DACA allowed her to work on the pandemic frontline, but her status is still uncertain.
Jessica Esparza, an intensive care unit nurse in a town in central Washington, was assigned her first coronavirus patient last spring. At the time, she felt like she had been punched in the stomach. She broke out into a sweat as she layered on her personal protective equipment.
She felt naked and vulnerable despite her PPE. Washington was the first state to confirm a positive test for the virus and it had only been a few weeks since its governor declared a state emergency due to exponentially increasing cases.
“We had no idea how this was going to go,” she said.
Her patient was scared too — they were short of breath and concerned for their family at home who may also have been infected. Esparza, 27, proceeded as well as she could, minimizing her exposure to the virus while maximizing care for her patient. She set a phone at the patient’s bedside and later stood behind the room’s window to call them for check-ups.
“It felt like the longest night in my life,” she said.
Esparza has been an ICU nurse at Central Washington Hospital in Wenatchee since December 2019. The small hospital has 198 beds and just over 1,300 medical staff.
She worked nights through the long pandemic stretch between March and September.
Like many of those working on the frontlines of the pandemic over the past year, Esparza came to the United States as a child and remains in the country legally under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, commonly referred to by its acronym, DACA.
As a nurse, she has been the target of anti-immigrant comments. Yet, she takes care of every patient respectfully, “no matter what their views might be.”
Esparza hopes her work might remind Americans of the importance of welcoming immigrants into the US.
“We’re not bringing disaster or drugs or whatever you want to call it,” she said. “We want to improve our lives and improve the lives of the people around us.”
Esparza grew up in Durango, Mexico with her mother and younger sister. Just after she finished sixth grade, her mother moved the family to the United States to be with the family’s father, an agricultural worker who the family only saw once every two years.
The move was a shock for the 11-year-old: she had just selected a new school for seventh grade and was ready to start her classes.
“One random day we were hanging out with some friends and my mom came and picked us up and just said ‘We’re going to go to the United States to see your dad,’” Esparza said.
The children said a quick goodbye to their grandmothers, and soon after they were on a bus to the U.S.
When Esparza started school in her new Washington home, she knew very little English — only the letters and colors she had picked up in a Saturday English class that her mother had sent her to in Mexico. She became an easy target for bullies: they would pull her hair and close her locker in her face.
“They knew that I wouldn’t speak up and tell on them because one, I didn’t speak English, and two, I was shy,” she said.
After a fight broke out and two girls attacked her at school, the police became involved. Finally, the bullying stopped.
As a teenager, Esparza had ambitions of becoming a doctor. Nobody in her family had attended college — her parents didn’t make it to high school. But she was determined to go further and to pursue work that helped others. “When I was in school, I was the one in charge of the medical kit,” she said. “If someone cut their knee, here I was with alcohol and cotton swabs.”
Her undocumented status soon became a stumbling block, however, since she was ineligible for federal financial aid for college. Even though she was accepted to the University of Washington — one of the top universities in the country and her dream school — she lacked the funds to go.
So, she turned to nursing as a more viable way forward. She ended up studying for an associate’s degree at a community college to get prerequisites for nursing and did “everything possible” to pay for it, including working in blueberry and raspberry fields during the summer.
In 2012, the Obama administration brought in DACA, an immigration policy that allowed undocumented children to get a work permit in the US. This opened up a path for Esparza to pursue nursing school, from which she graduated in 2015. “It felt like all of the puzzle pieces were falling into place,” she said.
But her immigration status came with a great deal of uncertainty. Former President Donald Trump launched assaults on migrant communities almost as soon as he took office in 2017, with actions ranging from the Muslim Ban — an immigration restriction targeted largely at Muslim-majority countries — to his branding of most Mexican immigrants as “bad hombres.” He also attempted to phase out DACA.
“I felt like I was hanging by a thread,” she said of the Trump years. If the program went away, her job would probably have to let her go.
Trump’s attempt to phase out the program, however, was met with a slew of lawsuits. At the height of the coronavirus spread last summer, DACA reached the Supreme Court. In a 5–4 decision, the court ruled that the proposed phase-out would be “arbitrary and capricious.”
“There was a pandemic going on, and the thing that I was worried about was that I was going to lose my work permit and not be able to take care of people that needed my skills,” she said.
Ultimately, Esparza ended up caring for many coronavirus patients, and through her work during the pandemic she became intimately familiar with the final moments of patients’ lives.
Dealing with death has been an inevitable part of her job over the past year. The pandemic restrictions added a new dimension to end-of-life care in the ICU: just two people were to be permitted to visit a dying patient. Often, no family members are present when a patient passes away — relatives might be scared of coming to the hospital or may no longer have the means to travel after being financially impacted by the pandemic.
Here, Esparza takes on the role of a social worker. She must bridge the patient-family gap. This sometimes takes the form of organizing a virtual goodbye via Zoom. Typically, the nurse will establish a good time for a call with the immediate family, who will pass the message on to the patient’s loved ones.
“We have two iPads in our unit that we can wheel around,” she said. Often, the patient cannot communicate with the family — perhaps they are sedated, or silenced by invasive equipment. “You just set this iPad in front of them so that the family can see their loved one.”
Esparza always tried to make patients look as good as possible for the calls. On one occasion, she braided a patient’s hair. Each time a family member joined the meeting, they would comment: “Oh my gosh, their hair is so pretty, who did that?”
Bearing witness to so much death has been hard for the nurse, and she recently sought therapy.
“She did struggle with the amount of loss that we had in our unit,” one of her supervisors and ICU charge nurses Janet Wilde said. Yet, Esparza maintained both a deep compassion for patients and sense of humor throughout, Wilde, 63, added.
Esparza talks through distressing emotions with her coworkers and husband, a food scientist who is currently taking a break from work. They hike, play video games together, and last year got married in a small ceremony.
“He’s white, and he’s been super open to hearing my struggles. He enjoys being part of my culture, learning the language, and being a part — as much as he can — of my family and our traditions,” she said.
Indeed, family is everything to Esparza. Having worked her way through higher education, she is a trailblazer for her three younger siblings.
“She’s the first in our family to take on a lot of the struggles that come with being a student here in the United States,” her younger sister Silvia Esparza said. “Everything that she did has helped me through my path.”
The desire to help others is a common thread between the sisters, with the younger studying to be an educator. “That runs in our family and within our blood, just to be servants to the communities we are part of,” Silvia said.
Beyond her set responsibilities as a nurse, Jessica Esparza has become a representative of her local DACA peer group. While she used to fear telling coworkers about her background, she now openly speaks about her status in the hope that it will change perceptions of immigrants in some small way.
“If I wasn’t advocating for myself, then who was?” She said she feels a responsibility to speak on behalf of those who are undocumented. “I felt like I had this power and I needed to put it to use.”
Esparza plans to stay working in the ICU: she enjoys the focused care of one to two patients at a time. Now, her real ambition is to feel secure in the US.
“My hopes and dreams are that one day I can be certain of my status in this country and feel like I belong here, since I’ve been here more time than I’ve been in Mexico,” she said. “I can’t wait for that day.”