Immigration and DACA: The impact on first responder hiring

The ability to hire DACA recipients as first responders varies state by state and department by department


In early September, the Trump administration announced plans to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. The policy was originally introduced in 2012 by the Obama administration.

In short, the policy has made it possible for nearly 800,000 immigrant children, known as dreamers, to live in the U.S. without fear of deportation. After plans were announced to end the program, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) stopped processing DACA applications.

But not all dreamers are children – some are now adults after arriving in the United States at a young age. In Houston, paramedic Jesus Contreras, who came to the U.S. when he was six years old, credits DACA for allowing him to earn his paramedic certification at a community college.

Loyola Marymount University student and dreamer Maria Carolina Gomez joins a rally in support of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA program, outside the Edward Roybal Federal Building in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)
Loyola Marymount University student and dreamer Maria Carolina Gomez joins a rally in support of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA program, outside the Edward Roybal Federal Building in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)

Contreras said he's now worried he won't be able to work if he loses his DACA recipient status. Which, in turn, begs the question: how does the halt of DACA impact first responder hiring? Additionally, what does it mean for those who are already first responders, such as Contreras?

First responder hiring and DACA

Fully staffing police, fire and EMS departments can be a challenge. Adding in the DACA reversal, it may present issues from the top down.

While most police departments require U.S. citizenship, the ability to hire DACA recipients as law enforcement officers varies state by state, according to the Immigrant and Refugee Center.

"The law forbids many employers from discriminating based on different factors, including national origin. There are exceptions to this general rule, particularly when the work deals with issues of national security," the Immigrant and Refugee Center said. "Different states may also have enacted legislations that require U.S. Citizenship for law enforcement officers."

However, some police departments – whether they're looking to fill their ranks or better reflect the community they serve – allow green-card holders and legal immigrants with work permits to join law enforcement agencies.

The Nashville (Tenn.) Police Department is one such agency looking to allow non-U.S. citizens the opportunity to become officers, according to USA Today. Don Aaron, spokesman for the Nashville Police Department, said immigrants who have been honorably discharged from the military can be eligible to become an officer.

The rules and requirements vary from state to state as well as department to department.

USA Today reported that:

  • Chicago and Hawaii police departments allow any immigrant with a work permit to become an officer.
  • The Cincinnati Police Department and Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department require that officers have at least a pending citizenship application on file.
  • Vermont and Colorado police departments require that officers be legal permanent residents or green-card holders.

Like police agencies, fire departments have similar challenges in fulfilling staffing and diversity requirements.

Michael Robert Kirschbaum, an employment and labor attorney in Irvine, California, responded to a question on Avvo.com from a user asking if it's possible to pursue a firefighter job under DACA.

Kirschbaum responded similarly – it depends.

"That decision will be left to the individual agencies you apply with," he noted. "The best advice I can give you is to ask the recruiting person or even a human resource manager of the agency you are interested in whether a black mark against you will prevent you from even being considered."

Kirschbaum recommended that DACA recipients interested in a firefighting career become familiar with the posted qualifications for the job.

Additionally, Eugene Opoku-Serebuoh, an immigration attorney, answered an Avvo.com user's question on whether an illegal alien can become a firefighter with DACA status.

"Depends on the requirements for the firefighter position," Opoku-Serebuoh said. "If U.S. citizens and green-card holders are the only ones wanted for the position, then undocumented immigrants cannot apply."

Two additional immigration attorneys replied with similar sentiments – it depends.

The consensus among all responses, however, is to just apply and see.

'We have a shortage'

Jon Puryear, NREMT-P, recently posted a video on Facebook, which has garnered 13,000 views, with a plea to his first responder and health care colleagues to help save the DACA program by reaching out to their respective legislatures. Puryear, who lives in Cleburne, Texas, has been active in EMS since 1983 and has been an active paramedic since 1992.

"Not everybody wants to be a paramedic," Puryear said. "We have a shortage. We need paramedics, EMTs, firefighters and nurses. They did the work that they were supposed to do, they followed the government program and now it's being ripped out from under them."

Puryear referenced the Cleburne Fire Department as an example, citing how public safety shortages may become more frequent if DACA recipients are deported.

"The Cleburne Fire Department is hiring 12 people right now. They're running short. They're using overtime to staff fire engines, apparatus and ambulances to be able to make calls and they're still using mutual aid. They're already 12 down. Everybody is constantly hiring and if we lose them [DACA recipients], then it's going to put a major shortage in our profession."

A fire captain/EMT-B for a fire department in Texas contacted Puryear, wishing to remain anonymous, after seeing his DACA Facebook video.

"I am a DACA recipient," the fire captain/EMT-B wrote to Puryear. "We need to unite for one goal and to do what we can to make things better for others in this situation. To know that there are people who have our back in our situation means a lot. This truly is a great brotherhood to be a part of."

A wife of a police chief in Texas also wrote to Puryear.

"Congress needs to step up and do their job," she wrote. "Get this done for the children. That's who we all should be talking about. They [politicians] need to be reined in and work for the people."

Puryear said chiefs he talks to say they're worried because they're already short-staffed.

"It's going to hurt them. Now they're not going to be able to take care of patients in EMS, put out fires and perform their duties that they're responsible for. It's also going to hurt the citizens and they may not understand that. You don't understand that until you call 911 and you need somebody. Then you realize that it hurts you."

Puryear believes the deportation of DACA recipients would "drastically hurt the first responder and health care world."

What is DACA and what’s next?

After the announcement of plans to end DACA, President Trump added that the program will be suspended with a six-month delay.

A new Senate GOP proposal, written by Republican Senators Thom Tillis of North Carolina, James Lankford of Oklahoma and Orrin Hatch of Utah, announced the SUCCEED Act (Solution for Undocumented Children through Careers Employment Education and Defending our nation), which would create a pathway to legalization for dreamers. They're hoping to win support from conservatives as Congress works to find a fix following President Trump's decision. 

Currently, DACA recipients – including those who work in public safety – whose permits expire before March 5, 2018, will be allowed to renew for two years.

After a recipient's DACA status expires from the two-year renewal, they will become an undocumented immigrant, unable to work and obtain a driver's license and will be subject to deportation.

"It's important to remember that if the DACA program is terminated, this doesn't mean that DACA recipients will automatically be deported", the National Immigration Law Center said.

The Law Center said DACA recipients are considered "low priorities" for deportation.

"Based on how long they've lived in the U.S., their ties to the U.S., and their not having committed serious crimes, which is why they were granted DACA in the first place," the Law Center added.

The DHS said immigration agents will focus first on deporting immigrants who have committed crimes rather than former DACA recipients who are not criminals. Furthermore, information that was provided during a recipient's DACA application process will not be provided to immigrant agents, DHS stated.

As for the rest of DACA applicants, no new applications will be accepted and the DHS is reviewing applications on a case-by-case basis that were submitted before Sept. 5. If Congress doesn’t act, there will be no more DACA recipients by March 2020.

What do you think? Should first responders under DACA be given an exception? Let us know in comments.

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