Zwamy Vazquez came to the U.S. illegally when she was 3, but she doesn’t live in the shadows.
The 23-year-old college student obtained a work permit through an Obama-era program that shields undocumented immigrants who were brought to the country as children. She interns in the Social Services Unit of the Elgin Police Department and expects to work as a social worker when she graduates in the spring.
But her plans have been in peril since the Trump administration moved to dissolve the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program in September. Congress and the White House this week are debating various proposals to establish a more permanent form of relief. Then on Tuesday night, a federal judge in California ordered the White House to keep DACA in place while a lawsuit proceeds.
Amid the daily twists and turns in the news, Vazquez and other young DACA recipients in Illinois are scrambling to finish school before they lose the in-state tuition afforded to them by the program and are saving money while they have work permits. Others are applying for a more permanent form of immigration relief, should Congress fail to act.
Illinois has the fourth largest population of DACA recipients in the country, more than 35,600 who fear they could be suddenly thrust back out of the mainstream as their federal protections from deportation are phased out.
President Donald Trump previously expressed sympathy for the “Dreamers” — a nickname that came from the DREAM Act, first proposed in 2001 to create a path to permanent residency. Still, his attorney general, Jeff Sessions, announced Sept. 5 the two-year permits could not be renewed after March 5. By that point, if the program is phased out as planned, about 1,000 people will lose their protections per day.
Some families, like Vazquez’s, are making arrangements in case they are forced to leave the country.
“I try to be optimistic and hopeful, but part of me is like, I don’t know. I’m not too confident,” she said. “We have a plan in case someone gets deported (to Mexico). My dad wants to make sure everything is taken care of with the kids and the bank accounts.”
Meanwhile, Vazquez decided to follow all the rules set forth by the Trump administration and filed her DACA renewal application six months early. Dreamers had 30 days to renew for a final two-year extension if their status expired between Sept. 5 and March 5.
“It was kind of risky but still better than not having it at all,” Vazquez said.
Ariana Romero wasn’t so lucky. Her DACA status expired about a week before Trump ended the program.
Romero, 29, was unable to pay the $495 application fee and lost her protections and work permit in August. Under the new guidelines, DACA recipients whose status expired before Sept. 5 were no longer eligible to renew.
“They tell you to renew at least four months in advance, but I wasn’t able to,” she said. “I thought I had time. My plan was to have the money by September.”
The Avondale resident, who came to this country from Mexico when she was 3, met with immigration advocacy groups but couldn’t find a solution. Romero said she’s now “preparing for the worst.” She has postponed college plans to focus on saving as much money as possible.
“It just feels like I’m exposed,” Romero said. “They know where I live.”
While Tuesday’s court order requires the government to resume accepting DACA renewal applications as the lawsuit goes forward, immigration advocates on Wednesday advised caution.
Lisa Koop, an attorney with the National Immigrant Justice Center, said it’s unclear if Dreamers can immediately file, or if they need to wait for further guidance from the federal government.
“It’s a big financial commitment for people to pay those filing fees and risk having applications rejected or risk having them denied if the government later determines that they were filed improperly,” she said.
Those who oppose DACA said the program had to be repealed because Obama didn’t have the authority to institute it.
Sessions called the program an “unconstitutional exercise of authority” and claimed its beneficiaries denied jobs “to hundreds of thousands of Americans by allowing those same illegal aliens to take those jobs.”
On Tuesday, the White House held a bipartisan meeting on immigration with congressional leaders, including Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, the second-ranking Senate Democrat and a top-sponsor of the 2017 Dream Act. The bill would grant “conditional permanent residency” to an estimated 1.8 million immigrants who arrived in the U.S. before age 18 and can meet requirements similar to those under DACA.
Students, high school or GED course graduates, and veterans are eligible for the program. Immigrants who have committed a serious crime, have more than two misdemeanor convictions or are deemed to be a threat to national security are automatically disqualified.
Trump said he would insist on building a border wall as part of an agreement involving young immigrants, but he said Congress could then pursue a comprehensive immigration overhaul in a second phase of talks.
