Summit County immigrant population faces increased uncertainty amid COVID-19 closures

Luisana Pacheco, a DACA recipient who moved to Summit County at age 13, is working at a hospital in Denver during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Courtesy photo

DILLON — While everyone in Summit County and around the state has felt the effects of the COVID-19 shutdown, the area’s immigrant population is likely to be disproportionately affected.

Lower paying jobs, layoffs and an inability to access government assistance, in some cases, have all contributed to a feeling of unease in the community.

“It’s impacted the immigrant population so profoundly because a lot of these individuals are working lower wage jobs, and they’re the people that have been laid off,” said Peter Bakken, executive director of Mountain Dreamers, a local immigrant advocacy group. “Many of these families aren’t getting assistance from the federal government, and they’re bearing a disproportionate burden of this crisis here in Summit County. There’s a lot of fear and anxiety.”

Bakken noted that most people living in the country illegally aren’t eligible for government assistance, including the emergency federal financial aid package. The payments are tied to 2018 and 2019 tax filings through Social Security numbers, meaning undocumented individuals and others who pay their taxes using individual taxpayer identification numbers won’t be eligible.

Bakken also said individuals who might be eligible for help, or who need assistance from local nonprofits, often don’t reach out due to fear of being discovered by agencies like Immigration and Customs Enforcement.  

“Some of them don’t trust that their information is safe if they have to give it out to various agencies or the government,” Bakken said. “… Everyone should apply for any benefits they may be eligible for in order to pay their rent and feed their families. And I think that you can trust that our local nonprofits are going to keep everyone’s information safe.”

For those who can’t access government help, local groups like Mountain Dreamers and the Family & Intercultural Resource Center are helping to meet the need.

Others who are eligible for government aid, like Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals recipients, are facing different challenges. Work permit renewals for the program are a growing concern now that the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services offices are closed.

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While Gov. Jared Polis called for an automatic extension of working authorizations for all DACA recipients in the state whose grants expire this year, recipients’ futures in the country ultimately rely on a pending Supreme Court decision.

The Supreme Court heard arguments in November on whether the program is legal and whether the Trump administration can shut it down. A decision could come any day. And if the program is ended, recipients could lose their work authorization and protections from deportation.

“In Summit County, we’ve got DACA recipients working in businesses all over the county,” Bakken said. “I personally know of recipients working in care clinics, legal offices, doctor’s offices — they’re on the front lines of this COVID-19 crisis. And they’re working with tremendous uncertainly as to their future. It could all come crashing down at any minute.”

If the program is ended, it also could mean losing critical members of the workforce, such as health care workers.

“Why waste us?” said Luisana Pacheco, a DACA recipient who moved to Summit County as a 13-year-old in 2005. “You have well-educated, well-prepared, bilingual people they want to keep at home. It would be a huge waste of resources, when we can be out there in the community helping out.”

Pacheco graduated from Summit High School before earning her bachelor’s degree in molecular biology and genetics from Regis University. She’s just a few days away from completing her nursing degree and is currently working at a hospital in Denver.

Pacheco said that while she’s not focused directly on COVID-19 patients, she’s been exposed to the virus like all health care workers. Whenever the curve peaks, hospitals will need all the help they can get.

“The hospital that I’m at is full right now with mostly COVID patients,” Pacheco said. “We’ve had several deaths and a lot of patients on ventilators. The ER has been insane. … In Denver, we haven’t hit the peak yet. When that happens, they’re going to need all hands on. That includes students about to graduate.”

But despite the potential dangers of working at a hospital, particularly under the specter of losing DACA protections, Pacheco said she and other recipients are enthusiastic about doing what they can to help out.

“There’s always a sense of fear,” she said. “Every day, we hear about more employees at different hospitals being tested or getting sick. It’s scary. … But we want to be on the front lines helping out. That’s what we came to America to do. Our parents brought us when we were young, but that doesn’t mean this hasn’t become our home. And it’s a home we want to keep healthy and protect.”

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