Despite judge’s ruling, Chicago-area immigration activist still hopeful: ‘It’s not the end and we can fight’

A federal judge in Texas ordered a halt to first-time applications for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. Immigration advocates in Chicago think the decision might push Congress to pass immigration reform.

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Luis Rodriguez, a first-time DACA applicant, has been working with the Southwest Suburban Immigrant Project to get people registered to vote.

Luis Rodriguez said he and other immigration activists will continue to fight despite a federal judge’s ruling.

Rich Hein/Sun-Times

Just a couple of days ago, Luis Rodriguez’s friend had stopped by to show him her newly authorized work permit.

Rodriguez, who in recent months had applied for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, figured his would come soon enough.

Then on Friday, a federal judge in Texas ruled in favor of states that had challenged the legality of DACA, adding to the uncertainty for young immigrants like Rodriguez, who were brought to this country as children.

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As part of the ruling, U.S. District Judge Andrew Hanen ordered the federal government to stop granting new DACA applications; the program allows certain immigrants to work legally and also provides temporary protection from deportation.

Rodriquez and others in his situation often are called “Dreamers,” a reference to the DREAM Act, proposed legislation that provides protections similar to DACA.

The judge’s order means pending applications from Rodriguez and other young Dreamers won’t be processed, for now.

“It’s not the end and we can fight,” Rodriguez, 20, said hours after news of the judge’s order. His spirits were boosted by a phone call with other immigrant activists.

“We got this. I know that my people will do the very best to organize against this injunction.”

He also will spend time putting pressure on Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., an original sponsor of the DREAM Act, to pass immigration reform. Rodriguez is still trying to continue his education, but without DACA that could mean a bigger financial hurdle.

Friday’s news comes as more young immigrants were applying for the program, said Kathleen Vannucci, an immigration attorney who is part of the Chicago chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association.

The window for first-time DACA applications had opened in December because of a court order. Before that, new applications had been halted since 2017, when the Trump administration tried to end the program.

As of March 31, more than 55,000 initial DACA applications were pending, according to the latest statistics from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, which also reported more than 616,000 DACA recipients nationwide. The group estimates 31,210 immigrants living with DACA protections in the Chicago metro area.

What those with pending applications could do now will vary case to case, but many were so young that DACA was their only option to seek legal status, Vannucci said. It’s unclear what will happen to those who hadn’t submitted their application.

“Those are going to be the difficult conversations,” she said.

People who already had DACA should be able to continue renewing their status and work permits, said Fred Tsao, senior policy counsel for the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights.

The ruling also puts added pressure on Congress to decide on immigration overhaul. President Joe Biden has pushed for a path to legalize undocumented immigrants.

“Those efforts which are happening in Congress have now taken on even more urgency,” Tsao said. “Whether it’s a stand-alone Dream Act or a more sweeping legislative fix.”

Vannucci hopes Friday’s ruling eventually means leads to a permanent solution particularly for young immigrants, pointing out that DACA was also supposed to be a temporary program.

“This roller coaster can’t continue,” she said.

Rodriguez would like to see a pathway for citizenship for all of the country’s undocumented immigrants.

“Citizenship is key to all the struggles my community have,” Rodriguez said. “People like my mom worry more about what it’s going to cost to have surgery because they don’t qualify for Medicaid because of immigration status. If there was a pathway for citizenship that was easier and attainable — it can be if Durbin steps up — it would make a world of a difference.”

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

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