With so much uncertainty, Julie Pellerite, an immigration attorney with the Pilsen-based Resurrection Project, said her clients are “feeling very hopeless” and that they’ve lost faith in the legislative process.
“Even if they have DACA for another year, they still see it as the end of their hope,” she said. “When that ends, what’s next? Do they quit their jobs? Do they stop going to school?”
The majority of Pellerite’s clients come from Chicago neighborhoods like Pilsen, Little Village and Back of the Yards, but many have come from the suburbs to seek help, she said.
“It’s hard because you lay out this list of scenarios for people. A lot of it is based on what’s going to happen in Congress,” she said. “It’s hard to give black-and-white answers.”
Pellerite said she has begun the “disheartening” task of preparing clients for the worst. She recommends young people seek legal advice on how to move forward.
“I tell them to focus on bettering yourself, going to school, on working … try to keep one eye open for when that deadline is up but also focus on what you have now because so much can change,” she said.
Zarna Patel, 24, of Wicker Park, is one of 28 DACA recipients enrolled at Loyola University Stritch School of Medicine in Chicago.
Patel came to the United States from India when she was 3. She moved to Illinois for medical school because Loyola was one of the only universities that was “upfront and vocal” about working with Dreamers to find financial aid and loans, she said.
If she loses DACA, Patel won’t be able to continue medical training. She needs a work permit to apply for medical residency programs in the U.S.
“There’s a lot more that I want to do and unfortunately my grades don’t really matter if I can’t keep working to go to residency,” Patel said.
Patel said she’s working hard to be a physician “this country can be proud of” and hopes to start her own nonprofit.
“I don’t know if sitting down and planning for all these worst-case scenarios is a good use of my time right now. I’m just hoping for the best and moving forward with my education,” she said.
As a silver lining, some DACA recipients who fear the program’s end have learned they are eligible for other types of immigration relief when they undergo legal screenings.
Nationally, about 40,000 DACA recipients have obtained permanent resident status, according to September data from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
Ana Garcia, 29, learned she was eligible for a U-Visa — a special visa reserved for victims of crime on U.S. soil — after consulting with an immigration attorney to renew her DACA application. But it’s unclear whether she’ll get one before her other protections expire.
In 2012, Garcia filed a police report against a former live-in boyfriend who was verbally and physically abusive. She was afraid to call the police because of her immigration status — she came to this country when she was 3 from Mexico — but was ultimately pushed to her breaking point.
“I’m glad I got out alive,” she said. “I pray to God every day that something comes through for me and for anyone else that is in a similar situation. My mom always tells me to look for the good even in the bad.”
Still Garcia, of Pilsen, may have to wait years before getting an answer on her U-Visa application. Only 10,000 U-Visas are issued nationally each year. Her DACA status expires in 2019, and she’s nervous that will happen before the U-Visa is processed.
“It’s been a blessing to have DACA. We were in the shadows and then we didn’t have to be worried or hold back,” Garcia said. “But now this … it feels like a time bomb.”
Garcia is enrolled in an accelerated woodworking course and plans to become a carpenter. She said it’s “depressing” to think about the futures of Dreamers living in the U.S. but is focused on completing her education.
Gosia Labno, 26, filed for DACA renewal the day the Trump administration dissolved the program. It was her second renewal, and she didn’t want to leave anything to chance.
Labno was 9 when her family settled in Chicago. It wasn’t much of a culture shock — she had visited her grandparents in the city’s East Ukrainian Village neighborhood several times and learned fluent English in her native Poland.
Like many young immigrants, Labno didn’t know she was living in the country illegally until she tried to apply for college scholarships in high school. She overstayed her tourist visa but easily qualified for DACA.
Labno graduated from Lane Tech High School before attending the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and went on to earn a master’s degree in Middle Eastern Studies from the University of Chicago in 2016. Since then, she’s partnered with local and state representatives to combat negative immigrant stereotypes and fight for Dreamers to stay in the country.
“My DACA is renewed for another two years. But I feel like an attack on one of us is an attack on all of us,” she said. “I don’t think any Dreamer should feel unprotected even for another day.”
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