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Local DACA recipients face fear and uncertainty
President Donald Trump's decision last week to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program in six months came as grim news to DACA's more than 700,000 participants, as well as to the lawyers and advocacy groups who represent them.
"There was always the potential for the rug to be pulled out from under those with DACA, depending on who was elected president, and that's where we are today," says Diane Grover, an immigration attorney based in Lake Oswego. "Most of us are sick to our stomachs and angry, and ready to fight even harder for our clients."
The DACA policy was initiated in 2012 under then-President Barack Obama. It allowed undocumented immigrants who entered the country as children and met certain criteria to apply for a renewable two-year deferment from federal deportation procedures; it also allows them to apply for driver's licenses and work permits.
In the past five years, Grover says she has helped several Portland-area undocumented young adults obtain or renew their DACA status.
Trump's Sept. 5 announcement means that no new DACA applications will be accepted, although any that were submitted prior to that date will continue to be processed. Current DACA recipients whose two-year deferral is set to expire before March 5, 2018, have until Oct. 5 to apply for one more renewal.
But even those who successfully renew will only receive at most an additional two years past the renewal date, Grover says. Unless Trump reverses his decision or Congress passes legislation to revive the program or replace it with something similar, all DACA recipients will see their deferrals expire by the end of 2019 and potentially be subject to deportation.
Trump's decision led to an immediate nationwide outcry, with multiple lawmakers and advocacy groups condemning the repeal. In fact, Oregon is one of 16 states that have signed on to a federal lawsuit aimed at preserving the program.
"These outstanding young people pay taxes, go to our community colleges and universities, start businesses and contribute in more ways than we can count," says Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum. "To suggest that these Oregonians who have grown up here should be taken from their families and deported to a foreign country where they have no family or friends and may not even speak the language is cruel and indefensible."
Bold ambitions, uncertain futures
The decision to cancel DACA came as shock for Grover's clients, most of whom are in their late teens or 20s. At a time when navigating the jump into adulthood is already particularly challenging for young people, the potential loss of DACA protection throws an enormous wrench into an already complicated machine.
"I was hoping (DACA) would grow into the possibility of citizenship," says Claudia Lopez, one of Grover's clients. "Unfortunately, what we're seeing is the complete opposite."
Lopez, 20, has been a DACA recipient for the past five years and is currently working her way through college. She was born in Mexico, but her family moved to Oregon City when she was less than a year old, and she says that if she were deported at this point, it would be to a completely unfamiliar setting.
"I was born there, but I don't know anything of Mexico," she says. "I don't know what the culture is like. I speak Spanish, but it's not the same thing as being adapted into a different culture that I haven't been raised in."
Lopez initially worked with Grover to apply for DACA status when she was 15, and she has renewed it twice since then. She says she grew up simply thinking of herself as American and hadn't given too much consideration to the implications of her immigration status until DACA became available and her parents urged her to apply.
The revelation was jarring, but Lopez kept her sights set on college and focused on achieving as much as she could in high school. She took honors and AP classes, maintained a nearly 4.0 GPA and participated in tennis, swimming and her school's Link Crew to welcome incoming freshmen. She volunteered at a hospital, and worked at her father's company in the evenings. Her hard work paid off when she received an academic scholarship from Lewis & Clark College.
"I really pushed myself to get the best I could do," she says. "It was tough — there were a lot of moments when high school was very hard. But I remember receiving the acceptance letter from Lewis & Clark, and when I saw the scholarship, I was very happy that after everything I had worked for, I knew I had gotten to where I wanted to be."
Lopez's track record in college has been similarly stellar, making the Dean's List twice in her first two years. Her academic goals have shifted from an initial interest in pediatric medicine to a new focus on child psychology, and she's transferred to the University of Oregon for the coming year so she can take classes from its psychology department.
Lopez says her interest in child psychology stems in part from her own experiences seeing the psychological impact of a family's immigration status on children. The mental health of children is a factor that can often go overlooked, she says.
"There are a lot of children who are afraid of having their parents taken away from them," she says. "There's that fear in children — I've seen it multiple times."
It was widely reported in the days leading up to Sept. 5 that a decision on DACA was imminent, so Lopez says she was watching the news that morning and found out immediately when Trump announced his decision to end the program.
"At first I wasn't sure what it would mean for me," she says. "I was kind of scared, but it gave me more motivation to do something about it, and let people know what it really meant for us, being here."
Lopez's current DACA status will last until the fall of 2019, giving her time to finish college. But unless DACA is restarted or replaced with a similar program in the next two years, she'll lose her status not long after graduating. The prospect is distressing to her whole family, she says.
"My parents definitely worry," she says. "They've seen me struggle through school and work to reach what I have. They're the ones who've helped me through all of this. What will happen if we get split up as a family — if everything we've achieved just disappears?"
A rapid rise, interrupted
Another of Grover's clients, Ingrid A., was born in El Salvador. Her family came to the United States when she was 8 years old, seeking to escape a living environment where local authorities were either unable or unwilling to prevent frequent gang violence.
