Leyla Sabag is a nurse assistant who is about to start working at a nonprofit clinic for low-income Kansans. “It’s not a job for the weak, definitely — you have to work 16-hour shifts, and you have patients who scream, hit, bite, spit,” she says. “It’s one of those things you have to do because you love it.”
Unfortunately, Sabag may not be able to provide this vital service for long. As an undocumented immigrant from Mexico, she was able to gain licensure and work legally in the United States thanks to Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), a 2012 policy that gives qualifying undocumented immigrants brought to the country as children temporary legal status. But in 2017, President Donald Trump announced the administration would phase out DACA by March 2018 unless Congress takes action. “Without DACA, I would be nowhere near where I am now,” says Sabag, 21. “It’s allowed me to pursue a career that lets me serve my community.”
I don’t want to live in fear.
Sabag was born in central Mexico, where her parents worked in clothing retail. When she was 3 years old, her parents brought their three children to Kansas in search of a better life. “It was for us. It was never for them,” she says. “They were always thinking about our future. They just felt the U.S. could offer more than Mexico could.”
Her parents worked in fast food and were able to support the family. But 14 years after their arrival, in 2014, Sabag’s father was deported, and Sabag had to start working evenings and weekends at Subway while she finished high school. “I didn’t really do any after-school activities. I just focused on working, and so did everyone else,” she says. A year later, her mother returned to Mexico to be with her husband, who was struggling on his own. “It tore the family apart,” Sabag says.
Sabag kept working, graduated, and, after gaining DACA in 2013, enrolled in a program to become a nurse assistant. DACA not only gave her a Social Security number, which Kansas requires for healthcare-job licenses, it also allowed her to work legally so that she could pay for her studies. “I didn’t get any financial aid, but being able to provide for myself was really all I needed,” she says.
Now, Sabag is about to start a new job with Guadeloupe Clinic, a nonprofit that serves low-income patients, and there she will also receive training as a medical assistant. Sabag is excited to learn new skills and to help people who otherwise would not have access to healthcare. “The medical field is where I want to be — it’s what I’ve always wanted to do,” she says.
But if she loses her DACA status and, with it, her right to legally work and live in the United States, she doesn’t know what she will do. She is more fluent in English than in Spanish, and she barely remembers Mexico. On the other hand, she does not want to go back to living in the shadows and working without proper authorization, either. “I don’t want to live in fear,” she says.
What she finds particularly troubling is that without DACA she may lose the ability to help Americans in need. As it is, the country is already facing a shortage of nursing assistants. Losing DACA protection would throw everything into turmoil, says Sabag, and end a budding career dedicated to helping the most vulnerable in her community. “DACA gives you that security and motivation,” she says. “It would be really devastating if they took it away.”