Local ‘Dreamers’ have more questions than certainty


Sister Joan Scheller spent a chunk of one February afternoon in her basement office at Sisters of St. Benedict Immigration Outreach at Monastery Immaculate Conception in Ferdinand texting all her immigration services clients that participate in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals — DACA — program.

Five months after the Trump administration announced an end to the program, the courts had ordered the program re-opened, clearing the way for some of Scheller’s clients to reapply for the protection.

“We’re not discouraging them (from renewing) because it’s so volatile we don’t know if it’s going to be there when it’s time for them to renew,” said Sister Michelle Sinkhorn, who also works in the Immigration Outreach ministry.

Both Scheller and 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.

Former President Barack Obama created the DACA program by executive order in 2012 in response to Congress’s inability to pass the DREAM Act, a law that would have reformed the U.S. immigration system to give undocumented immigrants who were brought to the United States as children — often referred to as Dreamers — a path to legal residency and earned citizenship.

In September 2017, the Trump administration announced it would phase out the program and gave Congress six months to come up with immigration reform legislation.

The Dream Act of 2017 was introduced, but didn’t pass.

Without such an act, DACA recipients have no pathway to legal residency.

Without legal residency, immigrants cannot gain citizenship.

The Trump administration meant for DACA applications to end on March 5, but the courts ordered the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services to continue accepting applications for renewal while the court proceedings occur.

No new applications are being taken.

While DACA does not give Dreamers a path to citizenship or even legal residency, it does allow recipients to live without the fear of deportation as long as they meet several criteria.

To apply for DACA, applicants must have arrived in the United States before June 15, 2007, and have been under the age of 16 when they arrived. Applicants must be at least 15 years old, have clean criminal records and be enrolled in school or working.

No one who immigrates to the U.S. now can apply.

With DACA status, which costs roughly $500 to apply for and lasts two years before applicants must reapply and pay another $500, Dreamers can get a driver’s license, attend college, own property, work and pay taxes just like all employees.

They do not qualify for government benefits, even though they pay into social security.

In the five years since DACA was established, the sisters have helped about 150 local young people receive the status.

Despite the uncertain future of the program and the roughly $500 cost of applying, many of the DACA recipients Scheller and Sinkhorn work with have chosen to reapply.

“These young people still believe the United States is going to come through for them,” Scheller said. “They truly believe that they aren’t going to be cast out.”

Carolina Aguilera, a 2011 Jasper High School graduate, is one of the young people receiving DACA, although the 26-year-old’s faith in the United States, which she calls “her country,” has been shaken in the last several months.

“I feel like I don’t belong anywhere,” she said.

Aguilera’s parents came to the United States from Honduras 25 years ago under the temporary protective status program due to unrest in the South American country. They settled in Dubois County, and after a few years, sent for Aguilera and her siblings.

Aguilera arrived in the U.S. 18 years ago at the age of 8. She applied for DACA in 2012, using the program’s protections to attend college and get a job. She now lives in Indianapolis where she recently bought a house and works in risk management for Gaylor Electric.

Without a DACA or the passage of legislation giving her protected status and/or a path to permanent residency and citizenship, Aguilera stands to lose both her job and her house when her DACA status expires in either a few months or two years, depending whether her renewal application is approved. Without the status, she could be deported to Honduras. The situation, she said, is “the reality.”

“I don’t know Honduras at all, but now I don’t feel welcome here, either,” she said.

Aguilera isn’t the only DACA recipient who knows nothing of her family’s native country. Scheller and Sinkhorn have had a handful of clients come in for help applying for DACA who had no idea they were undocumented until they tried to get a driver’s license or apply for a job or college.

“That’s kind of like finding out you were adopted and didn’t know it,” Scheller said.

Aguilera and her fellow DACA recipients — 690,000 young people as of September 2017 — have been living in a state of uncertainty since the Trump administration announced it would phase out the DACA program.

Although court orders keep the DACA program active for current recipients while the case makes its way through the courts, even if applicants reapply and pay the fee, there’s no guarantee the applications will be accepted.

Aguilera has heard of applications being denied for no clear reason and DACA recipients suing USCIS over the denial. The stories make Aguilera especially nervous because she’ll need to apply to renew her status in a few months.

Scheller and Sinkhorn have been helping recipients apply as much as a year before their current status expires. If approved now, those recipients would gain a year of protection if courts rule in favor of the Trump administration and an end to DACA.

Scheller and Sinkhorn see their work with immigrants — especially those who are most vulnerable, such as the DACA recipients — as a continuation of the Sisters of St. Benedict’s original mission in Dubois County. The sisters first came to Dubois County 150 years ago to serve the German immigrants who spoke no English and needed German-speaking teachers. More importantly to the sisters, it’s also a matter of faith and following God’s teachings, particularly Matthew 25:40.

“It’s not a question of what is fair,” Scheller said. “It’s a question of compassion.”

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