The Corner


On DACA and Health-Care Workers, Stick to the Facts

Nurse Tina Nguyen administers a nasal swab at a coronavirus testing site in Seattle, Wash., March 26, 2020. (Lindsey Wasson/Reuters)

DACA workers are vital to the fight against the Wuhan coronavirus, according to an analysis by the open-borders Center for American Progress (CAP). The Washington Post and The Guardian amplified CAP’s claim, while the New York Times published an op-ed by lawyers in the health-care field citing the study to claim in that [t]he administration is preparing to deport DACA recipients” and that this would greatly impact the fight against the current pandemic because DACA recipients are “front-line medical” workers who are desperately needed right now.

The reality is that DACA recipients are a trivial fraction of health-care workers. Equally important, unless they commit a serious crime, the chance that any of them will actually be deported any time soon is minuscule, whatever the Supreme Court decides in June regarding the president’s ability to discontinue the program. What to do with DACA recipients once the program ends is a fair question, but we should not allow opponents of enforcement to use the current crisis as a pretext to advance their goals.

DACA — Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals — is an Obama administration policy that gave work authorization to illegal immigrants who came to the U.S. before the age of 16. In its report, CAP claims that “29,000 health care workers are DACA recipients.” The figure seems high, based on a report published in 2018 by my organization that examined the share of all illegal immigrants by occupation.

Even accepting the CAP number of 29,000, it translates to just 0.2 percent of the nation’s 14.8 million health-care workers, based on 2018 Census Bureau data and using CAP’s definitions. (CAP used the Bureau’s American Community Survey for its analysis, and I do the same to place their numbers in context.) That can only be described as trivial. The data also shows an additional 352,000 people who were unemployed in those same health-care occupations. So if DACA recipients suddenly left, it looks like there are plenty of health-care workers to replace them. Even in New York State, the epicenter of the pandemic and home to a disproportionate share of DACA recipients, they account for only 0.2 percent of health-care workers.

Many of these occupations do not require high levels of training and education. For example, CAP reports that about 7 percent of the DACA health-care workers they identify are dental assistants. Giving fluoride treatments is honorable and valuable work, but it is probably not a vital part of containing the current pandemic.

In addition, nearly one-third of the DACA health-care workers identified by CAP are home health and personal care aides. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that becoming a health-care aid requires only a high school education, and sometimes not even that. If some DACA recipients were deported, some of the rapidly growing number of less-educated American looking for work could quickly move into jobs that typically involve helping the elderly or disabled dress and bathe.

Although not broken out separately, other occupations that are part of the broad job categories that CAP included in its analysis are animal caretakers, massage therapists, optometrists, and veterinarians. The idea that these workers are all on the “frontlines of the coronavirus response” is ridiculous.

Probably the two occupations that seem the most relevant to combating the coronavirus are registered nurses and health technologists and technicians, which includes licensed practical nurses and jobs like pharmacy technicians. The ACS shows that there are 3.3 million registered nurses working in the country and 3 million technologists and technicians, making DACA recipients just 0.1 percent and 0.2 percent of these occupations, respectively. Again, even assuming CAP’s estimates are correct, DACA recipients in the most relevant occupations are a miniscule share of workers. The Census Bureau data also shows there were 41,000 unemployed registered nurses and 67,000 unemployed technicians in 2018. It also shows another 860,000 nurses and technicians who are out of the labor force entirely, but who reported having worked in these fields in the prior five years. So there is a huge pool of people who can be drawn upon if a few thousand DACA nurses and technicians were deported.

When DACA was created during the Obama administration, everyone acknowledged that it was a discretionary policy that could be ended at any time. Of course, when the Trump administration sought to end the program, federal judges blocked the move. The case was argued before the Supreme Court in November. At some point the Court will issue its ruling, perhaps in June. It seems likely the justices will rule that the program can be ended. But by no means will such a ruling result in all DACA recipients being immediately deported, as the New York Times op-ed and others have suggested. It just means they will be like any other person living in the United States without authorization. The chance they will actually be deported is incredibly small, unless they commit a serious crime. In that case, they would still have to be caught, arrested, and probably need to be convicted, and then they would likely, but not necessarily, be deported.

We can see how small their chance of being deported is by just looking at the numbers. In 2018 95,000 illegal immigrants were removed from the interior of the United States. The Center for Migration Studies estimates 10.6 million illegal immigrants lived in the country that year, so less than 1 percent of illegal immigrants were deported in 2018. Even if we focused on the 159,000 arrests by ICE in that year, the share is still around 1 percent. Of course, if the illegal population is actually larger, then the probability of being arrested or deported is even smaller.

Because the government focuses on the most dangerous people, 87 percent of those arrested by ICE in 2018 were convicted criminals or had pending criminal charges. Most were in custody in jails and prisons when ICE moved to arrest them. For the run-of-the mill illegal immigrant who has not been convicted of or charged with a crime, the probability of being arrested by ICE or deported is so small it is hard to measure. It is partly for this reason we have had millions of illegal immigrants living in the country for decades. Asserting that ending DACA means we are going to deport former beneficiaries of the program en masse is ludicrous.

When discussing immigration in general, or illegal immigration in particular, basic economic and demographic facts need to be acknowledged. Illegal immigrants are heavily concentrated in construction, agriculture, cleaning and maintenance, and hospitality-related occupations — not health care. There are currently 650,000 active recipients of DACA, perhaps 55 percent of whom actually work. The total U.S. workforce before the coronavirus hit was more than 160 million. DACA recipients simply do not comprise a large share of workers, and that is certainly true in a huge sector of the economy like health care

How we deal with those who arrived illegally at young ages, or even illegal immigrants more generally, are important policy questions. But we should do so with a sound understanding of the situation, without relying on hyperbolic and exaggerated claims.


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