Future hazy for 100000 Illinoisans brought to US illegally as children – Chicago Tribune
Gabriela Barajas, 32, was overjoyed to learn she could avoid deportation under a policy designed to benefit immigrant children.
But after spending months preparing her application, she’s now questioning whether it’s worth the risk of divulging her immigration status to enter a program that may be eliminated by the Trump administration.
Barajas was brought to the United States from Mexico when she was 8. She is one of 96,000 Illinois residents who may qualify for former President Barack Obama‘s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, an administrative program launched in 2012 for people brought into the country illegally as children.
A Logan Square resident, Barajas learned at a neighborhood meeting about immigrant rights that she met most of the criteria for DACA. It applies to people who have been in the U.S. since 2007, were under age 16 at the time of their arrival and were under age 31 as of 2012.
It took the mother of four children — all American citizens — more than six months to compile medical records and school documents to prove she met the requirements. She also enrolled in an adult education program, as required, and saved about $500 to apply for DACA.
But in November, her attorney advised her to stop the application process. Donald Trump had won the election after promising to deport 3 million people who were in the country illegally. It was unclear whether he would keep DACA in place — or use information collected by the program to find and deport people like her.
“I was ready to submit the paperwork, but they told me to wait to see what happens,” Barajas said. “What if he takes it away in a couple of weeks or a month or something and all the money goes to waste? It’s not worth it.”
Being declared eligible does not guarantee a path to legal residency or citizenship, and those accepted to the program must reapply every two years. Many attorneys and activists now are recommending a two-pronged approach.
“If you already have DACA, there’s not additional risk to renew it because the government already has your information,” said Erendira Rendon, director of national partnerships with the Pilsen-based Resurrection Project. “But if it’s the first time, you should seek legal consultation to weigh the risks.”
Although Trump since becoming president has expressed sympathy toward immigrants who came as children, many Chicago-based immigrant organizations remain skeptical and fear he will dismantle the DACA program.
“I heard some people are still applying no matter what, but there’s always a risk of losing everything you know. Everybody is scared. I’m scared too,” Barajas said.
About 67 percent of eligible immigrants in the U.S. have applied for the program since 2012, according to the institute. More than 770,000 have been accepted.
Illinois has the nation’s fourth-largest population of DACA recipients — the highest share in the Midwest. About 41,800 people in the state have been approved for the program since 2012, according to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
Under the Obama administration, the benefits outweighed the risks for many who were eligible.
Those enrolled are considered a low priority for immigration enforcement, though they are not protected from deportation. They can legally drive and work, which makes them eligible to apply for a Social Security number. While they are still not eligible for federal financial aid, they can qualify for in-state college tuition in some states, including Illinois.
The application itself can be a barrier. People often scramble to collect as many supporting documents as possible to fulfill the application requirements — they submit utility bills, medical records, rent receipts and school transcripts as proof that they’ve lived in the U.S.
“As a general rule, the younger you are, the easier it is to gather the proper documents,” said Vanessa Esparza-Lopez, a managing attorney with the National Immigrant Justice Center. “What’s harder is for folks who graduated high school but didn’t move on to college or who are working but getting paid in cash. So we have to get creative.”
There is a $495 application fee, which can be a “big hurdle” for families with multiple applicants or for people who are trying to renew their status in a timely manner, Esparza-Lopez said.
“All of our clients are low-income. When families are living paycheck to paycheck, it’s hard to come up with that money to apply or renew before their work permits expire,” she said.
Current students, high school or GED course graduates and veterans are eligible for DACA. They must be at least 15 to apply, unless they’re in removal proceedings or have a final removal or voluntary departure order.
In addition to the estimated 96,000 Illinoisans who already may qualify, an additional 9,000 could be eligible once they turn 15 — provided they stay in school and out of trouble — according to data from the Migration Policy Institute. Immigrants who have committed a serious crime, have more than two misdemeanor convictions or are deemed to be a threat to national security are automatically disqualified.
There are about 18,000 more people who could qualify in Illinois but don’t currently meet the education requirement, the institute estimates.
After learning that the lack of a GED was her only roadblock, Barajas enrolled in an adult education program at Wright College Humboldt Park, making her eligible to apply. She now hopes to obtain a GED certificate in May and apply for DACA status in the future.
“I’m still waiting, I’m still hoping,” she said. “I’m not losing faith.”
Esparza-Lopez said many of her clients felt reassured when Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly released a set of Feb. 20 memos that kept DACA in place. Kelly noted the program will be “addressed in future guidance.”
“(The memos) let individuals breathe a sigh of relief for now, so we’re seeing a lot of people wanting to renew,” she said. “The program still exists … we want to make sure that clients are taking ownership of their life situations.”
Support for DACA is not universal.
Hans von Spakovsky, senior legal fellow at the Heritage Foundation, said the program should be repealed because Obama didn’t have the authority to institute it to begin with.