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DACA recipients question future

As the potential end to DACA looms, program recipients unsure of next steps

Members of DREAMers on Grounds, students and community members protest in front of Garrett  Hall September 2017 against President Trump's initial decision to rescind the DACA program. 

Fourth-year College student Jacqueline “Jacky” Cortes moved to Alexandria, Va. from Mexico at the age of nine with her family on a visitor’s visa. At nine, she was not thinking about her legal status. Instead, she was thinking about going to Disneyland.

“I wasn’t aware of the policies or the laws or anything,” Cortes said. “I was like, ‘oh we’re moving to the states? I’m going to go to Disneyland?’”

The U.S. Department of Justice announced President Donald Trump’s decision to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program on Sept. 5. DACA allows young undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. with their families as children and meet certain criteria to remain in the U.S. The lives of nearly 790,000 DACA recipients have been thrown into uncertainty since the decision. Congress has six months to pass legislation before the program ends March 5, 2018.

“He’s essentially gambling with the lives of 800,000 people,” said Rawda Fawaz, third-year College student and vice president of DREAMers on Grounds.

After excitedly telling her mother about upcoming college visits, Cortes’s mother told her she was undocumented. Cortes said she felt embarrassed and ashamed of her status, but she didn’t know exactly why.

“It’s just how the United States perceives the undocumented community,” Cortes said. “They completely criminalize us.”

Her mother told Cortes to be honest with her guidance counselor about her status. Although her guidance counselor did not have the legal resources to help her at the time, she gave Cortes hope and encouraged her to continue her education.

With each passing year, Cortes became more aware of how her lack of documentation set her apart from her high school peers. Without legal status, she could not get a driver’s license. Without legal status, she could not work with her friends at American Eagle. Four years passed and nothing had changed.

“The day of my graduation ceremony in high school, President Obama announced DACA,” she said. “It made me feel like I belonged for once in the only place I’ve known as home.”

In Virginia, DACA gives students like Cortes a work authorization permit and the ability to get a driver’s license. However when DACA was first announced in 2012, Virginia DACA recipients did not qualify for in-state tuition. 

Cortes, who had lived in Alexandria since she moved to the U.S., did not qualify for in-state tuition. With this in mind, she got involved with the “Dreamers” activist community in Arlington. She attended protests and marches to fight for other DACA recipients to receive in-state status. In April 2014, Virginia Attorney State General Mark Herring announced Virginia DACA students now qualified for in-state tuition. Cortes began school shortly after. She said she had never thought about going back to live in Mexico.

“This the place where I’m going to accomplish my dreams,” said Cortes. “This is our home.”

What is DACA?

Former President Barack Obama signed DACA into law by executive order in 2012. The executive order followed over 10 years of debate regarding the best way to address the hundreds of thousands of undocumented people who came to the U.S. as children. The 2001 Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act and its later iterations all received bipartisan support but failed to obtain the necessary votes for approval. Each bill provided a structured path for the so called “Dreamers” to obtain legal status in the U.S. 

DACA is not permanent legal status or a “Green Card,” nor is it a path to legalization. It is a temporary reprieve from the threat of deportation which allows recipients to legally work and seek higher education.

David Martin, a former University law professor and immigration law expert, said DACA privileges are still far from those of a legal permanent resident. For example, before leaving the country, DACA recipients must apply for advance parole, or permission to leave the country. The request comes with a fee of $575.

“It focused specifically on people who grew up in the United States, most of whom didn’t know much of any life outside this country,” Martin said. “They were minors when they came, and they weren’t culpable for any violation that was involved in their coming.”

DACA recipients must have arrived before 2007, been under the age of 16 upon arrival and have been under the age of 31 as of June, 15, 2012. Recipients must have been in school or have obtained a general education development (GED) certificate in addition to a record free of any felonies or significant misdemeanor charges. DACA is given in two-year increments and subject to renewal. The application fee and renewal fee are both $495.

“Many people have the misperception that getting immigration status in this country is just a matter of getting in line somewhere, and that’s not true at all,” Martin said. “Lines exist only for people with very specific qualifications.”

Cortes also mentioned the exclusivity of the policy. 

“A lot of my friends were unable to apply for it because they didn’t qualify,” she said. “It’s hard seeing your friends who came a month later than you did [not qualify]. She can’t have that privilege.”

Since its announcement in 2012, nearly 790,000 people have been granted DACA status, including 12,134 people in the state of Virginia, according to data released by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services in June. In light of the recent announcement to end DACA, no new DACA applications will be accepted. Current immigrants protected under DACA are subject to renewal if their applications expire before March 5, 2018. Applications for those eligible are due Oct. 5.

DREAMers on Grounds

In March 2016, DREAMers on Grounds officially became a contracted independent organization after Student Council initially denied the group status, causing a contentious debate on Grounds. Despite this setback, the group formed by current president Paola Sánchez Valdez, a fourth-year Curry student, and alumna Karina Rodriguez, created a safe space for undocumented students at the University.

