Helping undocumented young immigrants become DACAmented
He was a polite young man—no more than 22 years old—and equally fluent in English and Spanish. He would often translate for his father as the two worked together on various landscaping projects in the neighborhood.
His name was Jesus.
Clay Petrey, board member for Tennessee Justice for Our Neighbors, suspected that the young man he saw cutting grass and trimming hedges was undocumented and DACA-eligible.
“Yes, I looked at it when it was announced in 2012,” Jesus told him. “I got my papers together, but…” he shook his head. “I didn’t make the cut-off.”
The cut-off—the date Jesus would need to have entered the United States—was June 15, 2007. But Jesus didn’t arrive until October 2007. Four months too late.
“It’s just a heartbreaker,” says Clay. “Here he is, smart, a hard worker, a good member of society, and he will remain undocumented. Expanded DACA could help him. But as it is now, his life is a dead end.”
At the Highest Court in the Land
Sometime within the next week, anxious advocates, curious onlookers and every major news outlet in the country will gather outside the U.S. Supreme Court to await the decision on President Obama’s Executive Action on Immigration.
With an equally divided court, few experts are willing to predict which way that decision will fall. We do know, however, that the ruling will have far-reaching consequences for thousands of young immigrants across the country. And whatever happens on this June day, we also know that Tennessee JFON will be ready to help.
TN JFON, in collaboration with Conexión Américas and the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition (TIRRC), launched a DACA-specific program in December 2014. Conexión Américas and TIRRC took responsibility for the outreach and advocacy components, while TN JFON provides the young immigrants access to expert legal services.
Attorney Bethany Jackson was hired to plan and oversee the collaborative DACA workshops—recruiting and training volunteer attorneys to provide legal review—and to also see individual clients in TN JFON’ s Nashville offices.
“Bethany has done an outstanding job,” says Clay, who is also a volunteer attorney at the JFON DACA clinics. “The process is efficient, and everyone is well-trained. The intake volunteers help clients go through the application forms, then turn them over to us. We get a complete file, and I rarely find anything that needs to be redone or questioned.”
Bethany reports that TN JFON has helped more than 500 DACA clients since January 2015, over half of whom have been served through the workshops.
“It is an amazing opportunity to make a concrete difference in the trajectory of a young person’s life,” explains Bethany when asked why she is drawn to DACA cases. “Every day I see young people with tremendous potential. They are bright, hard-working and full of dreams. DACA helps them come closer to achieving their dreams. That said, DACA is not a perfect solution. Here in Tennessee, DACA recipients do not have access to the HOPE scholarships, in-state tuition or the two free years of community college that other Tennessee residents may receive. My own kids are in high school, and when I see the disparity in opportunity for them versus kids from undocumented families, it is heartbreaking.”
The Waiting Game
In November 2014, shortly before TN JFON’s first DACA workshop, President Obama announced his plans for DAPA (Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents) and Expanded DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) in Nashville, Tennessee. This executive action was challenged a month later, winding its way through the lower courts before making it to the highest court in the nation. And so we wait….
“The lawsuit has made people nervous,” Bethany admits. “We are hearing reports from community partners that many DACA-eligible young people feel that it’s not worth taking a risk for an uncertain benefit.”
“People may be afraid to apply for DACA,” concurs Clay. “It’s a lot of information being reported to the DHS (Department of Homeland Security.) They say they will not use it for removal action, but we don’t have any guarantee that won’t happen in the future.” Given the poisonous anti-immigrant rhetoric on the campaign trail, Clay adds pensively, “I’m not sure I would want to self-report my status, either.”
Bethany, meanwhile, is planning ahead. She continues talking to people, educating community groups, and helping immigrants get ready to apply for both Expanded DACA and DAPA.
Jesus is only one of an estimated 300,000 young people living in the United States whose prospects for a brighter future grow depressingly dim without Expanded DACA.
Additionally, there are some 3.6 million parents throughout this country potentially eligible for DAPA; with it, they can give their children the happy and secure childhood that all children deserve. Without DAPA, however, they are forced to remain in the shadows, where their families suffer along with them.
And if the now-eight justices strike down both DAPA and Expanded DACA?
“We will continue working with clients to identify and apply for any form of available relief,” Bethany says with a look of determination. “And work for comprehensive immigration reform!”