Woodburn's immigrant community waits in uncertainty for DACA fix
Following the Sept. 5 announcement by Attorney General Jeff Sessions that the White House plans to rescind Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, the 2012 executive order that provides protections for immigrants who arrived in the U.S. illegally as children, much of Woodburn's immigrant community has been waiting in uncertainty for more information, according to community leaders.
"There's a lot of uncertainty and a lot of fear," said Ramon Ramirez, president of Pineros y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste. "There are a number of DACA recipients that live and work in Woodburn. These are folks that have been in the community for a long time."
Nearly 790,000 immigrants have received work permits and deportation relief through DACA since it was created in 2012, according to data released by U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services. Of Marion County's 330,700 residents, about 4,000 are eligible for DACA, according to data from the Migration Policy Institute.
In his announcement, Sessions called the program unconstitutional because it was created through an executive order. Included in the repeal announcement was a six-month window for Congress to pass its own immigration legislation that protected DACA recipients from deportation.
"Congress should carefully and thoughtfully pursue the types of reforms that are right for the American people," Sessions said.
The news has come hard for DACA recipients. That includes Aldo Solano, who grew up in Woodburn and has been receiving DACA protections for years.
"It's hard to get a grip on your emotions. I was devastated, I felt betrayed," Solano said of the news that DACA was going to be repealed. "It's a really brutal way to treat a group of people."
Solano was born in Colima, Mexico and was brought to the U.S. illegally by his parents, first at the age of 6 and again at the age of 10.
Solano, who's lived in the U.S. most of his life, thinks of this country as his home and can't imagine what he would do if he was deported.
That's true for a lot of DACA recipients, according to Ramirez. Some of the recipients don't even speak the language of their native country.
"They would have a difficult time going back to their home country" Ramirez said. "Some don't even speak Spanish. They know America, the U.S., as their home country."
For Solano, receiving the protections provided by DACA changed his life and his outlook. "I remember it being at a time when I was working and not really having a sense of direction," Solano said. "DACA gave me a new sense of hope and direction."
Applying for the program didn't come without burdens. Solano applied for both DACA itself and a DACA work permit. Those applications come with a $465 and $495 fee, respectively.
Solano had to be thoroughly vetted, giving over financial information, biometric data (including fingerprints), and other personal information.
But Solano thought the benefits outweighed the amount of work that went into the application. "I had faith in the system, in the government," Solano said. "I did everything by the book. I tried to be a good person, I served in the community … I'm not a criminal. I wanted to have faith that, personally, the benefits of DACA would outweigh the risks."
Solano was able to apply for college as a full-time student. And although DACA recipients aren't eligible for financial aid, Solano was able to obtain steady employment that supported his education.
"And in the minimal sense, it gave me some sort of status. Some sort of status that allowed me to be able to stay in the country," Solano said.
Although the Sept. 5 repeal announcement was hard for Solano, in a sense he's expected this to happen since President Donald Trump was elected.
"Automatically, the first thing that came to my mind the day of the election was DACA," Solano said. "It was devastating, almost like losing DACA before actually losing it."
Trump spoke against DACA during his campaign. In August 2016, he said, ""We will immediately terminate President Obama's two illegal executive amnesties, in which he defied federal law and the constitution to give amnesty to approximately 5 million illegal immigrants," referring to both Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents.
Solano's fear that his DACA status would no longer protect him felt even more real when, for the first time, a DACA recipient was detained by Immigration and Custom Enforcement in February this year.
That's why in April he started a GoFundMe page to raise money to apply for a U visa, a nonimmigrant visa available to victims of certain crimes.
He's still in the process of exploring that option, and as of now is uncertain what his status will be.
He's uncertain that Congress will be able to follow through and pass legislation that will protect him, but he wants that to happen.
"I sure as hell hope so," Solano said of legislators passing a law that would protect him and other DACA recipients. "Not just for the benefit of the nearly 800,000 DACA recipients, but for the future of this country."
According to U.S. Congress members Rep. Kurt Schrader, a Democrat from Canby representing Oregon's fifth district, and Rep. Linda Sanchez, a Democrat representing California's 38th district, the U.S. Legislature has realized since the beginning that DACA was a temporary solution.
"In Congress with these districts written so much all-democrat or all-Republican … there's no incentive for these Republicans to get on board," Schrader said. "As soon as they do, they're going to get primary'd out by someone more red than them."
Sanchez, who is the former chair of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and the current vice-chair of the House Democratic Caucus, said it can be hard to explain to constituents how hard it is to pass a bill like the DREAM Act, a bill first introduced in Congress in 2001 that outlines protections similar to DACA. The DREAM Act has been reintroduced in Congress several times but has never been passed.