DREAMers on Grounds’ mission is “to provide a safe space for DREAMers and allies, to better the experience of DREAMers, to inform the U.Va. and Greater Charlottesville community about the unique issues and challenged undocumented students undergo,” according to the CIO’s website.

Sánchez Valdez came to the United States with her family at two-years-old on a visitor’s visa, but she did not discover that she was undocumented until sixth grade. Her mother was crying while watching the massive 2006 protests for immigration reform on the news.

“Mom, why are you crying?” Sánchez Valdez said. “And she said, ‘Those people are marching for us.’”

After years of living as an undocumented immigrant, Sánchez Valdez was one of the first people to receive DACA status in Virginia in 2012. Sánchez Valdez added she and her family received their green cards a year later. 

“Ever since sixth grade, I hid that identity, that part of me, and then when I came to college I finally told my story,”  Sánchez Valdez said.

Similarly, Cortes noted hiding her undocumented status from her friends and classmates. 

Both Sánchez Valdez and Cortes stated the important role undocumented students have in the community. 

“We are your neighbors, we are your classmates, we are people that serve your food, we are your doctors, we are your lawyers,” Cortes said. “We are part of the community, and we want to be and we will continue to be part of the community. This is not about left and right, blue or red, this is about just people.”

“You have no way of knowing if the person you’re standing beside is undocumented, but that person has every right to be here as much as you do,” Sánchez Valdez said. “They went to school, they studied hard, they’re here and they deserve that right to education just like anyone else.”

While DACA gave Cortes hope, she still maintained reservations about her future and the future of the undocumented community. 

“It is an executive order and we were always scared of what was going to happen next,” Cortes said. 

When the Department of Justice announced President Trump’s decision to end DACA, DREAMers on Grounds responded by hosting the #HoosForDREAMers occupation in front of Garrett Hall. Around 200 members of the University and Charlottesville community came out in support of DACA recipients, chanting “No hate, no fear, DREAMers are welcome here” and “Up, up with education, down, down with deportation.” 

Fourth-year Curry student Patrick Talamantes, who attended the rally, said it is everyone’s responsibility to support the undocumented community. 

“With the repeal of DACA, I feel we all have an obligation to follow the lead of DREAMers on Grounds in their fight for protection, dignity and respect for the undocumented community,” Talamantes said in an email statement.

Echoing a similar sentiment, David Singerman, assistant history and American Studies professor, said now is the time to support undocumented students. 

“It’s inspiring to see so many students and faculty come out in support of undocumented students,” Singerman said. “This is a time when students, faculty, staff, the administration and the community really need to come together and stand for democracy and justice.”

Cortes said the rally renewed her hope in the power of the people. 

“During the rally it was very encouraging and empowering to see so many allies come out and support [undocumented students],” she said. “There are people who know us and accept us, and they know what we bring to the table which is a lot. They want us here.”

Student Council also passed resolutions in support of DREAMers on Grounds and other student groups such as the University Democrats and the Asian Student Union voiced their support. 

DREAMers on Grounds will be holding its first general body meeting Sept. 15. The goal will be to create a direct action committee that will allow more students to be involved with the organization. In addition, the CIO is working with the Virginia Intercollegiate Immigrant Alliance and other collegiate programs to help protect Dreamers in Virginia and host a DREAMers conference.

What’s Next?

The University administration has reached out to undocumented students to offer support. Fawaz says DREAMers on Grounds is working with the University to ensure that undocumented students currently enrolled graduate with degrees.

In an interview with The Cavalier Daily on Tuesday, University President Teresa Sullivan said the University is working with DACA recipients on an individualized basis to help them understand their situation legally and academically. The University has also provided a person in Counseling and Psychological Services to work with DACA recipients. 

“We’re trying to help students understand legally what [their] situation looks like, and also to provide them with the opportunity to explore whether they have legal options for staying in the country, something other than DACA,” she said.

Sullivan also said that they’re working with faculty to ensure that students “further away” from graduation have the opportunity to graduate.

“If [students are] further away [from graduating], we’re looking at the opportunities that they could work with their faculty to get that degree finished before they have to leave,” she said. “What we really don’t want to have happen is to have you be here at U.Va. and leave without having a chance to earn your degree.”

Cortes says that if the University administration wants to help undocumented students, they will. However, ways that the University can help these students, such as making scholarships available and promising in-state tuition, are not yet guaranteed. Fawaz said that losing DACA will lead to students losing their financial aid.

Martin noted that while some undocumented students will be able to stay as late as March 2020, others could lose their work authorization and access to higher education as early as March 5, 2018. However, he did acknowledge that the Trump administration said there will be no special effort to deport DACA recipients unless they commit a crime or are involved in gang activity. 

Although the future for DACA and undocumented students at the University is unclear, Cortes remains hopeful. 

“Even if nothing happens in the six months, people, the undocumented community, the immigrant community, our allies — I have faith that they won’t stop,” Cortes said. “They’re going to continue fighting and that’s how the change is going to happen.”


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