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Sunday, December 10, 2023 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

DACA Ruling Safeguards Dreamers on the Front Lines of Covid-19

Joana Cabrera was in the lab programming robots to help increase California’s capacity to test for Covid-19 when she received a life-changing text from her attorney: her green card was approved.

WASHINGTON (CN) — Joana Cabrera was in the lab programming robots to help increase California’s capacity to test for Covid-19 when she received a life-changing text from her attorney: her green card was approved. 

Even with the change in her immigration status, however, the newly minted legal permanent resident was anxious about how the Supreme Court would resolve a long-running dispute over the program that had previously enshrined her as a Dreamer.

Thursday morning in a 5-4 split, the high court blocked what it called an arbitrary and capricious attempt by the Trump administration to terminate DACA, short for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals.

“I cried and I was shaking,” Cabrera said. “That was a part and is a part of my identity for so long, and growing up with that fear of impermanence, that doesn’t just leave the moment you get a green card.”

A graduate of the top public school in the country, the University of California, Berkeley, Cabrera is a bioengineer at the San Francisco-based medical research center Biohub, funded by Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan. As Covid-19 cases surged in the early weeks of the pandemic, Cabrera was clocking 15-hour days, much of which occurred with a face mask that made the work hot.

According to the Center for American Progress, more than 200,000 Dreamers are front-line workers. An estimated 27,000 of those DACA recipients are working in critical health care professions, the American Association of Medical Colleges informed the Supreme Court in an amicus brief.

Cabrera said Thursday’s ruling is critical to keep DACA recipients in the U.S. as the world continues to battle the novel coronavirus. 

ACLU deputy director of immigration policy Andrea Flores said the Supreme Court ruling decides the fate of some 650,000 immigrants permitted to attend university and receive work permits without fear of deportation under the Obama-era program. 

“Today DACA recipients have certainty that their lives will not be destroyed,” she said.

Rescinding DACA status would have been devastating to the U.S. restaurant industry and social services, Flores added, to say nothing of the health care system, which has seen scores of Dreamers serve as first responders critical to the pandemic response.

“DACA recipients have continued from the start of this pandemic to do what they have been doing for so long which is filling some of the most important jobs that our nation needs, and our country needs to do the right thing and give them that path to citizenship,” Flores said. 

President Donald Trump signaled Thursday that his administration would find another way to end DACA, which he says Obama created by abusing the authority of the presidency. 

“The fact remains that under DACA, hundreds of thousands of illegal aliens continue to remain in our country in violation of the laws passed by Congress and to take jobs Americans need now more than ever,” the Department of Homeland Security said in a statement.

Thursday’s ruling by the Supreme Court outlines the administrative maze the Trump administration must navigate to end DACA lawfully, leaving Flores and others to call for Congress to pass the American Dream and Promise Act. 

The legislation has already cleared the Democrat-led House and would allow DACA recipients to make a forever home in what for many is the only country they have ever known. 

Cabrera agreed the justices’ decision is not a final victory and that immigration policy reform is needed to keep workers critical to the Covid-19 response safe from deportation. 

“While this is great, this is incredible news — and it takes weights off of our shoulders — this is the same exact state that we were in before,” she said. “So there is still a lot of work to do.

Law professor Michael Olivas said he does not anticipate the Trump administration will manage to maneuver the federal requirements to rescind DACA one again before the November presidential election. 

“The Supreme Court now gives them the blueprint of what they have to do,” said Olivas, who recently retired from the University of Houston where he served as the William B. Bates distinguished chair in law and director of the Institute for Higher Education Law.

“My guess is the administration will run pretty quickly with this,” he added, explaining that, at the end of the day, the ruling does nothing more than buy time for Dreamers. “The sword of Damocles is still hanging over them,” the professor said. 

The future is even less certain for those in a Dreamer’s orbit.

“They’re most concerned about the family members that they provided information about in order to apply,” said Katherine Gin, executive director of Immigrants Rising, whom Courthouse News spoke to in May about the mental toll on Dreamers awaiting the ruling. 

In pandemic times, though, stay-home orders and mounting death tolls from the virus have brought instability for many segments of the country.

“We’re getting a bit of a glimpse into what it’s like to live in the situation that DACA recipients and other immigrants have been living — unable to plan, unable to think about whether they are going to be in this country or where else they’re going to be able to go,” Leisy Abrego, a University of California, Los Angeles, professor of Chicana/o Studies, said in a May interview. 

During the coronavirus outbreak, Trump has ground the immigration system to a halt. The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services recently looked to Congress for an emergency bailout of $1.2 billion claiming the agency saw a dramatic drop in fee-based revenue due to Covid-19.

Strapped for funds, the immigration system would have been hard pressed to process the very change in status petitions that DACA recipients would have sought to file to avoid deportation if the Supreme Court had allowed the White House to roll back the program. 

Flores, with the ACLU, said in a May interview that removing Dreamers to immigration detention centers to await deportation would be high risk in the midst of a global pandemic. 

“If you arrest a number of DACA recipients, you’ll send them right into that system where there’s already such increased public health risk for people who are detained in civil detention,” Flores said. 

Abrego said there had been some DACA recipients who considered starting a new chapter in a country where the strictures of their U.S. immigration status would be less defining.

“That’s not going to be much of an option anymore, until things change,” the UCLA professor said. “It’s one layer of uncertainty over another, over another.” 

Categories / Government, Health, National, Politics

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