Ismael Damian, a nurse in Mississipi, and Jose Cuicahua, a nurse in Alabama, fight coronavirus while waiting for a life-changing Supreme Court decision.
Ismael Damian, a nurse in the Northeast Mississippi area said he wasn’t sure what would have become of his life before 2012. “I didn’t really see many opportunities for me before DACA… I didn’t really see a future for myself,” he says. Ismael has lived in Mississippi for more than 12 years since his family arrived in the United States from Mexico.
“As soon as people would bring up the term ‘illegal’ or ‘undocumented’ I would get a little uncomfortable, especially if it was in my classroom. My experience [in Mississippi] has been positive for the most part,” he says.
But not having a legal status before 2012 meant he wouldn’t have the same possibilities as his U.S. citizen classmates after high school if things hadn’t changed. He eventually made peace with a future in factory or construction work, until DACA came along. Ismael is now one of the approximately 29,000 healthcare workers with DACA.
Once Ismael’s DACA was approved, he did many things U.S. citizens take for granted, such as getting a driver’s license and accepting summer jobs that put him through school. “Seeing people who were undocumented [after getting DACA] I kind of felt special, but at the same I felt bad. Before [getting a driver’s license] I would see a cop and there would be a nervousness.”
Ismael says DACA has been good for his mental health because he no longer has to be afraid to drive. After he got his driver’s license, he began driving whenever he and his family go on road trips or vacations to other states, such as Alabama or Missouri.
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In next-door Alabama, Jose Cuicahua felt the same uncertainty. On top of the regular stresses of being undocumented, Alabama passed an anti-immigrant law, HB 56, in 2011. The law created a series of additional crimes relating to being an undocumented immigrant and imposed penalties on people who allowed them to rent property or gave them rides. HB 56 permitted state and local law enforcement to become de facto immigration agents.
Jose now works at the University of Washington Medical Center in Seattle, Wash. “I had no idea where my life would be. I always wanted to be a nurse and help people.” Like other current beneficiaries of DACA, Jose was unable to get a driver’s license and plan for the possibility of going to university after high school due to his status.
Prior to DACA, Jose wasn’t sure what he’d do to further his education because many universities didn’t accept undocumented students and some would charge them international fees. Never mind José has been in the U.S. since he was 3 years old.
What Would Happen If the Trump Administration Rescinds DACA?
The current situation has shown just how important nurses are to our collective well-being. In April 2019 the American Association of College of Nursing said the U.S. faces a shortage of qualified nurses.
“Right now I can’t begin to comprehend [a DACA rescission],” says Ismael. “I’m sure my friends would be supportive, but I would be undocumented again. If I were to be deported, I’d [go back] to a place I don’t really know.” Ismael is working through the COVID-19 pandemic and sometimes sees people who may be infected.
Suspending DACA may also affect patients. “I’ve created trust with my patients to the point that they know me by name, they know my nickname, and they like me,” Ismael says. “[If DACA is taken away] they would have to hire someone new to take my position.” He also believes LEP patients may forgo care if DACA is rescinded because there will be fewer medical professionals they can talk to.
President Trump ran on a platform that included a hardline stance against all immigrants. Already, the Trump Administration has halted several family reunification programs for green-card holders for up to 60 days as a response to the current pandemic. Ending DACA was always a part of his plans as well. The program only exists today because lower courts have blocked President Trump’s attempts to terminate DACA.
There are also personal stakes to think about. For Jose, removing DACA could pose several undesirable outcomes, including the possibility of separation from his family. “I wouldn’t be able to work as a nurse, which is a job, but it’s also something that I like to do. I wouldn’t be able to be here in the States because we don’t know if the Trump administration is going to end the program, slow it down, or try to send deportation letters.”
“If DACA was terminated, my life would be uprooted,” Jose added. On top of dealing with his daily workload, Jose explains he has anxiety about the program being overturned and not being able to work. “There are some of us who have DACA and are registered nurses, and [rescinding DACA] would add on to the shortage of nurses.”
For Ismael removing DACA would be a 180-degree change. “If I were to be deported, I’d come back to a place that I don’t really know. I’ve lived here 12 or 13 years, so I’ve been here longer than I lived there.” Ismael is from the state of Campeche, Mexico, one of the 10 poorest states in the country. “It’s a place I don’t know,” he says.
Jose has also seen the effect of COVID19 on fellow nurses who face PPE shortages. “Never would I have thought that we would be reusing those masks or told to wear them possibly for the whole 12 hours of our shift, which so far hasn’t happened to me here.” Jose says he’s considered finding a job that doesn’t involve nursing, possibly returning to Mexico, or even moving to Canada should DACA be suspended.
Nurses and others with DACA, Jose says, are just like everybody else. “Think of your brother and family members, because those are exactly the kinds of people with DACA. We’re not any different than people you interact with on a daily basis.”
Ismael agrees, “If they got to know us, they would know we are here to work. We’re not here to cause trouble. We’re using [DACA] to help our families and communities.”