Undocumented immigrants working on pandemic’s front lines fear for health and home

Veronica Velasquez’s job as a physical therapist at a Los Angeles community hospital has become riskier as the number of coronavirus patients rises. But the risk of losing her working papers and being deported hasn’t changed at all.

Velasquez, 27, is among the nearly 700,000 undocumented young people who were brought to the USA as children and rely on the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, that President Donald Trump wants to terminate. A Supreme Court ruling could come soon.

Her plight, along with those of about 27,000 DACA recipients working as doctors, nurses, paramedics and other health care workers, is full of irony. When the nation needs her most, she could be pulled from the workforce.

“I am treating people suspected of having COVID-19, and all I’m asking is to stay in this country and provide that care,” Velasquez says. “We’re definitely helping them stay alive.”

As the Supreme Court considers their fate, USA TODAY spoke with DACA recipients working in the health care field in California, Florida, Texas and in the suburbs of New York City, where the coronavirus has hit hardest. Some face a shortage of personal protective equipment, often wearing the same masks for an entire hospital shift. Others are well-supplied but nervous nonetheless.

Showdown:As Supreme Court takes up Trump plan to end DACA, American dreams at stake for nearly 700,000 immigrants

Jesus Contreras helped fight Hurricane Harvey in Houston three years ago, a monstrous storm that dumped 40 inches of rain and led to 17,000 rescues. The virus, he says, is a far bigger threat.

“We haven’t seen its full potential yet,” says Contreras, 26, a paramedic who answers 911 calls. “My biggest concern is we’ll have to start turning patients away, deciding which patients get treatment.”

That’s not his only concern. Contreras must worry about contracting the virus himself, as well as staying in the country he came to from Mexico in 1999.

“I’m not so much worried but precautious, hyper-aware of the amount of risk that my line of work brings,” he says. “We’re not only going to have to worry about this pandemic, but we’re going to have to worry about our immigration status and deportation.”

By Richard Wolf for USA TODAY
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