DACA decision brings local ‘Dreamers’ uncertainty

By LEANN BURKE
lburke@dcherald.com

Carolina Aguilera feels like her freedoms are being taken.

The 2011 Jasper High School graduate came to the United States from Honduras when she was 7 as an undocumented child immigrant. In 2012, she applied for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program that President Obama created via executive order. While DACA didn’t offer permanent residency or a path to citizenship, it did allow her to be financially secure. With DACA, she could get a driver’s license, attend college, work, join the military and own property. Now, those freedoms are at risk. The Trump administration announced Tuesday it would phase out the DACA program, giving Congress six months to come up with a permanent solution.

“You’ve been given a taste of freedom, and now it’s being taken back,” Aguilera said. “That’s what it feels like.”

About 800,000 young adults nationwide hold DACA status, and roughly 100 of them live in Dubois County. Sister Joan Scheller runs the Sisters of St. Benedict Immigration Outreach at the Monastery Immaculate Conception in Ferdinand. She and Sister Michelle Sinkhorn are certified by the U.S. Department of Justice to serve legal needs in matters of family immigration law and to determine eligibility for certain benefits. In the five years since DACA was established, the sisters have helped about 150 local young people receive the status and they currently are involved in 65 cases.

Scheller said people need to understand what DACA is and the atmosphere in which it was created. In 2011, she said, Congress was working on the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act of 2011, a law that would have reformed the U.S. immigration system to give undocumented immigrants who were brought to the United States as children a path to legal residency and earned citizenship. Without such an act, they have no pathway. To become a citizen, Scheller said, you first have to be a legal resident. To be granted legal residency, a U.S. citizen or other permanent resident has to apply for you. As children of immigrants, people who qualify for DACA have no one to apply for them.

To qualify for residency under the DREAM Act, the children needed to brought to the U.S. at least five years prior to the law’s passage and have been 15 years old or younger when they arrived. They also had to be 35 years old or younger at passage of the bill, have clean criminal records, pass government background checks, have a high school diploma or equivalent and submit biographical and biometric data. The bill passed the House of Representatives in 2010, but failed in the Senate in 2011. DACA recipients are often referred to as “Dreamers” based on the failed legislation.

In response to Congress’s failure to pass the DREAM Act, President Obama signed an executive order establishing the DACA program, which began in 2012. DACA came with similar requirements to the DREAM Act, but it did not offer a pathway to permanent residency or citizenship. DACA was also never meant to be permanent.

“It was a temporary fix to help those young people live a normal life until something permanent could be completed,” Scheller said.

To qualify for DACA, Dreamers had to arrive in the U.S. before June of 2007 and be under the age of 16 upon arrival. They must also be able to pass a criminal history check that includes misdemeanors, submit biographical data and show they had consistently been in school or graduated. To apply, Dreamers needed to be 15 years old and pay a $495 application fee. That fee didn’t guarantee DACA status, but Scheller said the kids she worked with never had a problem. To keep their status, the recipients had to reapply every two years, paying $495 each time, prove they were in school or working, provide updated biographical information and pass a new background check. Scheller’s reapplicants never had any issues.

“They’re grateful for the benefits, so they have done everything in their power to stay in good standing,” Scheller said.

Jennifer Alcantar Yáñez of Huntingburg, 19, said she’s thankful for her DACA status. Yáñez was brought to the U.S. from Mexico when she was 8 months old. Her family was poor and couldn’t afford food or clothes. They came to America hoping for a better life for their children. When she turned 15, she applied for DACA status. Since then, she graduated from Southridge High School, completed one semester at Vincennes University Jasper Campus and got a job she loves at the German American call center in Jasper. She also has a baby of her own who is a U.S. citizen because she was born in the United States.

“I didn’t ask to be brought to the U.S. illegally, but I’m thankful I was,” Yáñez said. “I was given opportunities that I wouldn’t have had if I was left in Mexico with my grandparents.”

Yáñez’s DACA status expires in 2019. If Congress doesn’t come up with a replacement for DACA by then, she risks losing her job and possibly being deported to Mexico. If she’s deported, she said, she’d take her daughter with her.

“She’s a U.S. citizen, yeah, but I’m not going to leave her here,” Yáñez said

Like Yáñez, Aguilera used her DACA status to go to college and get a job. Aguilera completed two years of college at Vincennes University Jasper Campus and finished her degree at Ivy Tech in Indianapolis, where she recently bought a house and works in risk management for Gaylor Electric. Without a replacement for DACA, Aguilera stands to lose both her job and her house when her DACA status expires, a situation she said is “the reality.” She and others like her are preparing to go back to living in the shadows as undocumented immigrants. She’s prepared for that, she said, but she’s not prepared to be deported to Honduras, the country that was known as the murder capital of the world before El Salvador took the title in 2016.

“I don’t know how anything works there,” she said. “I don’t know how to get a job there. The only thing I have is the language.”

As Scheller and Sinkhorn continue to work with DACA clients, they hear concerns about the information they provided for the DACA process being used to track and deport their families, many of whom are undocumented. They’re also scared of being sent to a country they don’t know and having their families separated. Many families, Scheller said, are what she calls “blended families” where the parents and older kids are immigrants, but the younger siblings were born in the U.S., making them U.S. citizens. Sinkhorn said she and Scheller were told the government wouldn’t use the DACA recipients’ data to find them or their families, but that’s been little comfort.

“When your information is out there, it’s scary,” Sinkhorn said. “If I were them, I’d be scared spitless.”

In the days since the Trump administration’s announcement, politicians on both sides of the aisle have spoken out.

“In Indiana, nearly 9,000 DACA beneficiaries contribute more than $500 million in economic activity to the Hoosier economy,”  Indiana Democratic Party Chairman John Zody said in a statement. “They are small business owners, entrepreneurs and they are vitally important to our state’s economic engine. We know there is much work to be done to fix our broken immigration system. Subtracting half a billion dollars in GDP from the state’s economy won’t help in that aim, nor will building walls instead of bridges. We urge Congress to work together to find a bipartisan solution.”

U.S Representative Larry Bucshon, who represents Dubois County, issued a statement.

“Innocent young adults should not be held accountable for the illegal actions of their parents, and we need a permanent solution to this challenge,” the lawmaker said. “As the Trump administration made clear, immigration laws must be deliberated and passed through Congress, not implemented through executive fiat (as DACA was).”

In phasing out the program, U.S. Customs and Immigration Services has stopped accepting new applicants for DACA. Current DACA holders will not lose their status, and those whose status expires in the next six months have until Oct. 5 to apply for a two-year renewal. The Trump administration gave Congress six months to come up with a permanent solution for the “Dreamers,” a move that many have said put the responsibility to fix immigration issues back in the legislative branch where it belongs. While Aguilera isn’t optimistic that Congress will come up with a solution, she and others like her would be willing to follow whatever path to citizenship is laid out for them.

“We’re willing to jump any hurdle you throw at us,” Aguilera said. “It’s just a matter of giving us those hurdles.”

She said the prevailing image of an immigrant is wrong. The majority, she said, are not violent criminals or free-loaders. Rather, they’re people who want the same things as Americans — to have a safe place to live with their families, to work and to have the opportunity for a good life.

“We’re teachers, we’re college graduates, we’re police officers,” Aguilera said. “We are the embodiment of what the American Dream is — that if you work hard enough, you’ll get somewhere.




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