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Houston Dreamers in health care despair about DACA debate

19 Jan

By Todd Ackerman, Houston Chronicle

Hector Mejia recalls the depression he felt when he heard of the Trump administration’s plan to dismantle a program that provides temporary work permits to young immigrants who came to the United States illegally as children.

Mejia was granted protection from deportation under the program in 2013, five years after he followed his mother from El Salvador and began an arduous path from English-as-a-second-language classes to honor student to lab assistant at Houston Methodist Hospital.

 “There’s suddenly a great feeling of despair,” says Mejia, 26, who is responsible for quality control of blood processing at Methodist’s hospital in The Woodlands. “Why did I work so hard for something that could go away in the blink of an eye? My life is at the mercy of the White House.”

He now stands to lose both his permit and protection if Congress doesn’t agree on what to do with some 800,000 so-called “Dreamers” by March, when President Donald Trump has said the Barack Obama-era program would end. Democrats and some Republican lawmakers had hoped to include protections for such young migrants in a stopgap spending bill that must be passed Friday.

But the prospect faded quickly after a meeting last week at which the president denounced the compromise proposal and used derogatory words to refer to Haiti and some African countries. On Thursday evening, it appeared the government was heading toward a shutdown and that a resolution on the future of the program, known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), was nowhere close.

At stake are more than 124,300 young immigrants in Texas, the state with the most Dreamers after California. Across the nation, such enrollees contribute a net $3.4 billion to the U.S. Treasury annually, according to a study this month by the American Action Forum, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit.

In Houston, some of their biggest contributions are at Methodist, which employs 57 Dreamers throughout the system in positions from lab technicians and nurses to pharmacists.

Diminished health care

DACA workers at healthcare institutions around the country would be at risk of deportation if the program is rescinded. Baylor College of Medicine has 13 DACA employees, according to a spokeswoman. A number of major Texas Medical Center’s institutions contacted by the Chronicle said they don’t track their DACA numbers.

The threat to Methodist’s employees prompted Dr. Marc Boom, the system’s usually politically reticent president, to write Texas congressional members and U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, last fall and again this week to find a solution to the problem.

“Patients do not care about the immigration status of their doctors,” wrote Boom. “Instead, they ask that their doctor or nurse is well-trained, makes the right medical decisions and treats them with respect and care. Dreamers are an essential part of the nation’s health workforce, and federal policies to terminate DACA without a workable solution will only diminish our nation’s health.”

Boom linked DACA’s value to the nationwide shortage of health-care workers, which most prominently involves doctors and nurses but cuts across all manner of hospital technical and support positions. Methodist has a total of 1,071 job openings right now, for instance, 415 for registered nurses, 21 for pharmacy jobs and more than 250 for support jobs.

A number of Methodist’s nurses currently have DACA status.

Among them is Susana Rosas, whose mother brought her from Mexico at age 6. They were visiting family on a travel visa, then her mother decided to stay. Rosas breezed through elementary, middle and high school, attaining good grades and engaged in many extracurricular activities before learning her college options were limited without a Social Security number, she said. She enrolled at Houston Community College as a foreign student at three times the tuition, first in general studies, then in an emergency medical technician program that enabled her to find work as a paramedic with small companies.

All the while, Rosas paid taxes.

She became approved for DACA in 2013, which she says opened all sorts of doors for her. Methodist’s hospital in Sugar Land hired her as a paramedic, reimbursed tuition costs for a nursing program and ultimately hired her as a nurse. She has a house in Katy, two sons, a life here.

“Trump’s plan to terminate the program was shocking, sad,” said Rosas. “He says he wants people like us – people who pay taxes and contribute to the community, who aren’t a drain on society. I understand the need to fix immigration, but I wouldn’t think we’d be the first whose status he’d terminate.”

‘It seems wrong’

Julia Gelatt, a senior policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute in Washington, said the statistics bear Rosas out, that DACA enrollees are more likely to work in white-collar or indoor office jobs, such as administrative support or sales or professional jobs, whereas unauthorized immigrants are more likely to work in jobs like grounds keeping or construction.

Some 72 percent of the nation’s Top 25 Fortune 500 companies count DACA recipients among their employees, according to a letter nearly 400 executives sent Trump and Congress last week. In U.S. medical schools, there are currently 99 Dreamers enrolled, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges.

Rosas said she is hoping for the best, but preparing for the worst. She says Canada or Europe seem better options than returning to Mexico, given its safety issues and the little pay nurses make.

“The thing is, under the plan to dismantle DACA, the people who won’t be deported are the undocumented still behind the curtain, not paying taxes, having lots of children, not taking care of themselves and ending up in the ER,” said Rosas, who works in the ER.

“It seems wrong. But if it’s my fate to have to leave, I’ll come to terms with it. I’ve faced many challenges, I guess this is just one more.”