Teen marcher at Milwaukee Federal Building calling for DACA protections, alongside Voces de la Frontera. (Photo by: Isiah Holmes)
Like many college students, Daniel Gutierrez Ayala has had to make some difficult adjustments because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The political science and Spanish major at Cardinal Stritch University had to take two incomplete grades as his classes moved online. His 16-year-old sister is also at home adjusting to online high school. His parents have both lost work.
“We’re riding it through, it’s been difficult,” he says. “Our household has been kind of crazy these last couple weeks, months.”
That list of challenges may sound familiar to lots of families dealing with the pandemic and its economic fallout. But Gutierrez Ayala immigrated to the United States from Mexico when he was two. He’s in the country under the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program that provides temporary legal status to people who arrived in the United States as children.
Milwaukee is the only home he’s ever truly known.
But when aid was being doled out through the federal emergency bill known as the CARES Act, Gutierrez Ayala and his family were left out. His parents aren’t eligible for stimulus checks and undocumented students were excluded from eligibility for emergency grants by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.
Congress approved nearly $12 billion in aid for colleges and universities across the country as part of the CARES Act. Half of that is for colleges to use for cash grants to help students.
For Gutierrez Ayala, who has kept his job as a legal assistant at an immigration law firm and plans to attend law school, the move was not unexpected. But, he says, it doesn’t make sense to exclude these students.
“It wasn’t a surprise to me when I heard that the Department of Education, coming from Betsy DeVos, decided to not cover or protect DACA recipients as well,” Gutierrez Ayala says. “Are we still not understanding what we’ve been seeing from DACA recipients? Their strength of fighting for getting DACA, continuing to go to school, their contribution in the economy, are we still not understanding how important these recipients are to the country?”
DACA recipients are working on the front lines of this crisis, he adds, so why would they be left out from receiving aid when they need it the most?
“We’re being affected financially, we’re also at the edge of our seats waiting for a decision if we’ll still be protected,” Gutierrez Ayala says. “Are we not learning from what we’re seeing from them? From what they’re doing right now? On the front lines? Nurses, doctors, working in the grocery stores, who are continuing to work and keep the country running.”
The financial precariousness is just another thing piled on the 21-year-old’s plate.
His father works for a company in Waukesha installing windows and his mother cleans houses. They also both work for a company that cleans the Amtrak trains on the Chicago-to-Milwaukee line. With Amtrak service stopped, they’ve lost that income.
Gutierrez Ayala says he’s had to be an advocate for his mother with her employer because she doesn’t speak very much English.
“It’s not like they can apply for unemployment because they don’t qualify,” he says. “Having to juggle with loss of income, changes with school. It’s been crazy, it’s been difficult.”
His mother has kept some clients, but even that is an added stress. Each time she goes into someone else’s home, she’s risking contracting the virus — even with added precautions such as leaving supplies in each individual home.
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The family is also ineligible for health insurance, so if she were to get sick they’d lose her income and struggle to pay the bills.
“If she doesn’t work, we don’t have income at all,” Gutierrez Ayala says. “Rent, groceries, all of that. When she goes into work it’s a scary situation, is she going to be fine? Right now I’m healthy, my parents are healthy, fortunately enough. We don’t qualify for health insurance, if we were to get sick or something and have to go to the hospital, how do we pay for that? How do we afford it?”
Along with all the personal challenges, Gutierrez Ayala and the millions of other DACA recipients in the country are expecting a decision from the U.S. Supreme Court any day now that will determine their ability to remain in the country under legal status.
For now, he says his family has settled into a self-isolation routine and he hasn’t been navigating it all on his own.
He said he’s gotten help from understanding professors and university administration. A professor in the Spanish department who is herself an immigrant helped him go through the process to withdraw from classes.
“I was fortunate to have understanding professors who know my situation as a DACA recipient and guide me through having to be able to go through the university system to take these incompletes,” he says. “The university has been good with that, especially with one of my professors. She herself is an immigrant and naturalized a couple years ago. She knows the process and how it affects you financially but also emotionally.”
With the federal government abdicating its role, universities are left on their own to figure out how to assist this vulnerable population of students as they deal with the pandemic and its fallout.
At UW-Milwaukee, Alberto Maldonado, director of the Roberto Hernandez Center, chairs the Undocumented Student Task Force. Since the pandemic, he says his biggest role has been as a broker of information.
“We’ve been encouraging students to reach out to us, we’ve been reaching out to them directly to fill in those gaps,” Maldonado says. “Playing the role of matchmakers. Being brokers of information. Really connect the dots because they’re removed from the campus.”
Many of the undocumented students at UW-M are facing similar problems as Gutierrez Ayala, according to Maldonado.
“Where we see the greatest needs, it’s now five siblings being under the same roof at the same time and there’s only one computer or there’s only so much internet connectivity,” he says. “Being forced to contribute on a larger scale. Mom or dad has been let go of the job, … they themselves are losing their ability to generate income. We’re triaging a lot of different situations to alleviate some of the mental health and the anxiety that came with having to finish the semester online.”
At UW-Madison, students have virtual access to many of the programs that already existed.
“Just as with our other student services, support for DACA students is available virtually – students can connect with staff in the Dean of Students Office, Multicultural Student Center and University Health Services mental health via email, phone and web,” UW-Madison spokesperson McGlone said in an email. “Chancellor [Rebecca] Blank has spoken out in support of DACA for the past several years and continues to do so. We’re awaiting the U.S. Supreme Court ruling and will be in touch with students and families as we know more.”
Gutierrez Ayala, with dreams of law school, hopes to become an immigration lawyer and eventually run for office, but for now he’s dealing with the pandemic fallout and an impending court ruling that could determine whether or not that dream is realistic.
The pandemic has derailed his plans, but he still feels the United States is “the only home I know, the only country I know,” he says.
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