By Jenny Simeone
For third-year UC Santa Cruz student David Padilla-Ramos, entering the immigration offices last December, protected by a law that shed his “undocumented” status — if only for two years — was surreal and symbolic.
“It just seemed weird, going to the immigration offices and giving your fingerprints and taking your picture and [getting] assigned a social security number and all of a sudden it seems as if you’re part of the American population.”
Signed by President Obama in June 2012 and opened for application August of that year, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) is a program that offers two years of protection from deportation for undocumented immigrants, including those already in removal proceedings. It also provides the prospect of working legally, obtaining a legitimate drivers license and acquiring a social security number.
Padilla-Ramos has seen friends and community members go through the DACA application process and was motivated by the support of his parents to apply.
“[I am] from an undocumented family, where my whole life I was growing up around aunts, uncles, cousins and my parents, who are all undocumented,” Padilla-Ramos said. “That really shapes your vision of the world and your ideas of what social justice and equality are, what those things mean when everyone around you is so disenfranchised in that way.”
To be DACA eligible, applicants must fit the age requirement of being under the age of 31 as of June 15, 2012, prove they entered the country before their 16th birthday and have continuously resided in the country since June 15, 2007. DACA recipients cannot have a significant criminal history under United States Citizen and Immigration Services (USCIS) guidelines or pose a threat to national security. Applicants must also be in school, have graduated or have obtained a GED or a high school diploma.
For undocumented university students in California, DACA offers a potential path to legitimate employment, as well as increased opportunities for applying to scholarships or internships that require a social security number. One of the distinguishing features of DACA is its status as federal legislation. It supplements California state legislation like AB540 and the California DREAM act, which help alleviate some of the burden of tuition for undocumented students. However, the two-year limit, the lack of instructions for renewal and its potential to be revoked at any time have concerned immigration advocates and recipients.
Now, almost a year after DACA’s implementation, immigration lawyers, community allies and recipients are still testing the waters.
In a DACA policy brief released this March by the California Center for Collaborative Research for an Equitable California (CCREC), community leaders were urged to support DACA in local schools and other institutions that work with or are in the position to affect the lives of undocumented youth. Affiliated researcher with CCREC, Paul Johnston said raising awareness of DACA is important because it has the potential to dramatically improve the lives of undocumented immigrants.
“You have employment opportunities radically expanded when you have a working permit. They’ll have rights that they didn’t otherwise have, they won’t be vulnerable in the same way they have been in the past,” Johnston said. “But they will need protections on the job and in other institutions as well. That’s the job for community organizers, union leaders and immigrant activists who will feel stronger because this process is empowering.”
Immigration attorney and Deferred Action Coordinator with the Santa Cruz County Immigration Project (SCCIP), Karen Mallory said last August she and other attorneys were only comfortable filing the most clear-cut cases. This was in an effort to gauge how stringent USCIS would be with applicants.
“Anybody who works regularly with the Department of Homeland Security is always wary with how they are going to carry out their policy, so we were watching and … the percentage of cases that have been denied has been surprisingly low,” Mallory said. “I think the risk is lower than we were concerned about [and] families feel less concerned when they get educated about what they need to tell [in their applications].”
Barriers to Application
According to the latest report of DACA statistics in May, USCIS has received a cumulative total of 515,922 applications, of which it has accepted 497,960. While these are encouragingly high numbers to Mallory and many other allies, the reality is that many of those immediately eligible for DACA have yet to apply.
The $465 filing fee alone has proven to be a huge barrier for DACA applicants like Padilla-Ramos, who took four months to gather the necessary funds. It is generally understood among researchers and allies like Johnston and Mallory that USCIS is charging applicants the full cost of processing the applications and for running full background checks.
“There are several financial institutions that are making small loans for DACA applicants, of the specific amount of $465, that they can pay off in the next 10–12 months,” Mallory said. “We are hoping that will help a lot of families.”
Aside from the cost, some eligible youth are deterred from applying because they have criminal records. On its website, the USCIS requirements for DACA prohibit applicants who have been convicted of a significant misdemeanor, three or more misdemeanors or a felony. A past criminal record does not necessarily disqualify any individual, but it complicates their case. Applicants are urged by allies and community members to be carefully screened before applying for DACA, especially if they have a criminal history of any kind.
“USCIS warned that if someone committed fraud on their application, or had been convicted of a serious crime and still applied, that they would be removed,” Mallory said. “That of course is important information we share with everyone and it really informs our decision whether to represent some people or whether we recommend that they apply.”
Clinics for Guidance
DACA clinics have been held all over Santa Cruz County and at the UCSC Educational Opportunity Programs (EOP) office to identify these kinds of exceptions and make decisions for how to proceed. Typically run by volunteers and immigration attorneys providing pro bono legal council, the clinics aim to compile applications and navigate the nuances of each individual case. SCCIP has helped organize 8 DACA clinics — all collaborative events with the larger Santa Cruz County community.
“A lot of our youth who came here as children need people to advocate for them,” said Yethzell Diaz, UCSC alumna and volunteer for the most recent SCCIP run DACA clinic on June 1. “The DACA program is an opportunity for those of us who can to help the youth, who’s situation is coming here and not making that decision themselves, so I am hoping to spread the word as much as possible.”
