A Demographic Profile of DACA Recipients on the Frontlines of the Coronavirus Response

Monday, April 6, 2020

Across the country, 202,500 DACA recipients are working to protect the health and safety of Americans as the country confronts COVID-19. They are ensuring that children are still being educated; food is still being grown, packaged, cooked, shipped, and put on the shelves of grocery stores; patients are being cared for; and much more. DACA recipients, for example, are doctors and medical studentsputting their own health and safety on the line. They are also teachers, striving to provide a sense of well-being and continuity to America’s youngest generation remotely. Such roles are crucial at a time when the United States is facing a critical shortage of workers in both professions.

This column looks at the demographics of DACA recipients who are working on the frontlines of the COVID-19 response, highlighting three inextricably linked industries and occupation groups identified as “essential critical infrastructure workers” by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). According to the guidance, these are “essential workers needed to maintain the services and functions Americans depend on daily and that need to be able to operate resiliently during the COVID-19 pandemic response.” Many governors who have issued stay at home orders have adopted some or all of DHS’s guidelines on these 17 wide-ranging sectors into their list of essential workers.

Health care

Health care workers may be the most visibly important force in the fight against COVID-19, working long hours at great personal risk to themselves to diagnose and treat the disease. An estimated 29,000 health care workers are DACA recipients. The table below identifies DACA recipients in Bureau of Labor Statistics-defined categories.

Not surprisingly, states with the most DACA recipients are also home to the largest number of DACA recipients working in health care occupations: California (8,600), Texas (4,300), New York (1,700), Illinois (1,400), Florida (1,100), Arizona (1,000), and Washington (1,000) are all home to sizable numbers of these frontline health workers.

This list (Table 2) of essential health care and public health workers, though, goes far beyond these nurses, lab techs, and home health aides, as the DHS delineation of essential workers covers a wide range of both industries and occupations. The difference may appear to be an unimportant detail relegated to a footnote, but it is crucial—industries cover where people work, while occupations cover what people do while they are at work.

For example, while CAP analysis finds 29,000 DACA recipients who are frontline health care workers in the roles we typically associate with the medical field, it finds another 12,700 DACA recipients who work in the health care industry in critical roles such as custodians, food preparers, and management or administrators—including 4,100 DACA recipients working in hospitals and 1,700 in residential facilities such as nursing homes. The Center for Migration Studies recently published research on DACA recipients in essential sectors, with an industry-specific analysis highlighting this wider net of individuals.


Another group of essential workers who have been required to adapt quickly to COVID-19 are educators. Across the United States, 14,900 DACA recipients are among the hundreds of thousands of teachers who have pivoted from the physical to the digital classroom, including 4,300 in California, 2,800 in Texas, and 1,000 in Illinois.


From farms to grocery stores and distribution centers to restaurants, more than a quarter of employed DACA recipients—142,100—work in food-related occupations or industries across the country. Despite the fact that this sector includes so many different occupations, all food-related workers are undoubtedly impacted by COVID-19 in one way or another.

On the production end, 12,800 DACA recipients work in the farming and agriculture industry—with the vast majority as agricultural laborers—and 11,600 DACA recipients work in the food manufacturing industry, processing these agricultural products into a food product that can be sold.

To distribute food from production to its end users, 4,700 DACA recipients work in food-related wholesale trade, and 8,800 DACA recipients work in food warehousing, transportation, and delivery.

Another group of essential food-related workers are those keeping grocery stores open and operable. That includes 14,900 DACA recipients, employed in roles such as cashiers (6,000); stockers and laborers (2,900); and supervisors (1,200).

The majority of DACAmented workers in this industry are working in restaurants or food service establishments (82,200). This includes 23,700 servers; 20,800 cooks and prep workers; and 10,800 cashiers. While carryout restaurants and quick service food operations are deemed essential by DHS, dining in remains widely shuttered, and the restaurant industry has seen remarkable closures and layoffs.

And these statistics likely don’t capture another critical group: DACAmented warehouse workers, now playing a larger role in moving food directly to consumers across the country, along with gig economy delivery drivers.


As recently profiled in a CAP publication, DACA recipients such as paramedic Jesus Contreras and Dr. Ever Arias are providing critical medical services to help those affected by COVID-19. Whether in health care, education, food services, and other critical professions, DACA recipients are stepping up at a time when America needs them most.

With a Supreme Court decision regarding the Trump administration’s ongoing efforts to end DACA looming, it is critical that the court alleviate the fear and uncertainty that DACA recipients and their families are facing today by affirming the unanimous decisions of the lower courts protecting DACA today. During this time of uncertainty, rather than rip these and hundreds of thousands of other DACA recipients out of the workforce, the Trump administration should immediately extend work permits of at least those DACA recipients whose protections recently have expired or are set to expire in 2020. Without question, now is not the time for the Court to permit the administration to recklessly end DACA and it is not the time to take any actions that may jeopardize the health and safety of the nation.

Nicole Prchal Svajlenka is the associate director for research on the Immigration team at the Center for American Progress.


The findings presented in this column are based on CAP analysis of three years of pooled American Community Survey microdata—the 2016 1-year, 2017 1-year, 2018 1-year ACS, accessed via the University of Minnesota’s IPUMS USA. Aggregating three years of data results in three times the number of samples, allowing researchers to drill deeper into smaller crosstabulations with higher levels of confidence. The analysis is benchmarked to the latest data filed as evidence in Regents of the University of California, et al. v. U.S. Department of Homeland Security, et al., which show 643,430 active DACA recipients as of March 31, 2020. The data are on file with CAP.

This analysis defines occupational categories using the 2018 Standard Occupational Classification (SOC) system. Health care workers include “Healthcare practitioners and technical occupations” and “Healthcare support occupations.” Educators include “Postsecondary teachers,” “Preschool, elementary, middle, secondary, and special education teachers,” “Other teachers and instructors,” and “Other educational instruction and library occupations,” which mainly includes teaching assistants. It excludes “Librarians, curators, and archivists.”

The estimate for health care workers presented here is slightly higher than CAP’s previous estimate of 27,000 DACA recipients. The largest factor in this are 2018 revisions to the SOC. Where possible, all 2016 and 2017 ACS data were updated from the 2010 SOC into the 2018 SOC. Two changes are relevant to health care workers. First, occupational health and safety specialists and technicians were moved from “Healthcare Practitioners and Technical Occupations” to “Life, Physical and Social Science Occupations.” Second, personal care aides were added to “Healthcare Support Occupations” from “Personal Care and Service Occupations.”