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Shut out of DACA protections, immigrant youth in Chicago area face uncertain future

Many immigration advocates had thought the Supreme Court ruling upholding the program for immigrants brought to the U.S. as children would mean first-time applicants would be accepted.

Luis Rodriguez, 20, who would be a first-time applicant for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program — or DACA — remains shut out of the program because of a Homeland Security decision this summer affecting many initial DACA applicants.
Rich Hein/Sun-Times

When Luis Rodriguez was in high school, he came across an application for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, but he thought he needed a lawyer to apply.

Rodriguez, now 20, knew he couldn’t afford one, though he later learned immigrant organizations could help him apply. By the time he saved enough money to pay the fee for applying, President Donald Trump’s administration announced in 2017 its plans to terminate the program.

In the years that have followed, the future of DACA has been in peril.

Earlier this year, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the program, ruling that the administration did not properly end it. Many immigration advocates believed that meant DACA would return to how it operated before the Trump administration sought to end it — meaning first-time applicants would be able to seek benefits. DACA allows immigrants to obtain work authorization and provides them with deferred action for deportation.

But this summer, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security determined the government would reject all initial DACA applications and require that current DACA recipients renew each year rather than every two years.

“As the department continues looking at the policy and considers future action, the fact remains that Congress should act on this matter,” said Acting Secretary Chad Wolf, in a news release about the decision. “There are important policy reasons that may warrant the full rescission of the DACA policy.”

The decision meant that Rodriguez and other immigrants who could have been eligible for DACA will continue to be shut out of the program, adding to the uncertainty of their future in the U.S.

“It was an emotional roller-coaster,” Rodriguez said about the weeks after the Supreme Court ruling. “I didn’t want to get my hopes up too high. ...We fight for what we want, and we’ll do it again.”

Registering others but ‘I can’t vote’

Rodriguez, who lives in the southwest suburbs, has called the Chicago area home since he was about 3 years old. When he was in elementary school, he learned he was undocumented after wondering why friends would travel to Mexico for vacations but his family never did. But he didn’t really comprehend what it meant to be undocumented until he got older.

He is trying to pursue a degree at a community college, but he recently had to take a semester off to help his family more. He has wanted to become an architect since he was a child.

Luis Rodriguez, who would be a first-time DACA applicant, has been working with the Southwest Suburban Immigrant Project to get people registered to vote.
Rich Hein/Sun-Times

In the months before the election, he’s helped the Southwest Suburban Immigrant Project register people to vote through phone banking and by going to flea markets and local businesses.

“I’m putting effort into that because I can’t [vote],” Rodriguez said. “Every person that I get registered to vote is a vote for me, basically.”

Vanessa Esparza-Lopez, an attorney with National Immigrant Justice Center’s Immigrant Legal Defense Project, said the memos the government has issued since the U.S. Supreme Court ruling seem to indicate the department is doing an extensive review of the DACA program as the Trump administration attempts to comply with correctly ending it.

“If the administration doesn’t change with the election, it’s likely that they will attempt to end the program once again,” said Esparza-Lopez, who said she was among those who interpreted the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling to mean first-time applicants would be accepted again.

During the Oct. 22 presidential debate, Joe Biden, the Democratic presidential nominee, said he would immediately certify the benefits for DACA recipients and would create a path within 100 days in office for undocumented immigrants to eventually get citizenship.

A survey from the Pew Research Center published in June found that about 74% of Americans favor providing legal protection status to immigrants who came to the country as children. But the support for such a measure differs among political parties. The survey found that 91% of those who identify as Democrats or Democrat leaning would support such a measure compared to 54% of those who are Republican or Republican leaning.

Giselle Rodriguez shares her story during a protest outside Federal Plaza in the Loop earlier this month to ask Congress to protect the DACA program.
Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

Giselle Rodriguez, of Waukegan, was also not able to apply for the DACA program. But even if the program did accept applications, she doesn’t see it as the full solution to her status in the country, pointing out there have been cases of people who had received DACA benefits who were still deported.

Like other immigration advocates, Rodriguez wants to see U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the branch within the Department of Homeland Security that carries out deportations, dismantled.

“The community keeps being targeted, and they (ICE) have absolutely no shame in what they do,” said Rodriguez, after speaking at an immigration rally in the Loop earlier this month.

Rodriguez, 23, estimates that she’s been in the U.S. for a little more than a decade. She didn’t apply for DACA because an attorney told her she wasn’t eligible. Other friends who were in a similar situation were scared to apply because the government would have their information.

Still, she navigated higher education through scholarships and recently graduated from a master’s program through the University of Chicago. She’s working as an independent contractor for various advocacy organizations.

“I specifically am very passionate about making higher education accessible to undocumented students,” Rodriguez said. “Because a lot of seniors who are graduating cannot apply to DACA because they are not accepting new applications.”

‘Every little thing is a problem’

Pablo Aranda, 18, of Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood, applied for DACA protections after the U.S. Supreme Court ruling, hoping it would mean that first-time applicants like himself would be accepted. But he later received a rejection letter, he said.

He’s studying business at DePaul University and would like to get DACA protections so he could apply for federal aid. Aranda said he’s so far relied on private scholarships to pay for his courses. Because he’s undocumented, Aranda said he’s unable to get a job to help pay his tuition.

“It’s a lot of things that you wouldn’t think twice as a U.S. citizen, but for us, it’s different,” Aranda said. “Every little thing is a problem.”

He is working with the Lincoln United Methodist Church and the Right2Family Campaign to explore what legal options he and others in a similar situation can take to challenge the denial of new applications.

Jaclyn Kelley-Widmer, an associate clinical professor of law at Cornell Law School, works in a law clinic that handles DACA cases. Even before this summer’s high court ruling, she was screening people to see if the person was eligible for some other form of relief because the program is temporary and has become political.

Some of the DACA recipients could seek asylum while others could have a pending family petition that they don’t know about that could lead to a visa, Kelley-Widmer said. She also explores other types of humanitarian relief such as if the person was a survivor of certain kinds of crimes or assisted law enforcement in a prosecution.

Esparza-Lopez said they have been telling people who could be eligible for DACA to have their paperwork prepared and to save up funds to pay an application fee in case future litigation leads to a window opening up for first-time applicants.

Elvia Malagón’s reporting on social justice and income inequality is made possible by a grant from the Chicago Community Trust.