After a Texas federal judge’s decision late last week, thousands of Coloradans in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program are facing uncertainty — again — about their legal status in the United States.
The Biden administration said it plans to appeal Friday’s ruling that requires the federal government to stop processing new applications for the DACA program, which helps immigrants whose families brought them into the U.S. as young children temporarily avoid deportation and become eligible for work permits and Social Security numbers.
The latest court ruling leaves immigration attorneys scrambling to figure out how best to help clients who planned to apply for DACA. Current DACA recipients — people like 25-year-old Estéfani Peña Figueroa, who says she feels like she’s been on a “roller coaster” since 2017 — worry what this could mean for the program long-term. And advocates say it’s past time for a permanent solution.
“There’s so many other students like myself,” Peña Figueroa said.
The Obama-era policy protected 18,555 Coloradans as of March 2020, but its existence has been threatened due to legal challenges, including after it began in 2012 and when the Trump administration worked to end it in 2017. Friday’s ruling came from a 2018 lawsuit filed by Texas’ attorney general and other states.
“The court clearly saw that this program is against the law through and through,” Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said in a written statement Monday. “This lawsuit was about the rule of law – not the reasoning behind any immigration policy. The district court recognized that only Congress has the authority to write immigration laws, and the president is not free to disregard those duly enacted laws as he sees fit.”
U.S. District Judge Andrew S. Hanen ruled the program unlawful because it didn’t follow federal administrative rules, but he noted in his decision that the government won’t need to take action like deportation against any current DACA recipients or applicants.
Peña Figueroa, a graduate of Metropolitan State University of Denver, worries about the effects of Hanen’s decision, despite the planned appeal.
“I don’t feel like I can plan for my future,” said Peña Figueroa, who works at her alma mater in immigration services helping others who are in the U.S. without legal permission. “I’m thinking about doing a master’s program, but it just feels like I can never do that because I have to wait for those two years and then hope that I actually get my DACA renewed, but it’s not something that I can plan long-term because of DACA.”
Peña Figueroa had a common worry when she first applied for DACA: that she could put her family in jeopardy. She ultimately applied at the urging of her mother and a friend, but the process wasn’t easy or cheap.
Eighteen-year-old Karen Lizet Lozano of Breckenridge was just approved for DACA two weeks ago. It was a nearly four-year wait, as she was preparing to apply former President Donald Trump blocked the program on her 15th birthday in September 2017 (the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the DACA program last year).
Her family brought her from Mexico at just three months old to the U.S. She’s now a Summit High School alumna who just received a work permit and has a full-ride scholarship for college.
“I’m thankful for it,” she said of her new status, “but I’m still fearful that one day, like, something’s going to happen since we don’t have anything permanent and I could still get it taken away.”
Immigrant advocacy groups called Friday’s decision devastating and one that harms not only the immigrants themselves but the country as a whole.
Denver immigration attorney Catherine Chan said it appears that applications that were already processing before Friday’s decision would still be accepted, but that’s not the case for other first-time applicants.
The ruling isn’t a surprise to Chan, adding that it could serve as an impetus for Congress to include a pathway to citizenship for immigrants living in the country without documentation.
“I’m a little bit more of a realist instead of an optimist about Congress acting,” Chan said, noting immigration continues to be a politically divisive issue. Plus, the Biden administration has issued what Chan sees as talking points about immigration, but there’s been little action.
The bipartisan political immigration advocacy group FWD.us called on Congress to act immediately, saying it’s the only solution. But Congress has failed to pass the DREAM Act at least 16 times, said Violeta Chapin, a professor at the University of Colorado Boulder’s law school who oversees its immigration clinic.
“It’s really shameful, in my opinion, that it results in hundreds of thousands of people’s lives, essentially being whipsawed back and forth by the judiciary and by members of Congress that refused to compromise,” Chapin said.
Chapin said numerous judges, Biden and even President Barack Obama, who created the policy, have said DACA is not meant to be a permanent solution because it doesn’t provide legal status to the young immigrants.
Chan, Chapin and other immigration attorneys will have to look for other ways to help clients obtain legal status, but the options are limited.
Colorado passed legislation this year to help immigrants who are living here without documentation get access to public benefits and avoid possible deportation after obtaining drivers’ licenses, but Chapin said only a federal solution can provide a path to citizenship.
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