What Will Happen to US? Halfway between September and March, DACA recipients wonder what their future holds

“If DACA ends, life as I know it will end, too. I won’t be able to drive anymore because I’ll lose my license. And I won’t be able to work, or go to school . . . . I don’t know what I’ll do!”

This statement exemplifies the feelings of DREAMers everywhere, who anxiously await the final fate of their current temporary status.  DACA, or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, is a program that has afforded nearly 800,000 young immigrants the opportunity to come out of the shadows of the undocumented world.  But it is scheduled to end in March 2018.  Brought to the US as children by their parents, they had no choice in being here and most think of themselves as Americans.  Many are college students and aspiring young professionals.

PROFILES OF DACA RECIPIENTS

Christian,* age 19, is a full-time second-year community college student who is studying Computer Science. He lives at home with his parents and three younger sisters (who are US citizens) and works five days a week to pay for his school expenses. He’s thinking ahead and plans to transfer to a four-year university once he earns his Associate Degree.

We first met Christian when he was 7 and in the second grade. He participated in our after-school program, Study Buddies, and he became a volunteer during middle and high school, tutoring elementary-aged students from immigrant families. Christian is a natural tutor and role model for the kids, with his calm, quiet manner and ability to explain homework assignments to them in either Spanish or English.

For Christian, losing DACA means losing his work permit and thus his job, which means he will no longer be able to afford to pay for college. Like most DACA students, he has no student loans and must pay school costs out-of-pocket or on a semester payment plan. He will also lose his drivers’ license, which will impact his ability to get to and from class or work –and his ability to help his parents with transportation. Christian and his dad commute to work in the same restaurant approximately 45 miles away from their home.

Without DACA, this young man who has lived in the US since age three will revert to status as an undocumented immigrant, working at unskilled labor jobs for cash, and his education will come to an end without the ability to pay for tuition, books, and materials.

José* is 21 and a student. He lives at home and works a 40-hour per week night job in a call center, which allows him to take classes during the day at the university. He’s lived in the US since second grade.

DACA had a huge impact in Jose’s life. As a middle-schooler, his family moved to a new home and he became aware that he was an undocumented immigrant. He was bullied and called “the Mexican kid” at his new, mostly-white school — even though he repeatedly explained that he was not from Mexico. He most likely had ADHD but no services were provided, and he struggled in school, even though he was very bright. Outgoing and friendly, José made friends quickly at Passport Missions camp and loved helping others, but he was also known for his impulsiveness and jokes.

José gave up hope. “What difference does it make if I do well in school?” he said. “I’ll still be an illegal immigrant – just look at my parents!” His dad, a university professor in his home country, worked in the kitchen of restaurants in the US, and his mom, an accountant, was stocking shelves in a small retail store. But then, José’s sister earned an academic scholarship to a four-year private college, and he saw that her hard work really had paid off. Soon afterward, DACA came along, which meant that college would be a possibility for him, too.

José suddenly had hope, hope for the life his parents had sacrificed so much for him to have. But it was dependent on him to do his part, to learn responsibility. He quit skipping school, began to focus on his classes, and sought help for areas where he was struggling. He became a good student, and he found new friends. When he was approved for DACA, he was able to get his drivers’ license and obtain a part-time job to save money for a car and for college.

More than the loss of his good job, car and drivers’ license, or ability to study, the loss of DACA for José means he loses hope. José saw what he could do with his life if he just put forth an effort, but without DACA, he’ll go back to what he once dreaded being, just another “illegal immigrant.”

When Yerendi,* received school supplies from LUCHA Ministries in the third grade, she grabbed the bag and danced around the room before sitting down to sort and organize her backpack for the first day of school. “I love school,” she said. “Summer is so boring, and I can’t wait to get back! One day, maybe I’ll be a teacher. Or maybe a doctor. Or maybe . . . something else!”

It’s no surprise that Yerendi, now age 22, took charge of her DACA application once she was old enough to apply. She soon had a job, a car, and was looking forward to college. She was able to pay for her own clothes and help her parents out with expenses – plus becoming the family’s “taxi” as she took her younger siblings to activities and her parents to appointments. Her dad, a self-employed mechanic with a third-grade education, bought and refurbished a car for her.

