President-elect Joe Biden’s election win renewed hope for recipients of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA,) but advocates with immigrant-rights organizations say there will still be many challenges in the next few months.
During President Donald Trump’s tenure, DACA applications were closed as the administration sought to roll back the program. Although limited in its protections, DACA recipients were protected for two years from deportation and allowed to work in the U.S. Extended benefits depend on the state, and unlike other states, Tennessee DACA recipients are not allowed to pay in-state tuition while attending college.
“The fight for DACA has been ongoing for the last four years under the Trump Administration. [We’ve been] trying to defend the program at every angle and at every step of the way. This year was not different,” said Jazmin Ramirez, Latino organizer at Tennessee Immigrant & Refugee Rights Coalition (TIRRC).
Biden has pledged to reinstate DACA and sign an executive order after taking office. Immigrant-rights organizations hope he keeps his promise as they scramble to prepare, according to Ramirez.
“This is a win for the youth who have been in limbo since this summer,” said Ramirez.
DACA recipients recently received more good news when a federal judge ordered the Trump administration to allow the DACA application to open for the first time since 2017.
TIRRC officials are now preparing approximately 13,000 DACA candidates for the tedious job of collecting everything they need to submit the application. Applicants have to prove they have resided in the U.S. since 2007 and have finished high school, among other requirements. Proof can be anything from school documents to vaccination records. Ramirez, herself a DACA recipient, sent in 150 documents with her application and was still asked to provide more evidence.
“They’re not very lenient,” said Ramirez
In a pandemic, collecting proof spanning more than 10 years will prove difficult due to government facilities having limited resources. Families are also being asked to consult an attorney before sending in the application because delays can cost additional time and money. The entire process — paying the DACA application fee and a lawyer — can cost anywhere from $1,000 to $3,000, a hefty sum for families who have already experienced financial losses due to the pandemic.
“We will see so many families just needing financial assistance at the national level. We’re having conversations on what it would mean to fund DACA applications and what that would look like, ” said Ramirez.
Families can also fall prey to lawyers charging exorbitant amounts for DACA services, and TIRRC is currently offering free classes to help applicants navigate through the complicated process and may be referred to Tennessee Justice for our Neighbors, which provides low-cost immigration legal services.
The fight for DACA has been ongoing for the last four years under the Trump Administration. We've been trying to defend the program at every angle and at every step of the way. – Jazmin Ramirez, TIRRC
The future of the DACA program may depend on the results of the Georgia runoff elections and a pending 2018 Texas court case currently challenging DACA.
Democrats hope to gain U.S. Senate seats in the Georgia runoff elections on Jan. 5, which would give them control of the Senate. If Democrats have that control, DACA will have a better chance because as of now, it is “an executive program that can be challenged at any time. It was never a piece of legislation,” said Lisa Quigley, chief of staff to U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper.
A lawsuit filed by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton and several other states is currently challenging the DACA program. Tennessee was originally part of the suit but backed out.
“We were actually able to get the state of Tennessee out of a lawsuit on the national level that was trying to terminate DACA and that was really due to organizing efforts of [DACA] youth,” said Ramirez.
All this speculation is a long shot, said Lisa Quigley. While there’s a lot riding on the Georgia runoffs, advocates would still have to convince every last Democrat to vote in favor of the program. Otherwise, Vice President-elect Kamala Harris would break any tie that might occur.
“DACA families can at least breathe easily,” said Quigley.
The closest the DACA program ever came to becoming an act was in 2006, and the next 100 days could be the closest the program will get to winning, according to Quigley.
Although there’s still uncertainty, there’s also hope, said advocates.
“I don’t know much, I just know it’s going to be better and a path to citizenship,” said Greg Ramos, a civil litigation attorney.
TIRRC’s current goal is to educate the community as much as possible in the coming weeks and to have DACA candidates be prepared to submit applications in January.