not only on the recipients who call the United States their home but also on their families and the economy.

“What I hope is that the Supreme Court looks beyond the technical legal agreements to the human lives that are at stake here,” said Janet Napolitano, president of the University of California system, who helped create the program as homeland security secretary under Obama.

Chavez counts herself among “the lucky ones” during the pandemic. She has been able to dip into the modest savings from her job as a summer camp counselor that she had hoped to use to buy a car. And she has kept her job as a youth fellow with United We Dream, a youth-led network of progressive immigrant rights activists.

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Chavez had always known she and her family had immigrated to the United States from Bolivia when she was a child. But it wasn’t until she was 16 that she learned she and her sister weren’t in the country legally. Before then, her older cousin would take her along to protests in support of comprehensive immigration reform. The two marched down D.C. streets with other young immigrant activists, and once locked arms with a group blocking the entrance to a congressional cafeteria.

“I didn’t know that everything we were advocating for at the time . . . would directly impact my family,” Chavez recalled. Her cousin didn’t have the heart to tell her the truth.

Luz Chavez and her family sit down for dinner.
Luz Chavez and her family sit down for dinner. Scott Serio for the Boston Globe

Chavez had suspected “something was up.” Her parents seemed stricter than most. She wasn’t allowed to drive or work or stay out late. Then, not long after DACA was established, her parents took her and her sister to an immigration lawyer far from their Maryland home. Chavez thought they were going to obtain passports. When she realized from the attorney’s questions that wasn’t the case, she felt the energy in the room shift.

“I didn’t know how to fully grasp on the idea that I was undocumented and that some opportunities that my friends have I won’t be able to have,” she said.

DACA allowed her to work in after-school day-care centers, so she could pay for her community college courses and help out with family expenses. When President Trump rescinded the program, Chavez joined thousands of activists in occupying lawmakers’ offices and rallying at the Capitol for legislation that would create a path to citizenship for Dreamers and millions of other unauthorized workers. She even found herself once more blocking the entrance to the same congressional cafeteria she had as a teen.

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“You think you are ready for that moment," Chavez said, recalling the day she broke into tears after Trump announced the end of DACA. “But in reality you are not, which is how I feel about the Supreme Court decision coming up.”

When the pandemic struck, Chavez and a group of friends, some of them DACA recipients and their families’ sole lifelines as well, sprang into action. They launched a mutual aid network for families without legal status. They now solicit donations, scour websites for food banks and community resources, and give advice on how to apply for emergency aid relief from local governments.

Her parents have dipped into her brother’s college savings fund. They didn’t receive any stimulus checks, although Teddy is a US citizen and every member of the family has paid taxes using taxpayer identification numbers. They are among the 31 percent of Latinos born in the United States and 45 percent of immigrants who did not receive a stimulus check, according to a Latino Decisions poll conducted for several Latino political advocacy groups. DACA recipients appear to be technically eligible, but some, like Chavez’s sister, did not receive one because her parents claim her as a dependent.

Others like Ki Wan Sim, 23, a DACA recipient and software engineer in Cambridge, didn’t expect to get a stimulus check but did. Since the outbreak, she has made all the necessary calculations to pay nearly $3,000 in rent next month for the apartment she shares with two roommates and for her parents’ bungalow in Southern California.

Soon after her mother lost her job in a nail salon and her father was let go from an optometrist office, Sim told them to put all their groceries on her credit card.

“I was talking to my mom yesterday, and she said she didn’t want to take my money, and I said, ‘I am your 401(K), so you need to take my money,’ ” said Sim.

For all DACA holders, the Supreme Court decision looms like another impending disaster.

White House officials have given no indication whether they will continue protections for DACA recipients if they receive a ruling in their favor.

Polls have consistently shown that a majority of Americans support DACA. But with millions of people nationwide now unemployed, it could be more difficult for advocates to make the case that DACA recipients provide a boost to their communities, said Roberto Gonzales, a Harvard professor who has traced the economic contributions of DACA recipients.

“Large shares of unauthorized immigrants are performing essential tasks in this really critical time,” he said, raising age-old questions. “How will those contributions be recognized? Will they be recognized?”

One recent afternoon, Chavez checked in with some high school students she mentors via Zoom. The group celebrated college acceptances, and Chavez caught them up on their search for fresh vegetables at food banks and churches across the area.

On the next decision day, Chavez plans to log on to the Supreme Court website, like she has been doing every morning rulings are announced since November. She’ll take a deep breath and start hitting refresh.



Reach Jazmine Ulloa at jazmine.ulloa@globe.com or on Twitter: @jazmineulloa