Yerendi began working for a physician’s office part-time, primarily getting the job because she had served as a volunteer interpreter for one of the physician’s Spanish-speaking patients. The job turned into full-time position, and she had to make a decision about school. She opted to work full-time and study part-time. In the meantime, the practice became part of a university system, and now she qualifies for significant tuition assistance as an employee of the university. Plus, she determined she liked the medical field and has a heart for interpretation.

For Yerendi, the United States is truly her home. While she was born in Central America, she’s lived here since she was 6 months old, and her brother is in the US Marine Corps. “My parents will eventually be OK. My siblings are US citizens and can petition for my parents. It’s me – I’m the only one left out.” What will the loss of DACA mean to Yerendi? “I honestly don’t know,” she said. “For now, I’ll keep on working and studying. I have time to figure out what my next steps will be.”

Carlos graduated from high school last spring and recently turned 18. He’s been in the US since he was 2 years old. Carlos was born with spina bifida, a birth defect affecting the spine. Carlos has a severe form of spina bifida and has no use of his body below his waist. He will spend his life in a wheelchair.

When his parents learned that there was nothing that could be done for Carlos through the hospitals in his country, they made the decision to come to the US. They simply couldn’t accept the grim prognosis that he would soon die. Almost as bad were the heartbreaking thoughts of the bleak existence that he would face as a person with disabilities in his home country if he survived. Carlos’ dad came to the US to find a job and a place to live, and Carlos and his mom followed later.

In the US, they found help for Carlos in the form of charity care, free clinics, and a program through the National Children’s Hospital in Washington, DC. He received needed surgeries and medical care, and was soon able to use a wheelchair and go to school. Carlos’ mom has dedicated her life to caring for him and serving as his advocate, while his dad has ensured that there was somehow enough money to keep a roof over their heads, food on the table, and a somewhat reliable vehicle large enough to accommodate Carlos’ wheelchair. They’ve paid many of the costs associated with Carlos’ care out of pocket, with no form of health insurance.

After recovery from spinal surgery, Carlos can move forward with his life. With DACA, he can work or continue his studies, normal everyday things that would be much more difficult for him as a person with disabilities in Mexico.

 

Immigrant Fears Information is Key in Addressing Immigrant Fears

Recalibrating, thinking about shutting down refugee offices.

Consoling children and comforting parents fearful to leave home.

Reminding DREAMers of the risk of applying for DACA.

Grieving for people of color.

Struggling to address questions and fears among immigrant friends.

And Praying Together.

Immigration advocates and agencies – including LUCHA Ministries in Fredericksburg, Virginia – found themselves reacting in just these ways following the US presidential election of November 8.  As a part of World Relief’s Immigrant Legal Services Network, LUCHA Ministries has a goal to provide the most accurate information possible while reminding our immigrant friends of God’s constant love and presence.

Beyond expressing shock and dismay, advocates and organizers renewed their commitment to inform and educate the immigrant community on how best to respond to the election and its aftermath.

Some of the best advice advocacy groups can offer immigrants is the following:

  • Remind immigrants that, for now, nothing has changed.  All existing immigration benefits remain in place.
  • Immigration law is defined by Congress, and the majority of current US laws can only be changed by Congress.
  • Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, is still in effect.  DACA provides eligible, undocumented young people who arrived before age 16 an opportunity to remain in the US and apply for work authorization.  Those with DACA renewal should renew it within the timeframe required, before January 2017’s inauguration if possible.  Those who have never requested DACA should consult a reputable legal provider for advice before filing a DACA application.
  • Consult a reputable legal provider to be screened for other benefits besides DACA. This can be done at the same time as the DACA consultation.
  • Refugees should apply for a green card at one year of being admitted to the United States. Seek a reputable legal provider for advice and guidance.
  • The government’s priorities regarding who is to be removed from the US have not changed.  Those who do not fall in one of these priorities are less likely (but not impossible) to be deported (current removal priorities)
  • Beware of notarios and other unscrupulous people.  Only seek legal help from reputable legal providers.

It is also important that immigrants are prepared in the unfortunate event they or a family member are detained or face deportation.  You can encourage immigrants to do the following:

Make a plan now, before such an event occurs.  Educate all family members, and especially children, on where important papers are kept; important phone numbers to be memorized; which adult is in charge of children in case one or both parents are detained; and the name of an immigration lawyer to call.

