In the Highly Infectious Disease Unit of Houston’s flagship Methodist Hospital, Javier Quiroz Castro enters the isolation room of a COVID-19 patient. The 29-year-old nurse is suited up in full personal protective equipment – a respirator, a gown, gloves – to protect himself from the virulent infection. Each time he enters a patient’s room, Quiroz knows he must deliver maximum care with minimum contact. His 12-15-hour shift is a constant dance between serving his patients and protecting himself – so he can come back and serve his patients the next day.
As a nurse working in a unit designated for COVID-19 diagnosis and treatment, Quiroz has been forced to adapt quickly to an unprecedented situation. The global pandemic has created a rapid-fire of new procedures and practices for medical workers, along with the constant stress of falling sick.
When Quiroz drives home at the end of the shift, there is no relief. Not only does he worry about exposing his wife and 11-month-old daughter to the illness, he is also anxiously awaiting a Supreme Court decision that will determine whether he can lawfully remain in this country.
“It’s definitely been hard in every possible way,” says Quiroz. “Literally every day that passes by is a little tortuous, not knowing what your future is going to hold.”
Quiroz, who was brought to the United States from Mexico at age 3, is one of more than 800,000 people who have taken advantage of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, an Obama-era program that allows immigrants who came to the U.S. as children to apply for renewable, two-year work-permits and protection from deportation.
When the program was created in 2012, Quiroz was in his final year of his nursing program at Lipscomb University, one of the few schools that accepted undocumented immigrants without charging them exorbitant fees. DACA allowed Quiroz to sit for his nursing exams and become a registered nurse. The program also led Quiroz – who grew up in Nashville, Tenn. – to the city of Houston.
“As soon as DACA was implemented and I got my [nursing] license, I set high goals for myself,” he says. “I identified the best and biggest medical center in the U.S., and that’s how I ended up here in Houston.”
In 2017, President Donald Trump announced that he was terminating DACA. While lower courts determined this move was unlawful, the case has now reached the Supreme Court of the United States, which is expected to determine within the coming weeks whether the president has the authority to end the program or not.
For Quiroz, a termination of the program means the possibility of being separated from his family. Quiroz’s three younger brothers were all born in the U.S. and are legal citizens, as are his wife and daughter.
Like other DACA recipients, Quiroz has never had a run-in with the law; he pays his taxes, and his contributions to American society, particularly during this pandemic, are of high value. As a bilingual male nurse, Quiroz’s skills are in demand. Male nurses account for only about 9 percent of registered nurses in the United States, and statistics predict a nursing shortage will persist over the next couple of decades.
According to DACA recipients and their advocates, removing the deferred action program means abandoning productive members of American society who have built their entire lives in this country.
“DACA recipients are so embedded in every corner of our state,” explains Zaira Garcia, Texas Organizing Director for advocacy group Fwd.us. “When we say DACA could be terminated, it’s not just the recipients who will feel the brunt of that. It’s the entire state of Texas.”
As a state that houses more than 100,000 DACA recipients, including about 30,000 essential workers, Texas is uniquely positioned to feel the impact of the upcoming Supreme Court decision, Zaira added.
The only state with more DACA recipients than Texas is California, whose policies towards immigrants vastly differ from those of Texas. Unlike California, Texas has laws like SB4, which allow police officers to check the immigration status of anyone they detain. And in Texas, undocumented immigrants cannot have a driver’s license, so if DACA is removed, Quiroz would be found in violation of the law simply by driving to work.
Texas has a history of challenging DACA and pushing for its removal. In 2017, the state’s Attorney General, Ken Paxton, submitted an amicus brief supporting Trump’s decision to end the program. Earlier, in Texas v. United States, the state asked a federal court to block the expansion of the program.
“Texas has really taken a leadership role in ending DACA,” says Garcia.
To qualify for DACA, applicants must have been brought to the U.S. before they were 16 years old, received a background check and lived in the country at least five years. There is no direct path to citizenship, and the status can be revoked at any time.
For that reason, individuals who have DACA have a difficult time planning for their future. Mariana Quintero, who arrived in Houston from Mexico at age 7, dreamed of becoming an immigration attorney. Watching her parents struggle – her mom worked a low-wage job at McDonalds and continues to do so during the pandemic while her dad worked in construction – inspired her to advocate for vulnerable populations.
But she quickly realized after graduating from St. John’s University that pursuing higher education would be risky. Her status in the country was too precarious to make the investment worthwhile.
Mariana, now 25, is a Teach For America corps member, working as a bilingual first grade teacher in Klein ISD, the same part of Houston she grew up in. She’s passionate about education and has let go of the idea of becoming a lawyer. Her days are filled with lesson planning, Zoom calls with students and parents, and community circles where she teaches students about empathy. She finds her job fulfilling, yet she craves some sense of security.
Mariana emphasized that while she is currently thinking about the fate of DACA, that program– with its limited protections that are constantly at-risk of going away – has its own set of problems.
“Living like this, where we are postponing plans because it’s so hard to look ahead, there’s always anxiety,” she says. “We are called dreamers, and we are called dreamers for a reason: We don’t let a whole lot get us down. But at some point, you feel like the fuel is going down a bit.”
Right now, both Mariana and Javier are preparing themselves for the worst possible outcome but hoping for the best. Mariana is in conversations with immigration attorneys about what will happen if DACA is removed. Javier has filed his renewal of DACA a full year early so that if the program is rescinded, he will at least have one extra year to remain in his home.
Yet both are hopeful for the day when they can allow themselves to dream about a future here in Houston.
“This is where I’ve built my house and my career and I’m starting my family,” says Quiroz. “This is where I want to be.”
Photo: SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images