In the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, it is easy to forget about the issues that existed before social distancing, like the fact that nearly 800,000 “Dreamers” are waiting for the Supreme Court to rule on the legitimacy of the DACA program abruptly ended by the Trump administration in September 2017 (though renewals are still occurring). Last week, a group of organizations asked — pleaded with — the Supreme Court to hold on its decision, arguing — and rightly so — that rescission of the program during the pandemic would be disastrous. It’s highly unlikely the Supreme Court will hold, but there are immediate regulatory actions and longer-term legislative actions that would provide more lasting solutions. 

Before focusing on Dreamers, it’s worth noting actions that U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services should be taking across the board. One top priority is to consider emergency extensions and waivers for most visa holders and those with work authorizations, given that USCIS in-person services are closed and they are operating with limited capacity. Without question, it is in our nation’s interest to immediately prioritize all filing requirements and deadlines for health care workers and their families and automatically extend visas and waive requirements for certain workers to leave the U.S..

USCIS should also expedite Employment Authorization Documents and processing for all health care workers, waive fees and late filing penalties, and accept digital signatures on applications (they recently waived the requirement for original signatures). These small changes — in addition to countless others that could be enacted immediately — will make a tremendous difference especially for our immigrant health care workers and their families, who should not have to worry about their immigration status and the health and safety of their patients, families, and themselves. (See immigration attorney Greg Siskind’s Twitter feed for a comprehensive list of what the agency should be doing about COVID-19.)

But we can — and should — do more for DACA recipients specifically, to whom those measures do not apply.

As COVID-19 continues to spread in the U.S., the Trump administration and governors across the nation are moving to expand the health care workforce. But their efforts are plagued by limited resources and a lack of personnel essential to treating and testing Americans. Considering the critical importance of health care providers at this time, we must protect against the deportation of the approximately 27,000 DACA recipients working in the health care sector as direct-care workers and support staff, including hundreds who are medical students, medical residents, and physicians, all of whom rely on their DACA status to practice. 

Any health care professional — and particularly DACA recipients — engaged in COVID-19 response should have their full mental energies dedicated to blunting the spread of the virus, and not the expiration of their legal status and work authorization. To that end, the Department of Homeland Security should create a special parole-in-place (PIP) program for 18 months for current DACA recipients that participate in our nation’s health care response. Then, Congress must compensate for the sacrifice of this subset of workers and their spouses and children by offering to make them immediately eligible for green cards when the emergency has passed. 

Parole-in-place is used on a case-by-case basis for individuals in the U.S. who create “significant public benefit,” a determination informed by a broad range of policy considerations. For example, PIP exists now to protect certain family members of military service members in the U.S. who don’t have legal status. For DACA recipients, PIP will offer longer-term certainty than that conferred by current DACA status for those who provide health care and essential services, including individuals working in the following fields:

  • Research and laboratory services;
  • hospitals;
  • walk-in-care health facilities;
  • eldercare;
  • home health care workers or aides for the elderly;
  • doctor and emergency dental services;
  • nursing homes or residential health care facilities or congregate care facilities;
  • medical wholesale and distribution;
  • medical supplies and equipment manufacturers and providers;
  • hospital trash collection, processing and disposal;
  • hospital cleaning and maintenance;
  • homeless shelters;
  • food banks; and
  • human services providers whose function includes the direct care of patients in state-licensed or -funded voluntary programs; the care, protection, custody and oversight of individuals both in the community and in state-licensed residential facilities; those operating community shelters and other critical human services agencies providing direct care or support.

Eligibility would require proof of employment from the employer “sponsor” that demonstrates continued employment to secure initial status and to maintain status, and USCIS would need to fast-track initial approvals. 

Asking Congress to create a special immigrant visa program with 35,000 visas for those with COVID-19 PIP status is a natural extension to the parole-in-place program, and would, of course, require minimum tenure and type of service in the PIP program. The special green card set-aside aims to benefit those who contributed — and may potentially sacrifice — greatly to care for the people in their communities during a time when their work could mean the difference between life and death.

There are only a handful of weeks left for the Supreme Court to issue a DACA decision; each Monday, advocates are nervously holding their breath as they await a potential ruling. Terminating DACA in the midst of a pandemic will throw tens of thousands of working-age health care sector employees and their families into limbo. This will only hinder our country’s ability to fight the virus. 

Ultimately, legal status for these Dreamers would offer significant public benefits and help protect public health. Emergencies require a robust government response to unleash the potential of all in our country; in this case, it requires lifting the burden of our slow immigration bureaucracy to allow “essential” employees to focus on what is truly important right now: the public’s health.