SAN DIEGO (CN) – Thousands of Dreamers scrambled over the weekend to renew their permits before the Thursday deadline, though what will happen to beneficiaries of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program when their permits expire is still uncertain.
DACA permits must be renewed every two years. More than 200,000 Dreamers hold permits that will expire this year, and another 275,000 will expire in 2018.
DACA, created by executive order by President Barack Obama in 2012, grants some people who were brought to the United States without authorization before their 16th birthday work permits and temporary Social Security cards. They must have clean records, have attended school, and meet other qualifications.
President Donald Trump has not renewed the program. Those whose permits expire before March 5 must submit their renewal applications by Thursday.
Jesus Mendez Carbajal, 24, came to San Diego in 1998 when he was 5, crossing the border through the mountains. He knew from a young age that his family was sin papeles, without papers.
“I was not able to get a job or driver’s license when I was 16. I could not do what my peers were doing in high school,” Mendez said. “I felt different because I was.”
Mendez said his family never intended to stay as long as they have, “yet here we are.”
He has a younger sister who is a U.S. citizen. So like many immigrant families, they are “mixed status,” some safely here, others in constant stress from the fear of deportation.
While not “super gung-ho” about applying for DACA, Mendez applied in September 2012 and was approved in May 2013. He landed two paid internships that summer and worked as a community organizer.
Going back to school is Mendez’s back-up plan in case Congress does not pass an immigration bill before his DACA permit expires in January 2019. He said the program gave him and his family hope, but they are still “realistic” and have a plan in place in case one of them is detained and sent to an immigration prison.
“It’s been hard to have those conversations because having the conversations means you have to face it. Hopefully this won’t happen to us, but in the case it does, we need to be prepared. … It’s a tight rope to walk on,” Mendez said.
Immigration attorney Maria Chavez with San Diego firm Jacobs & Schlesinger said the last time any significant changes were made to immigration policies was in 1996, under President Bill Clinton.
DACA was a “Band-Aid fix,” Chavez said, that shielded hundreds of thousands of young undocumented immigrants from deportation and has helped some along a path to citizenship, though that is the exception and not the rule.
“It’s allowed them to come out and really flourish and be Americans, which is what they are but weren’t really allowed to be before,” Chavez said.
But when their permits expire, the Dreamers will be undocumented again, facing two serious consequences: loss of their jobs and deportation.
Chavez said that Dreamers who have filed their renewal applications in the weeks since Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced on Sept. 5 that the program was ending should be approved, unless they have committed a crime or otherwise do not qualify.
The “most frustrating comment” she hears, Chavez said, come from people who ask why someone in the country for years has not started the process to become a citizen, or “fixed their papers.”
“For the vast majority of people, there is no way. For those who say, ‘Get in line,’ there is no line. Our current system is harsh, it’s really cruel. … It’s not that easy. If it were, the majority of people would have become citizens by now,” Chavez said.
Case in point: Chavez said the sibling sponsorships for immigrant visa petitions from Mexico that are being processed now were filed in 1997.
Against the Odds
Second-year law student Ricardo Morones Torres, 30, grew up in North San Diego County and pursued a career in law due to his experience as an undocumented immigrant. His most recent DACA permit was approved just after Trump was elected and will expire in April 2019, during his last semester of law school.
Friends have encouraged Morones to consider moving to Canada. He said returning to Mexico would be his last option, because of the increasing crime and violence there.
Working as an intern with the Immigration Justice Project highlighted “the distinction between immigration rhetoric and what’s happening on the front lines of immigration court,” Morones said.
“It is really difficult to actually deport someone. In practice, the judges are backlogged and it shows how impossible it would be to deport 11 million undocumented immigrants. I don’t think it could be accomplished under Trump’s terms,” Morones said.
Osmar Abad, 28, came to San Diego when he was 5 years old. He said the vitriol aimed at immigrants today reminds him of the days when Proposition 187 was on California’s ballot, in 1994. It barred undocumented immigrants from attending public schools or using non-emergency health care. California voters approved it, but it was declared unconstitutional.
“I have never felt my undocumented status more than I have when the Trump administration came into the picture,” Abad said. “Even in California, the amount of hatred and rejection and my presence as an undocumented being has never been this much of a problem.”
Abad said applying for DACA felt like an accomplishment. He was able to more than triple his salary in human resources after he was able to accept promotions he had previously denied for fear of having his undocumented status being found out through a background check.
“It has allowed me to live up to my full potential and to give back to my family and community in the best way I’ve been able to,” Abad said.
“I’m helping the community. I’m the embodiment of the American dream.”