The Next Coronavirus Relief Bill Must Protect Dreamers—for Their Safety and Ours

27,000 DACA recipients work in health care. If they lose their status, even more patients may die.

Pelosi points to her right and smiles in front of a table with a banner reading "Families First."
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi speaks after signing the bill after her chamber passed a $2 trillion stimulus bill on Friday. Alex Edelman/Getty Images

“We know that this cannot be our final bill,” Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi declared shortly before her chamber passed a $2 trillion stimulus package responding to the economic impact of COVID-19. She’s right: The measures passed so far are plainly insufficient to ward off an economic and humanitarian catastrophe. Pelosi has already laid out her requests for the next phase of legislation, which includes more funding for state governments and increased SNAP benefits. But her plan is missing something crucial: legal protections for Dreamers, who are poised to lose their DACA status in the coming weeks.

If Congress wants to save as many lives as possible while propping up the economy, protecting Dreamers should be its first priority in future negotiations. The Supreme Court will almost certainly let the Trump administration terminate a program, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, that allows more than 700,000 undocumented immigrants who were brought here as children to live and work in the United States legally. As attorneys for the Dreamers reminded the justices on Friday, this group is now entrenched in American life—and vital to its health care system. In a letter filed with the court, the lawyers noted that about “27,000 DACA recipients are health care workers—including nurses, dentists, pharmacists, physician assistants, home health aides, technicians, and other staff—and nearly 200 are medical students, residents, and physicians.”

These Dreamers are on the front line of the battle against COVID-19, and they are indispensable. Health care workers keep getting infected with the coronavirus, and hard-hit states fear they will run out of doctors and nurses to treat patients. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo is scrambling to build a health care “reserve,” calling on retired doctors as well as inexperienced medical and nursing students to treat coronavirus patients. He has also relaxed medical licensing practice standards while shielding health care workers from civil liability to ensure that “reserve staff” do not face lawsuits for substandard care. Fifty thousand people have enlisted—but that may not be enough: Cuomo is contemplating an involuntary draft as more doctors and nurses contract the virus.

At this perilous moment, stripping work permits from 27,000 health care workers would be catastrophic. It would jettison critical personnel from the American health care system at a time when it needs all hands on deck. Thousands of Americans with COVID-19 would receive inferior care because the doctors, nurses, and aides who should be treating them lost their DACA status—and with it, their authority to tend to the infected. These Dreamers would not only be disqualified from the fight against the coronavirus; they would also be subject to deportation, kicked out of the country when they should be rewarded for their courageous work against a pandemic. (The acting directors of both the Department of Homeland Security and Immigration and Customs Enforcement have said they will deport Dreamers if DACA ends.)

The letter filed at the Supreme Court cites these facts as another reason why the Trump administration’s attempt to end DACA was unlawful. The filing accuses the administration of failing to “adequately assess the relevant reliance interests when it terminated the program,” adding that the COVID-19 outbreak “illuminates the depth of those interests as borne by employers, civil society, state and local governments, and communities across the country, and especially by health care providers.” In other words, top officials failed their legal duty to weigh the impact of DACA termination on the life-saving institutions that have come to depend on Dreamers.

There’s another aspect of DACA that the Trump administration failed to consider properly before trying to kill the program: its massive impact on the economy. Dreamers are highly productive members of American society who pay billions in local, state, and federal taxes each year. Repealing DACA would cost the country $460 billion in economic output over the next decade and harm the small businesses that Congress is now rushing to help. The nation is already on the brink of a recession. Abolishing DACA would only accelerate its economic collapse.

The Trump administration’s refusal to formally assess these calamitous consequences provides yet another reason why its effort to end DACA did not pass legal muster. Unfortunately, the Supreme Court’s conservative justices appeared deeply skeptical that Trump’s DACA rescission broke the law. They could issue a decision letting him end the program very soon, by June at the latest. With this disaster looming, the House of Representatives should insist that the next coronavirus bill preserve Dreamers’ ability to live and work in the U.S. legally. It must incorporate the central tenets of the Dream Act so Dreamers do not fear deportation once the crisis passes. That includes a path to citizenship to ensure that Dreamers are never again trapped in a legal limbo—forced to remain aliens in their own country, indefinitely.

COVID-19 has laid bare the reality that the United States relies on Dreamers to function. It cannot respond responsibly to this pandemic without them. Congressional Democrats must demand a Dream Act in the next coronavirus bill and refuse to yield if Republicans claim it is irrelevant to the outbreak. Nothing could be further from the truth. Congress should not save Dreamers just because it’s good policy. Congress should save Dreamers because we need them to survive.