Mis Ángeles: Existential Dread For DACA Recipients Working On The Pandemic's Frontlines
Like most essential workers, Mary Kate Mejia has a routine that helps bridge the massive anxiety gap that forms between getting off work and getting home to her family.
Before she gets in her car, Mary Kate sprays herself down with disinfectant. As soon as she gets home, she puts all her work clothes in a plastic bag. Then she heads straight to the shower.
And after all that, Mary Kate gives herself some time to mentally deal with two things that crush her soul even more than the fear of catching the coronavirus: that grocery store workers like her don't get the respect they deserve as frontline workers; and that, as a DACA holder, her temporary legal status in the only country she's ever known may come to an abrupt end.
"I'm not saying they look down on you, but it feels like that," Mary Kate told me recently, "both for being DACA and for being service workers."
The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to rule soon on whether the Trump administration can end DACA, an Obama-era executive order that gave temporary, renewable protection to young immigrants such as Mary Kate who were brought to the U.S. as children without legal status.
DACA has always been nebulous. It was meant as a stop-gap measure until a path toward citizenship could be agreed upon by Congressional leaders. But in the almost decade since it began, Mary Kate built a whole life.
She's got an apartment for her family. She made friends. And she got a union job where she's built nearly half of a decade of seniority.
Now, that life is being threatened — not just by the potentially deadly virus she risks exposure to each day, but by a looming court decision that could blow her life up.
If the Supreme Court sides with the administration, she, and hundreds of thousands of others like her, could face deportation. In Mary Kate's case, that would mean deportation to Michoacán, which she left when she was only three years old.
I spoke with Mary Kate after her shift at a Ralphs in Koreatown. She had just finished phase one of her routine — the disinfectant spray-down — when I called her.
A few days earlier she learned that Ralphs parent company, Kroger, was ending the two dollar-per-hour "hero pay" raise for its hundreds of thousands of workers across the country who expose themselves daily to the threat of COVID-19.
"I'm not taking anything away from anyone else working an essential job," Mary Kate said, "but they just took away our hazard pay. The CEO just got a raise [in the last fiscal year] and the store's always packed. You're telling me they can't afford two dollars? What's two dollars to them? It means a whole lot more to us."
Meanwhile, Mary Kate is working scared. Grocery store workers around L.A. have been testing positive for COVID-19, including dozens of Ralphs workers. Two local Ralphs employees have died in recent days.
Sometimes, Mary Kate and her colleagues get comments from customers, or they read things online about how grocery workers aren't really heroes who deserve hero pay.
"We're out here working so scared that we may mess up, you get me? And we go through a lot," she said. "Then they just make it seem like, 'Oh, well you guys have it easy,' or 'Anyone can do what you do.'"
If that were true there wouldn't be so many job openings in grocery stores across the country while unemployment records are being shattered each week.
I've done that job, years ago as a stock boy in a Restaurant Depot. It's not easy. It's incredibly hard and I can't imagine having to do it while the world as we know it ends.
But for Mary Kate, being essential has saved her family. She's the only one in her household working at the moment. Her mom, who worked as a nanny and housekeeper, got laid off when the state's shelter-in-place orders were announced.
Her little sister and brother are too young to work.
The pressure to support her family is so strong that Mary Kate said she's more afraid of losing her DACA, which allows her to work legally, than of getting coronavirus.
"'I'm so worried that at any given moment they will take it away, she said. "I depend on it to actually continue working. And it can end at any moment and they can come and take me away from my family."
If that feeling sounds an awful lot like the existential fear most people have about getting COVID-19, that's because it is.
Gabriela Sanchez is another DACA holder. She works in a small communications firm that is helping small businesses stay afloat by creating plans to go digital or do curbside pick up. She told me that waiting for the end of DACA feels like waiting for her world to be irreparably shaken.
"The sheer confusion, being upset, feeling of loss — kind of like grieving — that people are going through during the pandemic," Gabriela said, "I feel like that's what people who have DACA, and just even people who are undocumented in general, that's what we have been going through for so many years."
Gabriela said she and some of her DACA friends are constantly checking SCOTUSblog, which includes the Supreme Court's calendar where they announce what cases they are hearing or ruling on any given week.
Gabriela understands why Mary Kate would say the court's ruling feels more perilous than coronavirus.
She has DACA friends who work as nurses, doctors, lawyers. They all get this feeling, Gabriela said.
"It's like it comes in waves," she told me. "It feels scary, obviously uncomfortable, and I have nervous breakdowns sometimes. I can't really sleep at night."
I think she was talking about her legal status, but it could have easily been the coronavirus, too. For people like Gabriela and Mary Kate, the anxiety is almost interchangeable: Everything may evaporate. Everything may end.
I was honestly too sad to ask Gabriela which it was. But I did ask her how it's possible to work a job like hers with all that on her head. She said it's about 10% hope and 90% faith in God.
"I go back and remember all those moments where I had my breakdowns, where I cried a lot, where I didn't know where life was taking me, what God had in store for me, and that I got through all that," she said. "Even now, I am still here. I'm still okay.
"And I think being grateful for this moment where I am now, even speaking with you, even having air in my lungs, having this home that I get to live in with my husband, having my dream job, having food in the fridge — those are the things that ground me the most," Gabriela said.
"And knowing that I've been in such bad s——- moments and yet here I am still hopeful — even if it's just 10% — feels already like a win."
Gabriela and Mary Kate hope that the Supreme Court will let them stay, so that all they have to worry about is the pandemic.
About the Mis Ángeles column: Erick Galindo is chronicling life in Los Angeles for LAist. He took on this role after serving as our immigrant communities reporter. Erick came to us last year from LA Taco, where he was the managing editor.
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