Undocumented students, families encounter challenges due to COVID-19

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Gerardo Ruiz-Tenorio, a management information systems junior, said the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program is immensely important for undocumented students and the immigrant community to continue attending college and working in the United States. The U.S. Supreme Court recently ruled to protect DACA from President Donald Trump’s plan to end the program.

 

Photo Credit: Christina Ke | Daily Texan Staff

At just 8 years old, Gerardo Ruiz-Tenorio carried the traumatic weight of his mother being deported. Twelve years later during the COVID-19 pandemic, the weight on Ruiz-Tenorio’s shoulders has intensified with concerns about the health and financial well-being of his undocumented family.

Like many undocumented workers, Ruiz-Tenorio, a management information systems junior, said his parents have been laid off, lack insurance and are hesitant in seeking medical care due to fear of questions about citizenship status. With major job losses in the undocumented community, Ruiz-Tenorio said he is concerned that students from an undocumented background may not be able to afford attending school in the fall. 

“Undocumented students are facing another layer of challenges because for many of them their parents are undocumented as well,” said Jamie Turcios-Villalta, a health and society senior who works for the Monarch Student Program, which provides undocumented students a supportive space on campus.

On June 18, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 against the Trump administration’s plan to end Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, a program that gives approved undocumented people protection from deportation and permission to work. The ruling said the Obama-era program can remain for now and declared the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s attempt to rescind DACA as “arbitrary and capricious.”

The undocumented community has been nervously awaiting the Supreme Court ruling because ending DACA would eliminate protections from about 700,000 immigrants, said Adriana Quiroga, a community organizer for Texas immigration legal nonprofit RAICES. Quiroga said the removal of DACA would be detrimental to the well-being of the nation as it would take work permits away from about 30,000 front-line health care workers.

“You're talking about folks that are putting their own health and security on the line in order to provide emergency assistance to COVID-19 patients (and) folks in need of medical attention,” Quiroga said.

Abolishing DACA would harm college students who rely on the program to receive loans and scholarships, most likely causing a drop in college enrollment of undocumented students, according to the Center for American Progress.

“None of their family members qualify for the stimulus check, and if (students) filed taxes and were dependent, they also didn't qualify,” Turcios-Villalta said. “So, you can imagine how difficult it is to manage school, while also having that pressure of ‘How's your family going to make it to the next month?’”

Although Ruiz-Tenorio is a U.S. citizen and his parents file tax returns, his family did not receive a stimulus check because his parents lack Social Security numbers. Ruiz-Tenorio said his parents are also ineligible for unemployment benefits due to their lack of work authorization.

“(My parents) work and pay their taxes, but they're never going to see a stimulus check from the government because they just don't have Social Security to their name,” Ruiz-Tenorio said. “It sucks because you're giving thousands of dollars to a government that doesn't support you, but yet, you're the backbone of the country.”

There is a rise in unemployment and inability to pay rent among students due to the pandemic which is especially hard for undocumented students who are the only source of income for their families, said Nong Xiong, a Gateway student program coordinator for the Longhorn Center for Academic Excellence.

Ruiz-Tenorio said he has worked two jobs to help pay for his family’s bills and monthly mortgage but wishes the federal government provided more aid to undocumented and low-income families.

“How are we going to pay our bills?” Ruiz-Tenorio said. “There’s little assistance for our undocumented community. When there is, undocumented immigrants can be scared to apply because there’s a fear that it could raise a red flag … and then next thing you know ICE is showing up at your door.”

Elissa Steglich, a co-director and clinical professor for UT School of Law’s Immigration Clinic, said she is upset ICE is continuing deportations during a pandemic. 

ICE had a detained population of more than 23,000 people as of June 24 and only tested about 9,000 detainees for the coronavirus as of June 19, according to their website. A Los Angeles federal judge ordered ICE on Friday to release children who have been detained for more than 20 days from the nation’s three family detention centers, two of which are in Texas, by July 17 due to concerns about spread of the coronavirus in facilities, according to reporting by The New York Times.

“There is a lot of fear (from the undocumented community that) if you're detained, you're going to remain detained, and immigration facilities are at high risk of contracting COVID-19 with very poor record on medical care,” Steglich said. “Even though it has nothing to do with public health … the deportation machine is just going along at its usual pace, which is a frightening one.”

On Feb. 24, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security implemented revised public charge rules that say immigrants "must be self-sufficient", making applications for lawful permanent residency and visas more difficult if they have received public benefits, said Hiram Garcia, an outreach coordinator for immigration legal nonprofit American Gateways. Receiving public benefits such as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and Temporary Assistance to Needy Families for more than 12 months in a three-year period is considered a public charge, according to the DHS website.

The new public charge rules encourage fear among the undocumented community to seek economic and health assistance at a time when they need it most, UT alumnus Garcia said. Health care programs such as Medicaid saw a drop in enrollment after these public charge rules were implemented, Garcia said.

With minimal access to health care and a common pattern of chronic illnesses, the undocumented community is more vulnerable to contract the coronavirus, Steglich said.

“These are folks who are going to work every day to make sure that we have food on our tables and food in the grocery stores,” Steglich said. “They are assuming the risk (of exposure to COVID-19) for those of us who have the privilege to shelter in place.” 

Since undocumented people tend to have fewer economic resources, many work in industries experiencing mass layoffs or hold essential jobs that expose them to the coronavirus, sociology professor Nestor Rodriguez said.

“You don't have to be undocumented … to face economic pressure right now,” Rodriguez said. “But, the pressure may be greater for the undocumented because they ... are more vulnerable in the labor market and have less resources to survive economically.”

Steglich said she is worried about immigrant students who must secure a job to maintain their visas. If these immigrants get laid off and lose their visas, it will cause them to become undocumented and possibly ineligible for unemployment benefits, she said.

“Historically, these individuals have gone through a lot of barriers and difficulties, and this is not anything new,” Xiong said. “This is something that they've done before … and they can do it again.”

Editor’s note: A previous photo caption that accompanied this story incorrectly stated that Gerardo Ruiz-Tenorio is a Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals recipient. Ruiz-Tenorio is a U.S. citizen, and this fact is correctly stated in the story. The Daily Texan regrets this error.