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This DACA-Protected Nurse Heard the Coronavirus Call to Duty

She works 12-hour shifts at an Arizona medical center tending to the gravely ill, dozens of whom she has watched die, all while knowing that her mask, gown, gloves and face shield don’t guarantee that she won't be infected.

by Kurtis Lee, Vanessa Martínez, Los Angeles Times / June 19, 2020
Valleywise Health Medical Center nurse Karen Garcia stands outside the hospital on Thursday, May 21, 2020 in Phoenix. Garcia is among 27,000 immigrants with DACA protections working on the front lines combating COVID-19. But her future remains in limbo as the Supreme Court is set to decide in the weeks ahead whether immigrants like her will be allowed to remain in the country. TNS/Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times

(TNS) — When the coronavirus pandemic arrived in Phoenix, it felt like a call to duty for nurse Karen Garcia.

"I've never felt more needed at my job than right now," she said.

She works 12-hour shifts at Valleywise Health Medical Center tending to the gravely ill, dozens of whom she has watched die, all the while knowing that her mask, gown, gloves and face shield are no guarantee that she won't become infected and take the virus home to her family.

But her biggest fear hasn't been the virus.

It was the U.S. Supreme Court.

Garcia, 30, is among roughly 700,000 so-called Dreamers who came to the United States as children, grew up without legal status and were allowed to stay under the Obama-era policy of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, better known as DACA.

Their fate came to rest with the court, which Thursday rejected the Trump administration's plan to repeal the protections, saying it did not provide adequate justification.

"The uncertainty, the waiting, it's been difficult," Garcia said. "I'm just relieved the waiting is over and I can focus on my work."

In one powerful sense, the coronavirus pandemic had come to illuminate what immigrant rights activists — and much of the public — have regarded as the injustice of trying to end protections for DACA recipients.

At least 27,000 DACA recipients, like Garcia, work in healthcare, and many have spent the past few months attending to patients with COVID-19, which has killed more than 118,000 people nationwide.

A majority of those medical workers live in Arizona, California or Texas — three states where the rate of new infections is accelerating.

"They are our frontline workers helping aid those who are most ill," said Ricardo Zamudio Guillen, organizing director for LUCHA, an Arizona-based immigrant rights group. "They're protecting us."

Blanca Sierra-Reyes, a 27-year-old Dreamer and social worker at a Scottsdale, Ariz., hospital, said the Supreme Court ruling provided some respite during an exhausting time.

For weeks, she has had to call families whose loved ones are alone in the emergency room battling the virus. She has listened to their cries and tried to console them.

She also has spent time thinking about her own future.

"The ruling is a win," she said. "This gives Dreamers relief and the ability to continue living without fear."

For Garcia, the ruling felt like an acknowledgement that Arizona is her truest home.

She was 4 when her family moved from Mexico City. Her parents were always upfront with her about her immigration status, but that didn't change the fact that all her memories were formed here.

"This is home," she said. "Right here in America."

As a little girl, while her father installed carpets and her mother worked as a hotel housekeeper, Garcia became fascinated with medicine and decided she wanted to become a nurse.

That dream became more pressing when, during an emergency room visit, she watched a nurse struggle to speak Spanish with her mother. Garcia wanted to better serve her community.

After graduating high school, she worked for several years as a waitress at a small family-owned restaurant and began saving up for college.

She soon met her husband and at 22 — the same year they had their first child, Donovan — she received DACA protections.

For the first time she felt deeply optimistic about her future in the United States. The couple had a daughter, Natalia, and in 2017, Garcia began pursuing a nursing degree at Arizona State.

She left the program a year later after a state Supreme Court ruling ended in-state tuition rates for DACA students.

"That hurt a lot," Garcia recalled of the state ruling. "I saw it as an attempt to derail my dreams."

But she bounced back and managed to get her degree at Gateway Community College. Most of the patients at Valleywise Health are Latino.

"Every day is an honor to work and serve my community," Garcia said. "As a nurse, I can help make a difference every day. That's meaningful to me."

This year, she ran for chair of the Phoenix chapter of the National Assn. of Hispanic Nurses and won.

In February, coronavirus began to spread throughout the country and before long emergency room beds began to fill up. Her hospital took steps to prepare for a surge, and eventually it came.

"Everyone is working around the clock," she said. "We're trying to save lives. That's my job — helping to save lives. … I've tried not to think about my immigration status while working, but it's always there in the back of my mind."

Garcia would spend the downtime trying to quiet the nagging fears that her career, her friendships and her whole life could, at a moment, turn upside down. Sometimes, she would look at her sick, coughing patients and wonder if they were in the same stressful situation.

The Supreme Court ruling does not guarantee DACA will be around forever, but it almost certainly means the Trump administration cannot end the policy before the November election.

Garcia said she sees the ruling as an opportunity to help promote more DACA nurses in the city and across Arizona, which is estimated to need an additional 1,200 nurses by 2030.

"We can help fill that void," she said.

In the hours after ruling was announced, Garcia texted other nurses and members of local immigrant rights groups. It was her day off and a moment to celebrate.

But she also kept an eye on the local news, watching as confirmed cases of the virus ticked up in Arizona faster than in any other state in the nation. Some local area restaurants that had reopened last month were closing again.

Arizona has recorded 41,159 coronavirus cases and 1,252 deaths, with Phoenix and surrounding Maricopa County among the hardest hit.

Another wave, she thought, was about to begin.

Lee reported from Phoenix and Martínez from Los Angeles.

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