We depend on essential workers. Many are on DACA—and face a precarious future.

‘I’ve got this deportation order hanging over my head,’ says a woman who helped make more than 180,000 masks and 100,000 protective gowns.

Photograph by Ivan Kashinsky
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Veronica Velasquez, a physical therapist at Martin Luther King Community Hospital in South Los Angeles, works to build the strength of COVID patients like Angel Mendoza. She moved from Saudi Arabia to the United States with her Filipino parents when she was 11.

Photograph by Ivan Kashinsky

In many ways, Gisel Villagómez is a typical resident of Southern California. She lives in Huntington Park, a suburb of Los Angeles known for its unassuming homes with lawns and concrete driveways. And she carries herself with an attitude that announces, “Don’t mess with me just because I’m a Latina woman.”

When COVID-19 hit California in the spring, Villagómez was employed as a manager at her sister’s garment factory. Suddenly, she found herself in the role of “essential worker.” Shelter-in-place orders forced most California manufacturing plants to shut down, but Villagómez and her sister kept their shop open, producing more than 180,000 masks and 100,000 protective gowns. (Discover how Latinos are shaping America’s future.)

While she worked, Villagómez faced another, more private drama: the renewal of her immigration status. In the 1980s, when she was two years old, her Mexican mother carried her across the U.S. border. Villagómez, now 34, has been undocumented ever since.

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“I’ve got this deportation order hanging over my head,” Villagómez said. She’s a recipient of DACA, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, a federal program that allows her to work and live in the United States. DACA removes the immediate threat of deportation. But the Trump Administration has vowed to terminate the program, despite setbacks at the U.S. Supreme Court.

The most common metaphor used to describe the undocumented is that they are “living in the shadows.” But, in fact, undocumented people can be found working in plain sight in nearly every corner of American society. One in 20 workers in the U.S. is undocumented. During the pandemic, many have been doing labor officially deemed essential—at hospitals, assisted-living facilities, grocery stores, and other places.

“I think the undocumented community has continually proven our worth,” said Veronica Velasquez, 27, a Filipina physical therapist who works with COVID-19 patients at Martin Luther King Jr. Community Hospital in South Los Angeles. “How can you say we don’t belong here when we are working so hard to heal this country’s communities right now?”

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Velasquez checks medical charts before she enters a COVID patient's room. She lives with her parents, who are both high risk, and worries about bringing the virus home.

Like Villagómez, Velasquez is a DACA recipient. Nationwide, more than 643,000 people hold DACA status. To be eligible for DACA, you must have crossed the border without authorization as a child before June 2007, and lived in the U.S. ever since, while also graduating from high school or serving in the military. DACA recipients have been granted the most precarious of toeholds on the American dream; they are authorized to work in the United States, while still remaining legally undocumented. And they live every day with the possibility that their status could be revoked.

Villagómez grew up in Huntington Park, speaking English as her primary language. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents arrived at the family home one morning in 2007, beating on the door. They took her mother away, eventually deporting her to Mexico. Just 18 at the time, Villagomez was enrolled in community college. A few months later, ICE agents detained her too. They put her in a holding cell, and then on a bus headed to the border. For a long, harrowing day, Villagomez believed she was going to be deported. But after the agents heard her speak up for several other detainees, and translate for them, they let her go.

In the years since, the humiliation of that day in detention has never left her—even as her garment-factory work has played a role in helping her community face the coronavirus. “You gave us a work permit so we can work our asses off,” she said, referring to the government and her DACA status. “I want more. Because I deserve more. We deserve more.”

“Our community is dying”

As undocumented immigrants like Villagómez help to protect us from COVID-19, they see their own communities being ravaged by it.

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Jesica Garcia Garcia, 22, works at grocery store in Marina del Rey, California, where she shops for customers so they can avoid entering the building. She arrived in the U.S. from Mexico when she was six.

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Garcia is a sociology student at the University of California, Santa Cruz. She took the job at the grocery store to help her parents pay the bills when her father was laid off from one job and had his hours cut at another.

In California, Latinos account for half of all COVID-19 deaths, more than any other ethnic group. In suburban Orange County, 10,000 people have contracted COVID-19 in the Latino barrio of Santa Ana. The virus likely entered Orange County’s more affluent neighborhoods first, said Gloria Itzel Montiel, a public health strategist. “But the more we relied on our essential workforce in grocery stores and restaurants, it started hitting people who are working minimum-wage jobs and who don't have access to health care.”