Ingrid, 23, remembers witnessing violence firsthand as a child, and says she would fear for her life if she had to return.
"Now I'm afraid to go back to El Salvador because I don't know what's going to happen," she says. "It's just terrible. The violence is horrible there. I don't see myself in El Salvador."
Ingrid's family initially lived in Los Angeles, then moved to Portland when she was 12. She says she first learned about her own immigration status — and what it would mean for her future — about two years later. She attended high school in Beaverton and had ambitions to enter the medical field, but says she didn't see any path forward to do so.
Fortunately, the DACA program became available at around the same time that she graduated from high school, and Ingrid worked with Grover to apply and receive a deferral. After receiving her work permit through the program, she was able to save enough money to enroll in a Medical Assistant degree program at Everest Institute.
"I was super excited to have a better future," she says. "Just having a Social Security number and work permit makes your life way different."
She graduated from Everest with honors in 2016 and now works at Legacy Health, with the intention of attending Linfield College for a Registered Nurse degree. In the meantime, she's been working a second job on the weekends, first to pay off her undergraduate loans and now to save for future education. In the long term, she says she hopes to become a physician assistant or a doctor.
"It's tough," she says. "I haven't had time to enjoy my life yet, but it's paying off. With effort, I know I can do this."
But the DACA repeal has thrown all those plans into doubt. Ingrid's work permit will expire in October 2018, along with her DACA status, leaving her with no way to pursue her career unless the program is replaced or reauthorized. She says looking at her future now reminds her of how she felt before DACA: stuck in place and unable to move toward her career goals.
It also undermines all of the work she's already put in, she says — the work to receive her current degree, the time spent working two jobs to pay off the $15,000 school loan, and the nine months of studying she's already put in toward the nursing program.
"I'm a little afraid of what's going to happen," she says. "That money, that time and effort I've put in — I don't know where that's going to go now."
Fighting for DACA
Grover says Lopez, Ingrid and others in their situation would likely not be high priorities for deportation, but the risk will always be there — and they'll face other changes that impact their lives here, she says, including the loss of driver's licenses and right-to-work permits.
Both Ingrid and Lopez express high hopes that Congress will restore or supplement the DACA program. In the meantime, each of them
is determined to focus on educating the public about the program and its recipients, and what they hope to achieve.
"We're not here to just sit around," Ingrid says. "I'm here to be successful and keep on going, and to do something better for this country, too."
Lopez says the effort goes hand in hand with combating the misconceptions that many undocumented immigrants face, such as the notion that they pay no taxes or live off of government programs. Those are stereotypes she's personally encountered, she says, and it's frustrating.
"A lot of people have this idea that we're just here — we're not working, we're not paying taxes. But we do," she says. "I want to do something just like everybody else. I go to work, I pay my taxes and I'm at school. A lot of people don't even recognize me as a DACA student."
The misconceptions about taxes and government benefits are especially pernicious, Grover says, and in fact the opposite is often true; undocumented immigrants pay sales and payroll taxes despite being ineligible for government programs like Social Security.
"The dirty little secret is that (DACA recipients) are contributing taxes and Social Security funds, to the tune of billions of dollars," she says. "A lot of the general public doesn't realize that virtually all of these people are filing their tax returns." Grover says.
Trump's decision has prompted Grover and others in her field to focus on trying to inform as many DACA recipients as possible about their options and how to proceed. For the next few weeks, that means making sure as many eligible recipients as possible are able to submit renewal forms before the Oct. 5 deadline.
For DACA recipients who are unsure about how to proceed, she says, the first thing to do is consult a lawyer who specializes in immigration law and is a member of the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA). Many DACA recipients likely worked with an immigration lawyer to draft their original application, she says, which is a good starting point when looking for legal advice now.
One thing DACA recipients should avoid doing, Grover adds, is seeking advice from a "notario." In many Latin American countries, the term refers to someone who is certified to practice law, but the equivalent-sounding English word "notary" simply means a person authorized to witness the signing of forms. Scam artists often take advantage of the potential misunderstanding, she says, to offer what appears to be legal counsel to immigrants, when in fact they are not licensed attorneys.
But the renewal period will end in another three weeks, and Grover says that after that, the struggle will be to convince Congress to take action to protect all of the program's recipients. That means public outreach and education, and encouraging people to call their congressional representatives and demand ac-tion.
"When we first asked for DACA, it didn't just happen — we worked for it," Lopez says. "We went out, we protested, we talked to people about it. That's how we got DACA started. If we did it the first time, that's what we'll do again."
It also means telling the stories of DACA recipients, and both Lopez and Ingrid say that's why they opted to share their experiences. Lopez says she was concerned about speaking out, but was inspired to do so when she saw a friend and fellow DACA recipient come forward. Ingrid says she hopes telling the stories of DACA recipients will help the public understand the value of the program.
"It's about standing together," Ingrid says. "Together we'll make a big impact. I have hope and faith that something good is going to happen."