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Supreme court saves DACA, but essential workers still struggle amid pandemic

Editor’s note: Due to concerns for the safety of the undocumented community, last names will be omitted from this story unless otherwise authorized to protect our sources’ anonymity.


In the midst of a pandemic, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on June 18 to block the attempted removal of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) by the Trump administration.

DACA is a policy issued by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security in 2012 that allows certain undocumented people who arrived as children to obtain work authorization while requesting consideration of deferred action for a time period of two years. Deferred action does not provide lawful status and DACA requires renewal every two years.

This very important win allows new applicants who can afford the $495 application process to take the chance and apply to obtain the benefits DACA has to offer.

Recently, Dreamer Fund —a San Francisco collective that fundraises and advocates for undocumented students in law school— held a virtual Q&A session with University of San Francisco professor Bill Ong Hing. In it, Hing explained how the Supreme Court decision allows the DACA recipient a temporary foothold while at some point, maybe in the near future, the system addresses a much needed immigration reform.

“There is no privacy policy,” said Hing when addressing possible outcomes if the program were to be rescinded. Meaning that every DACA recipient would be at the mercy of ICE and at risk for deportation.

To some, even if it means deportation down the line if DACA were to ever be revoked, the benefits of working now are more important and worth the gamble. Especially during a pandemic since, given their undocumented status, DACA recipients don’t qualify for unemployment or federal government assistance.

Thousands demonstrated in San Francisco on Sept. 5, 2017 only hours after then Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the termination of DACA. Like other programs meant to support immigrants, DACA has been under constant threat by the Trump administration. But on June 18, 2020, The Supreme Court ruled to block the attempted removal of DACA. Photo: Drago Rentería

While the federal government denied assistance to the estimated 649,070 tax-paying DACA recipients, it sent stimulus checks to almost 1.1 million dead people in error, totaling nearly $1.4 billion, money that could theoretically be used to help the undocumented community.

California stepped up and on April 15 announced a $125 million disaster relief fund to benefit the undocumented community who lost their jobs. In San Francisco, the organization Young Workers United founded the UndocuFund, which provides financial assistance to the local undocumented community for those who qualify.

Maribel, 30, a DACA recipient working for an immigrant rights organization in Southern California didn’t consider herself an essential worker. Then she realized she was working through this pandemic to help the undocumented community that needed help paying for everyday necessities and bills.

“Initially [I thought] the workers who were dealing with people directly, such as healthcare, grocery workers, people like my parents who had to go to factories or cleaning [jobs]. That is who I considered an essential worker,” Maribel said.

As organizations help undocumented families the qualifications seem to be quite hard to meet at times. Few can only qualify for about $300 to $500. This minimal amount helps some but not enough to cover the rising bills.

Finding essential work now is just as hard as finding it before COVID-19.

Noemi, 32, a DACA recipient from Southern California, poses for a portrait at her home. Noemi was let go from her personal assistant job in March and now works as manager at a restaurant. Photo: Pamela Estrada

Safety within the workplace is important and it can mean leaving one job for another. Noemi, 32, a DACA recipient from Southern California was let go from her personal assistant job in March. The family she was assisting would now be bound to their home due to the shelter in place and did not require her assistance. Noemi then took up a job in a laundromat but when her safety was compromised by customers refusing to wear masks, she found herself seeking a different job, and found one as a manager at a restaurant. She realizes making rent is crucial since her roommate may have problems paying rent.

“Money is stretched out so thin and if they can’t come up with their part [of the rent] now we have to come up with their part and it’s like, how do we do that?” Noemi said.
Making the decision to take on jobs to make ends meet is not new to Noemi. As she was about to graduate from high school she made the decision to skip higher education to ensure she could help at home.

“I knew my family didn’t have the money to put me through school,” Noemi said.
Noemi may not have a college degree but that has not kept her from other dreams. Noemi is a certified beauty technician volunteering her time to local prom goers who cannot pay to get pampered. She shares her past to show that like last time, she will push through.

The struggles of DACA recipients and undocumented people vary. Being undocumented or being a DACA recipient is as diverse an experience as the 100+ countries each and every one of them comes from.

DACA recipient Set Hernandez Rongkilyo, 28 (whose pronouns are they, them) says working through this pandemic is not the biggest disaster in their life.

“I feel like being undocumented is like living in a pandemic all the time. You cannot get out of the country, cannot fly, have to do everything virtually to see family overseas,” Rongkilyo said. Inspiration fills their voice through their story and dealing with being a DACA recipient and this pandemic. It is when they talk about those they care about that there is a shift in their voice. For Rongkilyo, fear sets in when they have to think about their mother and younger siblings lack of health care while working through this pandemic. Checking in on their father in the Philippines to ensure the financial help they are providing is being received and that they are okay.

Strangely during the pandemic, one of the biggest concerns for Rongkilyo happened amid the Black Lives Matter uprisings to fight for justice for George Floyd. The concern was how to navigate how to be in solidarity and how to educate themselves.
“I just think about all the Black people in my life who have been showing up for me and supporting me in that way,” Rongkilyo said.

While the recent Supreme Court ruling may be a small win, being out of the shadows just means having to face other issues that need to be addressed. Keeping DACA in place goes beyond a work permit.

“Undocumented people are not helpless. We are also exceptionalized. Our experiences are put through certain lenses. I want people to know that undocumented people are straight up just people,” Rongkilyo said. “DACA came about because undocumented people strategized.”

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