Review the “Know your Rights” factsheet, and know how to respond.  According to the National Immigration Law Center, everyone has certain basic rights under the Constitution.  Here are some recommendations:

  • Exercise your right to remain silent.  You have the right to refuse to speak to immigration officers.
  • Carry a “Know-Your-Rights” card and any valid immigration documents you have.  Show them if an immigration officer stops you (click here to link to resources in English and Spanish from the National Immigration Project of the National Lawyers Guild)
  • Do not open your door unless an ICE agent shows you a warrant signed by a judge.
  • You have the right to speak to a lawyer.
  • Before you sign anything, talk to a lawyer.

Within immigrant communities, much of the news and information that they receive is in their native language.  This includes both formal sources, such as news through television, radio, or online websites, as well as informal community networks, such as people sharing information with friends and neighbors.  We can do much to calm fears and dispel rumors by remaining educated and informed, and pointing our immigrant friends to credible, trustworthy information.  And by praying.

A Dangerous Journey They know the dangers and they come anyway. What does that say about the situations they left?

Decision to immigrate to the US aren't made lightly
The decision to immigrate to the US isn’t made lightly, no matter what the circumstances are in one’s home country

 Since 2014, Central Americans have been fleeing their homes en masse in hopes of making it to the United States. Officially recognized by President Obama as a humanitarian crisis , the Northern Triangle region (including El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras) is plagued by dangerously high rates of gang-related violence, political insecurity, and organized crime groups; in fact, this region hosts some of the most violent countries in the world, with El Salvador noted as “the world’s most violent country not at war” (http://on.cfr.org/1PTk574).

Contrary to Popular Belief

This violence is one of the most critical factors for the rise in Central American immigration to the U.S. in recent years. A Pew Research Center poll found that in 2014 undocumented immigrants comprised 3.5% of the total U.S. population, of which Mexican immigrants make up 49% . Contrary to popular belief, there has actually been a decrease in Mexican nationals immigrating to the U.S.; but, the rise in Central American immigration has kept the percentage of undocumented immigrants around a steady 3.5% of the total U.S. population.

Once these asylum-seekers finally reach the United States (if they even do), their dangerous journey does not get any easier. The proliferation of anti-immigrant rhetoric and action within the public and political realms has given undocumented immigrants little chance of hope for reprieve.

So, why don’t they immigrate legally?

Greg Smith, co-founder and coordinator of LUCHA Ministries, explained the four pathways for legal immigration to the U.S. at the Cooperative Baptist Foundation’s annual Advocacy in Action event in Washington, D.C. last week. Legal immigration can occur through family ties, employment opportunities, a diversity lottery, or as asylum; however, each of these methods has a very long process with limited chance of success.

Family ties: This option has many stipulations that the immigrants must go through to take place successfully, most importantly having a petitioning US citizen or legal permanent resident relative, and even then there is very limited availability for legal immigrants this way.

Employment opportunities: Probably one of the better-known pathways to immigration, this option provides only 10,000 visas for unskilled workers annually through the Third Preference EB-3 category, with the backlog for filling these visas sometimes a decade or more.

Diversity lottery: This lottery provides the chance for people from underrepresented nationalities to immigrate to the United States with the possibility of citizenship. As you can guess, this is not a likely option for Central American immigrants.

Asylum: The U.S. provides asylum to refugees fleeing humanitarian crises in their home countries. Although President Obama has recognized the violence and organized crime of the Northern Triangle to be a humanitarian crisis, Central American immigrants fleeing violence at home are often not recognized as refugees and are therefore not automatically granted humanitarian asylum in the United States.

Take Action. Advocate.

Greg Smith and his wife Sue, executive director of LUCHA Ministries, asked the 30 people in attendance at their Advocacy in Action seminar to visit or write to their state representatives about immigration reform, particularly in the case of Central Americans. Among many issues facing Central American immigrants (not limited to ICE raids, deferred action status, and detention center treatment) is legal representation. Because US immigration law does not grant an attorney to immigrants at government cost, Miranda Rights are not afforded to them; therefore, children who appear in immigration court who cannot afford proper legal representation (i.e. the vast majority) must defend themselves.