SCCIP’s next clinic is scheduled for June 15, in Salinas at the Teamsters Union Hall, with more planned to run throughout the summer. UCSC’s EOP office has been expanding its efforts to help students apply for DACA. It held a clinic last winter quarter in response to increasing student interest in the new legislation and a high demand for free legal council. The EOP office successfully helped 24 students complete their applications.
Eligible students who are undocumented can receive some financial support from both AB540, which grants in-state tuition, and the California DREAM act, which provides access to Cal grants and university institutional aid. However, undocumented students are not eligible for federal funding like the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) or work-study programs.
“DACA recipients cannot apply for federal aid and their employment cannot include work-study because they are in kind of a temporary status,” said Aprí Medina, associate director and advising scholarship coordinator at UCSC’s financial aid office. “They’re still not technically permanent residents and they have to be permanent residents or a citizen to qualify for a federal loan.”
Financial aid at every UC campus is modeled on a partnership between students, their family, the campus and the government. Students are responsible for what is called a work loan expectation, or ‘self-help,’ which comprises work-study and student loans, both subsidized and unsubsidized. As federal aid, neither is available to undocumented students.
While DACA allows for a legitimate path to employment, it does not guarantee that university students will actually find a job. It also does not address concerns about potential discrimination against those with a provisional legal status. In theory, the new incomes garnered by those jobs DACA recipients might get could supplement the benefits of state legislations to subsidize the cost of education for undocumented students. But the cost of attending a university like UCSC can still be prohibitive for some.
“Even with the [California] DREAM Act, with deferred action and the in-state tuition [provided by] the AB540 law, those fully funded students are still $10,000 behind a [documented] student of the same need,” said executive director of Educational Opportunity Programs (EOP) at UCSC, Pablo Reguerin. “We still have work to do in ensuring that the students have an equal opportunity to succeed.”
While $10,000 is an estimate, Medina said it is close to the actual gap undocumented students must face when financing their education. The ‘self-help’ expectation for UC students receiving financial aid was $9,750 this year and is primed to exceed $10,000 next year.
In addition to the aid gap, DACA eligible university students need to understand the repercussions of a temporary legal status. Abdishakur Omar, EOP academic counselor, finds that it is difficult to effectively support students who are on a two-year limit.
“[For] students who are currently frosh and sophomores, if they apply for DACA now, by the time they are seniors their work permit will be out of commission,” Omar said. “It’s great for short term, but what’s going to happen in the long term
Empowering and Exclusive
The reality of deferred action for many applicants is that there are risks involved in DACA, which does not grant lawful status in the country, excuse past ‘unlawful presence’ or provide a path to citizenship, leaving its recipients with an ambiguous legal status.
David Padilla-Ramos, member of undocumented student support group Students Informing Now (SIN) and recent DACA recipient, said his peers should remain cognizant of where DACA and U.S. immigration reform has fallen short, notably who it excludes.
“Our parents are not benefitting from this, our grandparents are not benefitting from this,” Padilla-Ramos said. “[We need to] be realistic and understand that there are many more fights ahead and that our newly acquired privilege comes with more responsibility.”
Paul Johnston, affiliated researcher for the University of California Center for Collaborative Research for an Equitable California, said he would like to see DACA framed in its political history. For Johnston, legislation like DACA does not come from the good hearts of politicians, but from the efforts, marches and struggles of students and dreamer communities.
“It’s important … to understand [DACA] as a product of the dreamers movement, holding Obama’s feet to the fire on this,” Johnston said. “The young people who were organizing that [movement] produced the breakthrough that DACA represents.”
Regardless of its shortcomings, DACA has prompted a surge of undocumented students that are not afraid to speak about their status. The ability to speak openly about being ‘undocumented’ and the visibility in the community is referred to by Reguerin and other allies as a ‘coming out of the shadows.’
“The notion of giving testimony and saying ‘I’m undocumented’ and knowing the potential risks has been really key, the more people that have done it, the more normalized it has become, but it is still incredibly courageous.” Reguerin said. “There are still a lot of families being torn apart … and one family is too many.”
Padilla-Ramos is open about his status, his confidence bolstered from receiving DACA last year. While he recognizes the large numbers of special cases and exceptions, he urges those who are eligible to apply.
“It brings a relief to your life, not walking around in fear that you might get deported,” Padilla said. “It counts for a lot because reproducing in your head those images in mainstream media of raids takes a toll on your psychological health.”
Karen Mallory, DACA services coordinator with the Santa Cruz County Immigration Project, believes that DACA is here to stay until comprehensive immigration reform makes it unnecessary.
“It’s an excellent way to bring people who were raised in our community, educated in our schools, in so many ways indistinguishable from our own kids, out of the shadows and bring them forward to offer the talent they have for all of our benefit.”
In her work with undocumented youth at the UCSC EOP office through AB540 student services, Angelica Maldonado has noticed that DACA is often synonymous with ‘hope’ for graduating students who can use its benefits to find employment after college. It is those who are not DACA eligible she is most concerned about.
“This is just one step. We want to be inclusive because we have sisters, brothers, parents, friends, that didn’t qualify for it, and even if they did, we still have to fight for them because we want to have the same rights,” Maldonado said. “It’s not even though, it’s just being able to work and getting a driver’s license. We have to fight for something else. For us and for others.”