Apr 28, 2020
by Christopher Kerosky, Kerosky, Purves & Bogue, LLP, Sonoma County Human Rights Commissioner
Immigrants are among the many now fighting on the front lines of the corona virus epidemic: in hospital emergency rooms and ICUs, nursing homes and acute-care facilities, and emergency medical teams across the country. More than 3 million immigrants work in the U.S. health care system, accounting for about 1 in 4 workers in that field, according to research by Harvard Medical School. Approximately 29% of all doctors are foreign-born and 23% of all nurses and nurse’s assistants, according to the American Medical Association.
One of these immigrants is Leonor Carreno—a certified nurse’s assistant (CNA) in Sonoma County. Leonor has had a particularly difficult immigrant path – including being jailed and almost deported — simply for getting a CNA license without having a green card. After years of fighting deportation, she gained her legal status. And now like many other immigrants across our country, Leonor is caring for elderly and sick Americans — those most at risk from the deadly corona virus.
Leonor is a native of Oaxaca, a beautiful but impoverished part of southern Mexico with a large indigenous population. She made the long perilous journey to the United States with her three-year-old son in 1998. They crossed the border near Calexico without papers, at a time when our borders were easier to pass through. The two joined her husband in Petaluma, where she still lives today.
Leonor went to work on a farm at first, working long hours at low wages to help her family survive. At nights she learned English and studied for the CNA exam, which she took and passed in 2002. Leonor began to work at a post-acute care facility and worked a second job on nights and weekends as a caregiver in private homes.
A second son was born two years later. Her life was demanding, with two children and two jobs, but the future looked bright.
Then, in 2011, her happy life fell apart suddenly and unexpectedly. A disgruntled employee reported her and six other undocumented nurses working at the facility. All seven women were arrested and held without bail. Leonor was incarcerated for 21 days. When she was finally released by law enforcement authorities, ICE agents took her into custody and began deportation proceedings.
Leonor’s only crime: obtaining a certified nursing assistant’s license as an undocumented immigrant.
The deportation case against her lasted 8 years, languishing in the immigration court in San Francisco while she and her family awaited her fate. Finally, last year, an immigration judge approved her application for cancellation of deportation, finding that she had “good moral character” and that her U.S. born son would suffer exceptional hardship if she would be deported to Mexico.
Like so many immigrants, Leonor’s life has been centered on her family, her faith and her work. Throughout her ordeal, Leonor’s faith in God has sustained her. She is very active in her church, the Iglesia Pentecostal Unida, a Spanish-language Christian church in Petaluma. Leonor assists the pastor with services and volunteers her time to the religious community. “I feel so blessed by God for granting me the right to stay in this country.”
Her family is another pillar of her life. Leonor is very close to her two sons, David, 24, and Ovid Josue, 18. Both sons appreciate the sacrifices their mother has made to provide them a life in this country. David and Ovid have both followed in their mother’s footsteps, pursuing their own careers in the medical field.
Leonor continues to work two jobs, caring for sick and the elderly. When she regained her right-to-work, Leonor went back to work full-time at her post-acute care facility. And she still works a second job as a private care-giver.
Her story is not completely unique. Our nation’s hospitals and other health care facilities have long relied on immigrants to fill the role of doctors, nurses, EMT workers, and medical technicians. Now they are serving their adopted country when it is a particularly dangerous time to be caring for our sick. As of April 2nd, the CDC has reported that 9,282 health care workers have contracted COVID-19, 723 have been hospitalized and 27 have died. Surely those numbers will continue to climb. Still they serve.
“It has always been such a special blessing for me to work caring for the sick and elderly,” says Leonor. “and now I feel particularly fortunate to be able to contribute to this country in this difficult moment for all of us.”
In fact, Leonor, the good fortune is ours.
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