In March 2020, Juan Carlos (JC) Alejaldre—an administrator in the Division of Community and Population Health at NewYork– Presbyterian Hospital/Columbia University Medical Center— received an urgent call from his supervisor.
With the medical center’s Emergency Department overwhelmed by rising numbers of Covid-19 patients, Mr. Alejaldre was informed that “on Monday we would help decamp the department, the Army Corps of Engineers would set up medical tents, and I would be responsible for running them.”
Alejaldre admits that, at the time, he did not fully understand the immensity of the task. Nonetheless he found himself heading up a massive team of doctors, staff, and hospital senior leadership to fully operationalize Covid-19 tents at Presbyterian’s Columbia and Allen Hospital campuses. Within 24 hours, his team had re-created an entire inpatient floor.
“I tried to bring a sense of calm to the effort,” explains the alumnus, who notes that in the beginning, they would receive new guidelines from the CDC on a near-hourly basis: “It felt a bit like whiplash.” When New York City’s Covid-19 numbers finally became manageable in June, the tents came down.
Born in Colombia, Alejaldre came to the U.S. with his mother when he was six. “She wanted a better life for me,” he says, adding he had no idea his family circumstances differed from his peers’ until years later when trying to apply to—and afford— college. At that point they had overstayed their visa; his mom worked any job she could get, and they lived in a single room.
In 2020, with help from his employer, Alejaldre was able to renew his DACA status. He wrote about his experience in an op-ed for CNN in which he points out that there are more than 200,000 DACA recipients who are considered “essential workers,” with 43,000—like himself—in healthcare.
“There are folks out there fighting for our country—fighting Covid-19 and for heath equity—who are also forced to fight to remain in this country,” says the Dreamer, whose immigration status prevented him from visiting his mother on her deathbed in Colombia last year.
As a DACA recipient, he remains without a direct path to citizenship. “It’s heartbreaking, but our hope is that we’ll continue to push until we effect permanent change.”