Greg Smith and others talk with an aide to Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA) about current legislation that affects immigrants
Greg Smith and others talk with an aide to Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA) about proposed legislation that affects immigrants

With little to no knowledge or resources to guide them in immigration law, children must try to navigate their court proceedings for one of the most unmistakably confounding areas of U.S. law.

The Fair Day in Court for Kids Act of 2016 proposal by Senator Harry Reid (D-NV) and others calls for the provision of legal counsel to unaccompanied children as well as a general review of immigration court efficiency, including reducing costs and increasing access to legal information. (Read the full draft here: http://1.usa.gov/1QY59mc)

Take action with us and ask your representatives to support the Fair Day in Court for Kids Act. Advocate alongside the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, LUCHA Ministries, and the many others who believe that Central Americans deserve the chance to have a happy ending to their dangerous journey.

Dreamers at the White House Antonella's Story

unnamed-3Antonella Membreno is the classic college student. She Snapchats her friends funny photos, studies for classes at Bluefield College and works at her part-time job as a hostess. But, despite seeming like a typical American teenager, Antonella has overcome obstacles just to live a normal life.

When Antonella was 9-years-old she moved to the United States from Nicaragua to reunite with her father who arrived several years earlier.

“I was in 4th grade and didn’t speak English,” Membreno remembers. “It was hard, but you learn.”

Despite getting a late start, Antonella quickly rose to the top of her class, graduating from high school with honors. But when she started looking at colleges, problems arose.

Because Antonella came to the United States when she was 9, she is considered an undocumented immigrant, waiting in a hypothetical line for citizenship. After 10 years, it’s apparent the line isn’t moving.

“We hear all the time about how people should just get in line, “says LUCHA director Greg Smith. “The truth is there is no line.

Because of her undocumented status, Antonella was unable to participate in important rites of passage like learning to drive or getting a part-time job. Even seeing a movie with her friends could turn her into a criminal since she was unable to receive a license.

“I was raised here. I’ve lived over half my life here,” Membreno says. “It’s weird how you can love a place so much but not fully belong.”

Under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals act, which helps immigrant minors receive several legal benefits, Antonella’s life took a positive turn. She was able to get a social security number and driver’s license, work legally and apply to colleges. But paying for university posed new problems.

“I still can’t apply for state scholarships because it’s federal money,” Membreno says. “But I have a few private scholarships based on academic merit.”

It was especially difficult for Antonella’s younger brother, who started doing poorly in school after seeing his sister struggle.

“He decided to slack off because he thought, what’s the point? Even if I do well in school I’ll never make it anywhere,” Membreno explains. “This happens to a lot of immigrant kids. We feel like we have no future. After I got DACA, my brother is trying harder.  He’s enrolled in college.”

In early March, LUCHA Ministries was invited to the Eisenhower Executive office of the White House as part of an Advocacy in Action summit with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.

Antonella and her friend Yerendi Roblero, a former Student.Go intern who came to the U.S. from Guatemala when she was just six months old, were invited to attend. While in Washington, they met with their Senate and congressional representatives and attended a meeting with special assistant to the president, Melissa Rogers. For Membreno the experience was formative. She and Yerendi were able to share their stories with Senate and congressional aides.

“I was glad we could tell the senators thank you about DACA,” Membreno says. “It was more challenging talking to the congressmen, but it was nice to let people know that there are still people fighting for [immigration reform].”

The girls learned about advocacy issues affecting people in poverty including hunger and predatory lending. Antonella especially enjoyed visiting Bread for the World, a nonprofit dedicated to issues of hunger.

“My favorite part was hearing Melissa Rogers speak on how churches and the federal government can work together,” she says.

Membreno  acknowledges the need for comprehensive reform. She is studying criminal justice and journalism and wants to eventually go to law school.

“Everyone, whether you know it or not, knows an immigrant,” she says. “I want to help them receive their rights.”

Antonella says she understands why not every citizen participates in advocacy. However she encourages citizens to stand up for those who are not being heard.

“You don’t have to advocate for immigration reform,” Membreno says. “But I think if someone is conscious, if you have the power, you should advocate for things that are meaningful.”

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LUCHA Ministries team at the White House