Montiel was raised in Santa Ana, as the undocumented immigrant daughter of two undocumented Mexican immigrants. She’s a 33-year-old Harvard grad with a Ph.D. who has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to help meet the COVID-19 crisis—and she’s also a DACA recipient and a leader in California’s increasingly assertive undocumented community.

When Montiel was growing up, her parents worked in restaurants; to make ends meet they lived with Montiel’s aunts, uncles, and cousins. At one point in her childhood she lived in a home in Santa Ana shared by 21 people. Such crowded conditions remain common in the most impoverished immigrant communities.

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Gloria Itzel Montiel, in the yellow dress, organized a trip for fellow DACA recipients to the U.S.-Mexico border in San Ysidro, California. "People didn't know we could get that close," she says. Montiela, 33, immigrated from Mexico when she was eight.

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Montiel and her brother Israel bring food to her grandmother in Santa Ana, California, and receive fresh tomatoes and herbs in return. Montiel, a public health strategist, worked to obtain funding for Latino families impacted by COVID-19.

“If one person gets infected in a house of 21 people, there’s a very high chance that the rest of the household would be affected,” Montiel said. It’s been tough to hear all the stories of people in Santa Ana getting sick, Montiel added. “Our community is dying. There’s no other way to put it.”

Across Southern California, undocumented workers placed themselves in danger as the coronavirus reached its peak earlier this year. Osvaldo Ozuna, a 27-year-old aspiring filmmaker, went to his regular job at Trader Joe’s, while also helping to care for the four young children of his sister, who was recently deported. When the grocery store got crowded in the first days of California’s lockdown, he worried he might get sick and bring the virus home and expose his mother. “Sometimes I would be on my break, and I would get little panic attacks.”

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Osvaldo Ozuna, in the white t-shirt (top), celebrates the Fourth of July with his family in Los Angeles. His sister was recently deported, and now Ozuna, 27, and his parents are caring for her four children. He works at Trader Joe's to cover expenses, but his vocation is filmmaking, for which he's already won awards. He moved to the U.S. from Mexico when he was 10.

In Altadena, north of Los Angeles, Marivic Danino Grijalva, 24, works in an assisted-care facility as a food server. Early in the pandemic, one resident of the facility died of the virus. But Grijalva said she and the other workers (nearly all of them Latino) didn’t worry so much about themselves; instead, they were concerned about the elderly residents in their care, and the possibility that one of the workers might bring the deadly virus to them.

“We all agreed that we felt responsible, because the residents are not going out,” Grijalva said. “They can’t even see their families. We’re the ones that are out there and living and going to the grocery store.”

Grijalva works two jobs, seven days a week, to keep her own family afloat. The assisted-living facility increased her hourly pay to $15.25 and gives her a daily bonus for working during the pandemic, and provides money to help her cover childcare.

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The pay is modest, but she’s grateful for it. “Things are so much better now than I thought they would be when I was growing up,” she said. Grijalva was raised the daughter of a street vendor. As a young child she often helped her mom sell tamales on downtown Los Angeles sidewalks. Then, as a high-school senior, she became a mother, and felt trapped in an awful relationship with the father of her child.

“Everything was under his name,” she said. “Our apartment, our car, the bills. Everything was controlled by him, and it just made me feel so small.”

DACA allowed her to free herself from that relationship. Now she takes heart from the undocumented activists she follows on social media; they’ve inspired her to return to school. When the Supreme Court met to consider the future of DACA, she took a break from her duties as an essential worker and attended a public protest.

“We know how to survive, with or without DACA,” she said. “We are resilient. We know how to get through it. We’re going to be okay.”

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Rosa Barrientos celebrates the Fouth of July with her family in East Los Angeles. She came to the United States when she was four, and discovered she was undocumented when she was offered a scholarship but didn't have the social security number she needed to accept it. Now an organizer with the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights, Barrientos describes herself as "unapologetically undocumented."

Karla Gachet and Ivan Kashinsky contributed to this report.

This work was supported by the National Geographic Society's COVID-19 Emergency Fund for Journalists