By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published December 20, 2018
ATLANTA—Roxana Chicas’ goal is to help farm workers and others avoid illnesses from working in the grueling sun.
People who make a living outside—from construction crews to farm workers—can suffer serious damage to kidneys and the brain from the extreme heat.
Hispanic workers picking crops in Florida were surprised to see this native of El Salvador during her research trip to the state, organized with the Farmworkers Association of Florida. Relying on her language skills and cultural background, Chicas gained the workers’ trust. They connected with her stories about her mom working in the fields. Her team collected data and shared tips with them to avoid the worst of the sun when a body’s temperature can hit 104 degrees Fahrenheit.
Chicas, 36, studies at Emory University as a nurse-scientist with a focus on cooling workers’ body temperatures below fever-like conditions.
“They find it interesting and curious that I am much like them,” Chicas said. “They are very comfortable to ask questions.”
Chicas is pursuing her doctorate degree in nursing at the university’s Nell Hodgson Woodruff School of Nursing. At the same time, she also follows the news related to her temporary protective status. TPS is an immigration status granted to people fleeing natural disasters or social unrest. Recipients are eligible to live and work in the United States.
A life-changing status
In 1986, Chicas’ country was in the midst of a violent civil war. Six years prior, the archbishop of San Salvador, St. Oscar Romero, and four American Catholic missionaries were murdered. Some 75,000 were killed during the 12-year war.
Her mother fled the country from fear of violence and gangs targeting women. Chicas was 4 years old when her mother brought her to the United States.
“I don’t remember really the journey but I do remember that we crossed the river which was the Rio Grande and she had me on her shoulders as we crossed it,” Chicas said, sitting in a classroom on the university campus.
They crossed into the United States without authorization and settled in Atlanta’s suburbs. Chicas grew up around Lawrenceville as her mom worked as a house cleaner. With the years of living here, she identifies as an American. She is also a mother of youngster.
Chicas left high school near the end of her senior year, but she quickly earned her high school equivalency degree. She landed her first job as a restaurant server.
Then in 2001 a massive earthquake in El Salvador created a humanitarian crisis when more than 1,000 people died. In response, President George W. Bush authorized temporary protective status for people from El Salvador. Chicas was eligible for the TPS, and since then she checks in with the Department of Homeland Security to renew her status about every 18 months.
The temporary immigration status changed her life.
“I still worked as a server when I got my work authorization. That kind of opened the door for me to say, ‘Oh I don’t just want to a server,’” she said. Instead, Chicas looked in the help wanted ads to see what other work was available. She said, “I’m just going to circle everything that says bilingual needed, willing to train. I didn’t care what sector it was.”
She worked in a chiropractor’s office for two years until she moved to a pediatrician’s office. The doctor’s staff encouraged her during her 10 years working there to pursue nursing.
She graduated in 2015 from Georgia Perimeter College with high honors and earned the Outstanding Nursing Student Award. A year later, she graduated cum laude with a bachelor of science degree in nursing from Emory University. She is on track to earn her doctorate in nursing in 2020.
As one of the 3 million registered nurses, Chicas works in a profession where Hispanics are underrepresented, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Some 7 percent of registered nurses are Hispanic, though they make up some 17 percent of the American population.
Dr. Valerie Mac has mentored Chicas for three years. Mac is an assistant professor at the Nell Hodgson Woodruff School of Nursing.
“Without students and nurse-scientists like Ms. Chicas, we would be doing a disservice to vulnerable communities who are in the greatest need of interventions to protect their health and alleviate unnecessary suffering,” she said in an email. Mac said she saw Chicas grasp cultural nuances of the Hispanic farm workers and gain their trust. Those skills are key to hard-to-reach communities in need of help, she said.
Meanwhile, the Department of Homeland Security in January 2018 announced it would cancel the temporary immigration status for natives of El Salvador, like Chicas. In a statement, the federal department said it revoked the status because the basis for the protection is no longer valid.
“The substantial disruption of living conditions caused by the earthquake no longer exists,” according to the statement.
The announcement means more than 200,000 Salvadorans would no longer have permission to be in the country.
However, in October a federal judge temporarily blocked the president’s plan. The protective immigration status remains in effect while the case proceeds. There are tens of thousands of people more from Haiti and other countries, whose protective immigration status hangs in the balance too.
Advocating for TPS holders
Ashley Feasley, the director of Migration Policy and Public Affairs for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, has worked on immigration issues for more than 10 years.
American Catholic bishops are advocating in support of people like Chicas. Individuals with the protective status have deep roots in America, she said. They opened businesses, bought homes, and raised families. They are individuals and families striving to live the American dream, but a broken immigration system is pushing them out, she said.
The economic impact of losing these workers is unknown, she said. These women and men work in hotels and food service, construction or health care, which would be without people doing those jobs, she said.
Also, there are an estimated 192,000 U.S. citizen children with parents who risk losing their immigration status, Feasley said. If their work authorization is taken away, they face “undesirable choices:” to stay and become undocumented, return with families to unstable countries not able to take them in, or to split up their families, Feasley said. “The concern is very real.”
The violence that drove Chicas and her mom away continues. According to the United Nations, the murder rate in El Salvador was nearly 109 per 100,000 people in 2015. In the United States, the murder rate was close to 5 per 100,000 people.
However, the Trump Administration’s statement does not address the unrest.
A 2017 report from the bishop’s Migration and Refugee Services Committee said deporting people back to El Salvador could be “catastrophic” for the country with an inability to absorb the people repatriated.
Feasley said the Catholic Church is focused on two options. The first is for Congress to support a comprehensive immigration reform to address this situation. The other is working with nonprofit partners in El Salvador to improve services to support people if they return, she said
Chicas takes heart with the diversity of new members who will be serving in the U.S. House of Representatives after the November elections. She is hopeful a solution can be worked out.
“I believe in the justice system and I believe that eventually things will get better and this is part of the growing pains that this country is having with its different types of people that live here.”
For now, Chicas’ focus is on her studies so she can “continue giving back to this country, and to my community and to the world. I would like that opportunity to give back to the United States because the United States has given a lot to me.”