A line of people was snaking around the back of the office building by the time Catholic Charities staff rolled in at 7 on Saturday morning. Most were teenagers and young adults accompanied by their families. Several were alone, here to solve their substantial legal troubles on their own. Some clutched folders filled with birth certificates, passports, and other documents that measure a person's life. Some were empty-handed.
Friday marked the two-year anniversary of the implementation of President Obama's executive order, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, otherwise known as DACA. The move was intended to act as a quick fix for upstanding young adults who had been illegally brought to the United States as children, allowing them to access certain legal benefits: A Social Security number. Deferred deportation. A driver's license. Establish credit.
Of more than 900,000 eligible beneficiaries nationwide, around 500,000 have submitted DACA applications in the past two years. Catholic Charities held a statewide DACA counseling day on Saturday in which they offered legal services, live-chatting, video conferences, and application assistance to encourage potential DACA beneficiaries to apply, and help renewal applicants with the process.
Jessica Barron, a DREAMer set to renew her DACA status was among them. Barron was brought to the United States from San Luis Potosí when she was 2 years old. Neither of her parents attended high school and wanted education and economic opportunities for their kids that were not available in Mexico. They had applied for a visa to come to the United States legally, but were denied.
"It's easy for people to say, well why don't you just come here the legal way? But the lines are so long, it takes several years," says Barron. "People always want to take the legal way. Any immigrant in this country would do whatever it takes to have that peace of mind where you can live freely in this country. But the options aren't there. There's just so many things that are beyond a reasonable time frame, and that's the biggest frustration."
Now, Barron is months away from completing her undergraduate degree in criminal justice from the University of North Texas. She hopes to go to law school to study immigration law, but will likely be unable to practice until she can earn citizenship. Nevertheless, she says the DACA program has helped her progress in countless ways and has given her the peace of mind to continue with her education.
Accessing these benefits doesn't come cheaply. The fee is $465 for first-time applicants plus an additional $465 to renew every two years. And for college kids like Barron, that's no small financial contribution. She has tuition due in a week, but says that paying for her DACA renewal is just as important.
"Without DACA right now I'd be still in school, but still not knowing if I'd ever be able to graduate from college and actually get a job under my degree," says Barron. "I was feeling frustrated and somewhat discouraged in the fact that I'd have worked so hard for a degree but not knowing if I'd ever be able to make use of it. And now I know that all that struggle and all that sacrifice is finally paying off and it can continue to pay off."
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Liz Cedillo is an immigration attorney who helped organize the statewide DACA day. She says that while DACA is a good bandage to the obstacles faced by young immigrants, it's temporary. "DACA is not a permanent solution to the legislative fixes we need. It's sort of a stopgap measure," she says.
"It allows this population, millennials, to move forward. Otherwise they're stuck, stuck to where they can't get a job where they can provide a Social Security [number], can't go on to get scholarships, can't go to college. So it's really a game changer for so many youths out there who are just wanting to be a contributor in their own way."
DACA is renewed every two years, which means that this year's batch of DACA holders will be slated for renewal again in 2016. But many still live with the question mark of what happens in the meantime, whether or not national immigration reform is passed, whether or not DACA will still be around in two years.
"Many of them live with these questions, because what does happen at that renewal stage? Am I going to be able to apply, am I going to be able to stay? Am I giving information to the government that will be used against me at a later date? That's a major fear factor," says Cedillo. "All these hard, hard issues are placed on young people. As an adult, we're thinking, should we really make it that hard for a young person to thrive and succeed?"