For Rhode Island ‘Dreamers,’ DACA decision means uncertainty, fear

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PROVIDENCE — Last Tuesday, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced an end to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA), the Obama-era policy that allowed undocumented immigrants brought to the country as minors to apply for work permits and protection from deportation.

The decision drew sharp criticism from the country’s Catholic leaders, including the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, who have repeatedly called on Congress to enact comprehensive immigration reform in keeping with Church social teaching.

“Today’s actions represent a heartbreaking moment in our history that shows the absence of mercy and good will, and a short-sighted vision for the future,” said a statement signed by USCCB President Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, among other bishops. “DACA youth are woven into the fabric of our country and of our Church, and are, by every social and human measure, American youth.”

The decision resonated strongly in Rhode Island, where slightly more than 1,200 individuals held DACA status as of March. The program, implemented by President Barack Obama in 2012, allows young people between the ages of 15 and 31, popularly referred to as “Dreamers,” to apply for a two-year renewable permit that allows them to work and protects them from deportation, though it does not provide a path to citizenship. Of the 1,200 DACA recipients in Rhode Island, approximately 200 received assistance with their application from the diocesan Office of Immigration and Refugee Services.

“They’re young guys who’ve come here a long time ago,” said Stella Carrera, Immigration and Refugee Services coordinator for the diocese. “They don’t know their own country. That’s one of the things that’s sad for many of them. This is their country.”

The program is set to be phased out over a 19-month period beginning on March 5, providing a window that President Donald Trump has indicated allows Congress time to reinstate the program legislatively, if they choose. Those whose DACA status was set to expire prior to March 5 are allowed to renew their status for one more two-year period before October 5. After March 5, recipients will begin losing the benefits of the program as their status expires and they are unable to renew.

Supporters of the program are now calling on Congress to reinstate the benefits of DACA through legislation, including Bishop Thomas J. Tobin, who expressed his support for the legislation in a statement released last Tuesday.

“The Diocese of Providence stands in solidarity with these young people and their families and urges the members of our Congressional delegation to support the Dream Act of 2017 and to make its passage a reality,” he said.

Leticia Valdez, 25, is one of the young people facing the removal of her DACA status. A parishioner at Blessed Sacrament Church and Providence College graduate who immigrated to the United States from Mexico when she was 11, Valdez can still recall the day in 2012 she first learned about the program. She was returning from a retreat at St. Patrick Church when her father told her the news.

“It was just like a blessing after praying so much for something to happen,” she told Rhode Island Catholic during an interview at the Office for Immigration and Refugee Services.

For Valdez, DACA opened a path to an undergraduate degree, a goal that was previously unattainable. In Rhode Island, undocumented students can apply to attend state colleges and pay in-state tuition but are not eligible to receive federal financial aid, including loans. According to Carrera, paying for education is a common problem for the DACA recipients who have applied through her office, about 80 percent of whom are college students. Without the assistance of federal grants or loans, many rely on DACA work permits to maintain their income or turn to costly private loans, a temporary solution her staff worries will lead to more problems when students lose their DACA status in March.

“Unfortunately, those individuals who will be expiring soon who will not be able to renew [their DACA status] will not be able to continue and they will still have that debt, unless the schools do some kind of program to waive it,” said Genesis Flores, an immigration case manager.

Some years earlier, Valdez had been accepted to the University of Rhode Island’s Talent Development program, but was unable to enroll because the program receives federal funding. Instead, she found under-the-table work at a restaurant and eventually enrolled part-time at Providence College. After obtaining her DACA status, Valdez was offered a job at Amica insurance company and was able to take additional classes at Providence College, graduating in 2016 with a bachelor’s degree in social science. She was accepted to Amica’s Future Leaders Program and promoted to adjuster, a job she still holds today.

“I know if this gets expired, I’m going to have to leave the company and go back to a restaurant,” she said. “Now I’m just in limbo, praying to God that the government is able to do something.”

Because her current status was set to expire prior to March 5, Valdez is able to renew her status one more time before the program is phased out. Under the current policy, her renewed DACA status will then expire in September or October of 2019, at which point she will lose her work permit, driver’s license and protection from deportation. She and her husband recently celebrated their one-year anniversary and were considering buying a house and starting a family, but have decided to put those plans on hold until they know more about how the new policy will affect their future.

“We see all our dreams are collapsing right now. You’re just expecting a good person to have a heart to do something,” she said.

Jose Santos, 18, has a more pressing date to consider. Like Valdez, he was born in Mexico, arrived in Providence as a child and holds DACA status. However, unlike Valdez, his current status will expire on March 30, after the March 5 renewal window. Under the current policy, he is not permitted to renew his DACA status before the program ends and will be one of the first individuals in Rhode Island to lose his status.

“Everybody’s freaking out,” he told Rhode Island Catholic during a phone interview. “Nobody really knows what’s going to happen and we’re all just trying to calm each other down.”

Though he spent the first six years of his life in Mexico, Santos said he considers Rhode Island his home and speaks English better than he speaks Spanish. He recalled first applying for DACA as a student at Central High School and the sense of freedom that came along with the work permit that allowed him to apply for his first part-time job.

“I remember when my license came in and I could finally get my first job at Domino’s,” he said. “It was exciting to be able to be part of the society and make money.”

Now a student at CCRI, Santos works at IHOP to pay his tuition since he is not eligible for federal financial aid. He hopes to go on to veterinary school, but is not sure whether he will be able to continue paying for classes when his work permit expires in March. Like many DACA recipients, he plans to wait and see whether the program benefits will be reinstated before then.

“I want to hope that by that date something will change,” he said. “Hopefully the Congress makes the right decision. I was really scared at first, but now I’m just thinking we might have to do something about it.”

Though Carrera said she does not expect mass deportation to take place immediately after the program ends, her office is telling DACA recipients to be prepared for all situations. More likely, their lives in the United States will become more difficult as they lose the benefits of DACA status and return to the lifestyle of undocumented immigrants that many of their family members and friends continue to live.

“That was the opportunity for so many of the kids to go to college and have jobs,” said Carrera. “We don’t know, but we have a little hope that the Congress will come up with something before the deadline comes true.”