Legal decision could impact thousands of undocumented medical workers

Posted at 11:18 AM, Apr 24, 2020

CHICAGO, Ill. – Each day, front line healthcare workers are risking their own wellbeing to care for COVID-19 patients. But for undocumented immigrants currently allowed to work as medical professionals, a challenge to their legal status looms like a ticking time bomb.

These days, Ever Arias is on the front lines working 12-hour shifts. Arias is a second-year internal medicine resident in Southern California dealing with coronavirus patients.

“I haven't really been practicing for that long but in my short time doing my residency I haven't seen anything like this,” said Arias.

Two years ago, Arias was amongst the first undocumented students to become physicians in the U.S.

“We came from a background of nothing. My dad was a farmer my mom worked in homes cleaning houses,” he said.

An executive order from President Barack Obama called deferred action for childhood arrivals or DACA granted temporary protection to 700,000 undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children.

The status allowed Arias to attend medical school and work.

“They're giving back to the community to go into communities that often would not have physicians,” said Mark Kuczewski, a professor of medical ethics at Loyola University’s Stritch School of Medicine, the first medical school in the country to admit students with DACA status.

“We have 15 of these doctors in residency training treating patients during this COVID-19 pandemic,” said. Kuczewski. “Some in emergency rooms, some internal medicine, family medicine… putting their lives on the line.”

An estimated 27,000 DACA recipients are working as doctors, nurses, physician assistants and support staff in the healthcare industry across the country, according to the New American Economy and the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The Trump administration’s 2017 repeal of the program has sparked a legal battle over DACA. The White House says the program should be addressed through legislation.

The Supreme Court is now looking at the case, with a decision expected in the coming weeks. It’s something DACA advocates say could put front line workers in danger of deportation.

“These young people are being asked to put that out of their mind and going to put their lives on the line and serve others,” said Kuczewksi.

On Monday, the high court agreed to consider a new filing arguing that "Termination of DACA during this national emergency would be catastrophic."

Asked earlier this month about whether the White House would protect DACA healthcare workers due to the pandemic, Vice President Mike Pence would not say.

“Well, I think the president has been very clear on his desire to reach a solution on that issue with the Congress,” said Pence

Arias, fortunate to have received his green card this past fall, says there is still fear.

“I still have family members and brothers and loved ones, friends who are still in that category. And I fear for them.”