"It's hard when you don't know the system in Washington, D.C. You don't understand what's involved in trying to get a bill through Congress," Sanchez said. "It's hard for people to understand why this can't be taken care of quickly. A lot of it is just educating people what the obstacles are, what the hopes are, who can we get to align with us to try to pass a legislative fix to this."
Part of the problem, Sanchez said, is a lack of understanding of who DACA recipients are.
"So much of the word 'immigrant' is loaded with the word 'criminal,'" Sanchez said. "People think of immigrants as an undesirable element, something that's here to do harm. These students are anything but that. They're not a threat to our national security because they've been vetted in every sense of the word. They love this country and they want to contribute."
In order to be eligible for DACA, individuals must be currently in school, have graduated or obtained an equivalent certificate from high school; must not have been convicted of a felony, significant misdemeanor, three or more misdemeanors, and must not pose a threat to national security or public safety; and must turn over medical records, financial records, school records, and employment records and must be fingerprinted, among other requirements.
Other Oregon politicians have expressed anger at President Trump's administration for announcing the repeal of DACA.
Sen. Ron Wyden, a Democrat from Oregon, tweeted on Sept. 5, "Ripping away legal protections for 800,000 DREAMers who make vital contributions to America is cowardly, Mr. President. #DefendDACA"
And Sen. Jeff Merkley, also a Democrat from Oregon, called the repeal short-sighted.
"President Trump's move to go back on our promise to DREAMers is not only heartless, it's shortsighted. Since DACA was implemented five years ago, 11,000 Oregonian DREAMers have strengthened our local economies and the fabric of our communities," Merkley said in a statement. "These are young Americans who came here through no fault of their own as children, and know no other home. DREAMers are productive and contributing members of our society, and ending this program would be not only a heartless betrayal, but also a devastating $460 billion blow to America's economy."
Local politicians have also come out against the DACA repeal, including Oregon's Senate President Peter Courtney. "These young people have grown up in our communities and our schools. They've been in the choir and played in the band. They've starred on the soccer field and the basketball court. They've never known a home other than Oregon. They are our kids," Courtney said of DACA recipients in Oregon. "DACA has given them the same path to opportunity and the American dream their classmates enjoy. … Congress should act quickly to fulfill our moral duty to these young Oregonians so they can fulfill their dreams."
According to Ramirez, the effect of the recent DACA announcement, along with Immigration and Customs Enforcement activity that's taken place in the Woodburn area, has prompted PCUN in partnership with its sister organization Causa Oregon to offer psychological services to the area's Latino communities.
"A lot of folks are dealing with depression and anxiety," Ramirez said. "We're going to be announcing a program in which DACA applicants can come in and get support. That's the level of anxiety that exists. These kids are suffering from depression and the fear of the unknown — potentially going back to a country when they don't even speak Spanish — it's a horrible situation."
Solano, who works for the Latino Health Coalition, a nonprofit that aims to remove health disparities that exist in low-income Latino communities, said he's also witnessed mental health problems in immigrant communities over the past year.
"Some things are being overlooked when it comes to mental health," Solano said. "Everybody's going to be pushing for the DREAM Act, and that's all great. But how do we take care of ourselves?"
And the stress about DACA doesn't just affect its recipients, Solano said. "Latino culture is one that values family," Solano said. "We support each other a lot. For a lot of families, DACA recipients are the primary source of income. It definitely affects more than the DACA recipients economically, financially and emotionally."
In the meantime, representatives in support of the DREAM Act have been urging constituents who see its value to act. That includes calling other congressmen who haven't spoken out in support of the DREAM Act. Ramirez said he and other PCUN Representatives will be meeting with U.S. Rep. Greg Walden, a Republican from Hood River who represents Oregon's 2nd district, who hasn't come out in support of the bill.
At this time, any DACA applications submitted after Sept. 5 will be denied. But the federal government is still accepting applications for those eligible for a renewal of their DACA coverage. Those renewal applications must be submitted before Oct. 5 to be considered.
Sanchez said she's heard some fear from constituents about renewing DACA — some are worried that the federal government could use the information given at renewal against them. But Sanchez said it's important to renew.
"Potentially if there's a legislative fix down the line, they could be ineligible if they didn't register," she said. "So we're really getting the word out that please renew your DACA if you're DACA's expiring."
DACA recipients whose coverage expires between Sept. 5, 2017, and March 5, 2018, may be eligible for renewal. Local organizations have been holding DACA Renewal Clinics for eligible participants. The next clinic will be in Medford from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. For more information and to RSVP, call 541-840-9670 or 541-840-9669.