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November 10, 2017

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Defending Dreamers: DACA changes affect those in Salina Diocese

For The Register

In her 20s, Maria* is preparing for a career in medicine, hoping to serve the rural population of Kansas with her skills.  Amid the typical struggles of college life, Maria has one added struggle: the Sept. 5 discontinuation of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.  At age four, she moved to the United States with her family.  “Growing up as a little kid I didn’t know I wasn’t legal here,” she said. “As a little kid, I thought, ‘Oh, I can go to school. I can go to college.’  “When I grew up, my mom explained I couldn’t go to school or get a job because I didn’t have a social security number or work permit. This DACA program was going to help us.”  Or it would have helped, until Sept. 5 when President Donald Trump ended the program and called on Congress to develop and pass a replacement program that could be implemented in time to continue protections or begin a new phase of immigration reform.

DACA was established by executive order in June 2012 by former President Barack Obama. The program offered temporary relief for certain individuals who came to the United States as children. While the program did not guarantee that these men and women, dubbed “Dreamers,” would obtain citizenship, it did provide them a pathway toward a more secure future by offering them the opportunity to legally hold a job or attend college.  With the Trump administration’s decision, DACA discontinued its acceptance of new applications as of Sept. 5, 2017. Dreamers whose card expires before March 5, 2018, had until Oct. 5 to submit their renewal paperwork. While no alternative plan has been announced, those, like Maria, who are currently in the program will see their deferred action start to expire in the coming months.  “We’re trying to not let it affect us,” says Maria during a break between her college classes. “We’re doing everything as though nothing has happened.” 

Bishop Edward Weisenburger, now Bishop-elect of the Diocese of Tucson, Ariz. believes the program not only helped the participants in it, but helped the United States as a whole. He addressed the issue during a press conference introducing him to the members of his new diocese Oct. 5 in Tucson.  “Most [beneficiaries] are very productive members of our society, getting a good education or holding down great jobs,” he said. “Those are the people we need today in our country.”  He expressed concern about limiting the number of immigrants.  “I think we need a better comprehensive legislation position on immigration in general,” he said.  He also addressed Dreamers and their place in the country.  “I very much want America for them, but I also really want them for America, because their gifts, their talents, their dedication reveals to us the very best of what it means to be an American,” Bishop Weisenburger said.


Effects on a Population

According to the Pew Research Center, an estimated 1.1 million unauthorized immigrants were eligible for DACA over the course of its five-year history and nearly 800,000 people took advantage of the program.  The immediate effects of this situation are being felt by individuals and families across the country. According to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the vast majority of individuals approved for DACA, more than 618,000 of them, are from Mexico. The remaining nine countries in the list of the top ten countries of origin are a mixture of those from Central America, South America and Asia.  In the 31 counties covered by the Salina Diocese, there are approximately 14,000 Hispanics, according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates. Father Carlos Ruiz-Santos, the Diocesan Director for Hispanic Ministry, said the DACA decision may affect up to 60 percent of that population.  Father Ruiz-Santos said those affected have the “feeling of being shattered.”  “Before, people were planning their futures,” he said. “And then suddenly, everything is just gone. Some families with children in the program feel like they have no idea what the future holds. They’re completely lost.”  Maria said she feels a mixture of sadness and fear when considering the possibilities for her future. With the end of DACA, she may not be able to finish college or pursue a career in medicine.  “At first, I teared up because a lot of things came into my mind: What if we get deported?” she said. “The immigration program has all of our information — our names, our fingerprints, everything. My siblings [who were born in the U.S. and are U.S. citizens] would probably have to go into foster care. That just makes me sad. I have friends who are depressed. We wonder what will happen. Where will we work next?”  She also fears for what deportation might mean as it would require leaving behind the only life she can remember.  “I know I have family in Mexico, but I don’t remember anything about living there,” she said. “I can’t tell you where my house was. I don’t even know if my cell phone would work there so I could call people back here.”

On the part of the Catholic Church, there is help available. Father Ruiz-Santos says efforts are being made, in coordination with Catholic Charities of Northern Kansas, to prepare affected individuals for the worst-case scenario, as well as aiding them in proactive measures they can take during this time of uncertainty.  “We are trying to inform families in our parishes about the alternatives they have,” he said.  “We also encourage them to look for an immigration lawyer ahead of time to be proactive. To find help somehow,” Father Ruiz-Santos added.

One such lawyer is Karen Couch, Immigration Attorney for Catholic Charities. Catholic Charities serves all counties and peoples in northwest Kansas, regardless of religious affiliation.  Couch said Catholic Charities is taking a two-fold approach with the legal aid they offer DACA participants.  “First, any time minor children are at risk for abandonment, we highly encourage parents to sign a power of attorney document so that in the event those natural guardians are detained, someone is able to provide for the day-to-day needs of the child,” Couch said. “We don’t want children to end up in the foster care system or in the custody of the state unnecessarily.  “Secondly, any individual without a lawful immigration status needs to know what their rights are in the United States. They need to know what to do if officials show up at their workplace or at their home.”  Finally, Couch encourages any individual with questions about immigration processes or other issues to seek a qualified, competent immigration attorney because, “We don’t want any stone left unturned or avenue left unexplored that might be available to the individual.”  Couch admits that quality legal help may cost money and the process may be lengthy, but securing such help may prove advantageous in the future.  Father Ruiz-Santos reminds individuals who want to show their support for DACA beneficiaries that they should contact their elected officials in Washington.  “Get in touch with your legislators and voice your worries and concerns that something needs to be done in a humane way,” he said.

Hope for New Opportunities

While the bureaucracy of Washington means a new way of approaching immigration policy can take months or years, hope is still alive.  “While nothing looks certain, we are optimistic and hopeful a pathway will be made available to fix the faults within our immigration system,” Couch said.  Maria agrees.  “Just because they took it away from us doesn’t mean I’ll stop my schooling,” she said. “I’ll keep working and studying. I’m not sure if I will still [be able to] attend school like I am now, but I’m not going to give up because a lot of things can happen in two years, maybe better things.”  Residents of Northwest Kansas who need assistance regarding DACA may contact Couch at Catholic Charities at (785) 825-0208.

*Name changed to respect her privacy.