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The following article was posted on September 12th, 2017, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 18, Issue 28 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [santamariasun.com] - Volume 18, Issue 28

Undocumented and unprotected: Local DACA recipients deal with Trump Administration's announcement to rescind the program

By KASEY BUBNASH

To Valeria, getting a driver’s license meant freedom. But compared to most teens living in the United States, her definition of freedom was a bit different.

It was her senior year of high school, and Valeria (last name omitted by the Sun at her request) didn’t care about getting away from her parents or skipping class. To her, freedom meant not lying to her friends about why she didn’t already have a license. It meant returning clothes to a store without making a scene. But mostly, it meant having proof that her existence in the U.S. was legal for the first time in her life.

Valeria is just one of thousands of immigrants protected by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, a controversial policy that protects undocumented immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children. Former President Barack Obama enacted DACA in 2012 and the program now protects more than 800,000 undocumented immigrants from deportation while they work and attend school.


LOUD AND PROUD
Community members gathered near the intersection of South Broadway and East Main Street on Sept. 5 with leaders from various organizations, including the House of Pride and Equality and Central Coast Future Leaders of America, in support of DACA recipients.
PHOTO BY KASEY BUBNASH

But after a recent announcement from President Donald Trump, DACA’s possible end is in sight. On Sept. 5, the Department of Homeland Security initiated the rescinding of DACA and announced that the program will be phased out within the next few years, leaving many DACA recipients without the protection they were once promised.

Valeria, now 22 and living in Santa Maria, is one of these recipients.

Valeria said her parents brought her and her older brother from Mexico to the U.S. when she was 6 years old. She hardly remembers anything about living in Mexico, and since then, she’s only visited the country once.

Valeria received DACA for the first time in 2012. She was attending high school, and with DACA, was able to get a California driver’s license and Social Security number. Just this, she said, made her feel less unwelcome in the country she was raised in.

“All my friends in high school would be talking about learning to drive, and I would just say I didn’t want to learn,” Valeria said, adding that she kept her status a secret until DACA. “Just having identification is a big thing. You don’t feel so different.”

Because of DACA, Valeria said she was able to attend and graduate from the University of California Los Angeles with a degree in sociology. Her 25-year-old brother was able to get a steady job.

Before the DACA program was threatened, Valeria said she hoped to attend medical school and become a pediatrician. Now, Valeria said it’s unclear which schools will accept undocumented immigrants.

“There was already a small list of schools that would accept us, even with DACA,” Valeria said. 

DACA explained

To be eligible for DACA, applicants had to have entered the U.S. before their 16th birthdays and had to have lived in the U.S. continuously since June 15, 2007, according to online information from Importa, a nonprofit that provides free legal services to immigrants in Santa Barbara County.

DACA applicants could not have been older than 30 when the program was enacted, and must be in school or already graduated, with limited exceptions. Importa’s website states that DACA applicants convicted of felonies or significant misdemeanors were not accepted to the program.

Nearly 9,000 of those eligible for DACA live in Santa Barbara County, according to U.S. Rep. Salud Carbajal’s (D-Santa Barbara) Communication Director Tess Whittlesey. Since the program’s end was announced, many DACA recipients in Santa Barbara County have turned to services like Importa for help. Importa, according to its Santa Barbara Office Manager Marline Flores, offers free immigration services at its offices in Lompoc, Santa Maria, and Santa Barbara.

Flores said Importa is authorized by the Department of Justice to offer a range of legal services, including DACA and green card renewals and naturalizations. Although Flores said Importa representatives can’t go to court with clients, legal advice outside the courtroom can be vital.

Since DACA was threatened, Flores said Importa has been flooded with phone calls.

“Yes, a lot of our applicants are scared, and they don’t know what to do,” Flores said.

Flores said DACA holders should first find out whether or not they qualify for renewal.

Any initial DACA applications received after Sept. 5 will not be accepted, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. All current DACA applications eventually expire, as they always have. In the past, they were sustained by a renewal process every two years. Now, according to Immigration Services, only applicants whose DACA status expires between Sept. 5, 2017, and March 5, 2018, can apply for renewal. Those renewal requests must be done by Oct. 5, 2017.

Flores said DACA recipients eligible for renewal should apply immediately. Others, she said, will no longer be protected by DACA when the permits they already have expire.

“For those who will expire, we are just letting them know they can’t work but they can still use their Social Security number for apartments and school and banking,” Flores said, adding that DACA recipients don’t legally have to inform their employers of their expired permits. “Don’t feel obligated to let your employer know.”

The only other way to remain legally protected from deportation, Flores said, is to become a U.S. citizen. Without using alternative methods, like marriage to a citizen, Flores said the path to citizenship could take decades.

Flores said she and others at Importa hope the U.S. Congress will help DACA recipients somehow, possibly by making them eligible for permanent residency. More likely, Congress is expected to push the DREAM Act, legislation introduced in 2001 that offered legal status to immigrants attending college or enrolled in the military. Rep. Carbajal announced in a statement on Sept. 5 his plan to co-sponsor the DREAM Act in an effort to protect DACA recipients.

Here to stay?

For now, many DACA recipients, including Valeria, have limited options.

Valeria said she is not eligible for renewal. Without congressional action, she will no longer be able to live legally in the U.S. by September of next year.

In preparation, Valeria said her parents are building a house in Mexico, where she plans to live when her DACA expires.

“I would rather not do that,” Valeria said, adding that during her trip to Mexico, a friend noticed a dead body lying in the street. “I would like to stay here. My whole support system is here.”

But Valeria said she and other immigrants have learned to take things day by day since Trump’s election in November of 2016. The Trump administration promised tough immigration policies from the beginning, Valeria said, and the past six months haven’t been easy.

In the meantime, she said she tries to focus on the positive.

“There has been so much support and people who I wouldn’t have expected to stand up for us are,” she said. “And that’s beautiful.”

Recent encouragement came from a group of about 20 protesters who gathered in Santa Maria on Sept. 5 in support of DACA recipients. With signs that read, “Undocumented and unafraid,” and “Here to stay,” the protesters spoke out against DACA’s end.

Jessie Funes, of Santa Maria’s House of Pride and Equality, said the protest was organized immediately after DACA’s end was announced. Funes said the House of Pride also hopes to raise money for DACA renewals, which cost $495 each.

“Today we just wanted to make sure Santa Maria knows we’re here to support all the DACA students,” Funes said. “They’re not alone.”

For now, Valeria is waiting to hear more from Congress. But she wants the criminal immigrant stereotype to be removed from the conversation. While many Americans seem sympathetic toward DACA recipients, she said most treat the parents of DACA holders in a completely different respect. Most immigrants, Valeria said, are here because they were fleeing unlivable conditions.

“They left everything behind so we could have a better life, and they’re not seen that way,” Valeria said through tears. “We didn’t have a choice.” 

Staff Writer Kasey Bubnash can be reached at kbubnash@santamariasun.com.




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