Jonathan Rodas rushes in and out of operating rooms in a hospital in Towson, delivering bloodwork to labs, cleaning surgical tools, pushing gurneys and sometimes holding the hands of scared patients.
Like many working in hospitals during the pandemic, the 25-year-old can’t help but imagine he might catch the coronavirus. He prays that he won’t get his mother and brothers sick.
But Rodas faces another layer of uncertainty in the midst of the pandemic. He’s one of more than 8,000 young immigrants in Maryland without permanent legal status who could face deportation and lose their work permits if the U.S. Supreme Court allows the Trump administration to end the federal program known as DACA. A ruling appears imminent.
Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals gives some 700,000 “Dreamers” the right to stay and work in this country. Many of them are young working professionals or students whose families brought them to the United States as children.
The Trump administration argued to the nine justices in November that ending DACA was “reasonable” because the Obama administration policy was illegal in the first place. The parties mounting legal challenges said the abrupt ending of DACA was unjustified.
While it’s possible a ruling could be postponed until the next term, the justices are expected to make a decision before the end of June. Immigration attorneys say it can happen any week.
“That really freaks me out because my whole life is here,” said Rodas, who was brought to Maryland as an 11-year-old by his mother. She feared he and his brother would be killed or recruited into gangs in El Salvador.
Now, he is a full-time operating room support assistant and nursing student at the Community College of Baltimore County. “This is where I have my family, my friends.”
Those who work closely with immigrants say that eliminating the program would have ripple effects in the communities where they have deep roots. Not only are they already vulnerable in many ways, with less access to health care and government services, but many also are working in key professions across the country, advocates say.
"They are our children’s teachers, our health care workers, and an essential part of our economy and community,” said Lydia Walther-Rodriguez, the Baltimore director for CASA, an advocacy group for Latino and immigrant people in Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia.
About 60% of all DACA recipients are part of Maryland’s workforce. The most common industries of employment are food prep, sales, office and administrative, health care and health care support, construction, and building and grounds cleaning and maintenance, according to an analysis from the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute.
Despite his uncertain future, Rodas says he feels compelled to assist the nurses he looks up to, and make sure patients get the care they need.
“This was my calling,” the Halethorpe man said. “I want to help people out.”
Another DACA recipient, Missael Garcia, not only works at an elementary school, but also is a longtime community leader, volunteering at a local food bank during the pandemic.
“I consider myself part of this city — part of this country, to be honest,” said Garcia, 29, who moved to Baltimore from Mexico when he was 12.
Before DACA, Garcia worked in construction, hotels and restaurants. The introduction of DACA in 2012 opened new opportunities for him.
Under the initiative, undocumented immigrants were eligible to work legally and shielded from deportation if they met a set of requirements, passed a stringent background check, and paid a $500 application fee to renew it every two years.
Garcia is now a teaching assistant for English language learners at Lakeland Elementary/Middle school, where he’s mentored students for two years.
“I found my place where I belong, and I love it,” Garcia said. But he’s worried about providing for his wife and two daughters. The imminent decision during the pandemic has left him in a state of anguish.
“It’s very overwhelming,” Garcia said. “I cannot afford to be sick. I cannot afford to not have a job.”
“It’s very overwhelming. I cannot afford to be sick. I cannot afford to not have a job.”— Missael Garcia, DACA recipient
While the coronavirus crisis has upended life for everyone, Nick Katz, legal program manager at CASA, says DACA recipients and other undocumented immigrants have been hit particularly hard because they don’t have the same access to government resources.
DACA recipients pay taxes but are not eligible for public benefits such as cash assistance, food stamps or Medicaid. They are not eligible to apply for health insurance through the Maryland Health Connection, according to the state department of health. And on Wednesday, DACA students were left out of the federal emergency aid plan by the U.S. Department of Education.
Critics argue that DACA should be terminated because it entices parents to stay in the country without authorization.
“The fact that they have been allowed to stay and allowed to work sends a message all around the world to parents, that it's worth it to come here on vacation and then never leave,” said Roy Beck, President of NumbersUSA, a low-immigration advocacy group in Virginia.
Beck acknowledges that ending DACA will cause a disruption to the lives of many. But he believes it could force the president and Congress to come up with a permanent solution, something he argues would stop people from entering the workforce illegally.
It was such sentiments that helped drive the Trump administration’s move to end DACA in 2017. But lower courts blocked the plan, and the case wound all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
During oral arguments in November, the U.S. Justice Department said the government was within its right to end DACA because it was meant to be a “temporary stopgap measure” and the policy in itself violated federal immigration law. The challengers argued that the government failed to provide a legally sound explanation for abruptly ending a government program that was supported and implemented for five years.
In a November tweet, President Donald Trump said he would strike a deal for DACA recipients with Democrat lawmakers if the justices allow the program to end. Advocates worry that would mean more immigration enforcement, which would break apart the “Dreamers” from their families, many of whom are undocumented.
The Public Information Office of the Supreme Court did not respond to requests for information on the case. The U.S. Justice Department declined to comment “due to ongoing litigation.”
And with the coronavirus, the case has stirred more attention.
In April, members of Congress, including Maryland’s Democratic Sens. Chris Van Hollen and Ben Cardin, sent a letter urging Trump to automatically extend work authorizations for DACA recipients and other immigrants.
On April 20, the Supreme Court accepted a new filing by lawyers for the DACA recipients, asking the court to consider the “catastrophic” impact that ending the program would have on the economy and on public health measures.
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It remains unclear whether the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency plans to go after DACA recipients based on the Supreme Court decision. In an email, a spokesperson for ICE pointed to a March statement that says the agency will focus enforcement on “public safety risks and individuals subject to mandatory detention based on criminal grounds.”
Meanwhile, those with DACA protection try to put it out of their minds and focus on the day-to-day.
Garcia is most concerned with helping his fifth and sixth graders with the challenges that come with online learning and raising his 2-year-old daughter.
“I’m a man of faith, I’m a man of God,” Garcia said, “and I know he’s gonna help us overcome everything that is happening.”
Meanwhile, Rodas tries to stay positive and reminds himself of why he shows up to the hospital every day.
“I’m here because patients need our help,” Rodas said Thursday, during a break. “I wish I could do more.”
He plans to finish the spring semester virtually and keep patients calm in a chaotic situation, for as long as he’s able.