When President Obama introduced Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals—known as DACA, an executive mandate to delay deporting people brought to the U.S. as kids—Daniel (who asked to withhold his name for this story) had no interest in signing up.
At the time, just over 16 years had passed since his mother emigrated with him and his young siblings from Mexico to California.
Though a lot of eligible immigrants jumped at the chance to apply for DACA’s conditional amnesty, which the Obama administration outlined in a 2012 memo, Daniel didn’t want to share information about his family’s residency with the government.
“I made what I now consider a regretful decision, to overthink the memorandum,” he said. “The memorandum made it very clear that it could be appealed at any moment … and I couldn’t stop thinking about that. It felt like a trap.”
With partisan gridlock blocking meaningful immigration reform by the legislative branch, DACA offered so-called Dreamers—people unlawfully brought to the U.S. as kids—a chance to apply for two-year deportation deferrals and work permits.
DACA’s promise of relative amnesty, however, only lasted as long as Obama’s stay in the White House. Just months after his inauguration, President Trump tried to rescind the program, threatening the stability and livelihoods of the 640,760 Dreamers who applied for its work and residency protections.
Under President Biden, DACA is operative again—though by executive order. Still, for eligible Dreamers like Daniel, the question of whether to apply for DACA isn’t straightforward, especially in a pandemic.
DACA’s reinstatement earlier this year brought a sense of relief for immigrant advocates and their clients. These days, the concerns center more on timing, and how to push through applications and renewals amid a protracted pandemic that has depleted resources and slowed the federal bureaucracy as it faces pent-up demand for services.
“Covid really set back all of our work—we’re working from home, and we’re still burdened by the renewals from before,” says Raquel Brown, a specialist for San Jose-based nonprofit Center for Employment Training’s Immigration and Citizenship Program (CET-ICP). “With less staff and less funding now, how do we help?”
Brown says her clients remained “fearless” under the Trump administration and that she’s encouraging them to stay steadfast in the face of new challenges, depleted staffing and drawn-out delays. Prospective Dreamers must provide documentation of their presence in the U.S. for each quarter of the past 14 years to prove longtime residency—a burden that takes considerable time, effort and scrutiny.
The number of national centers dedicated to processing DACA applications has gone from three to one since the pandemic, however. Immigrant advocates say the loss of those two offices has lengthened wait times from a few months to half a year.
Families with means could hire private legal help to speed things up, but Brown urges caution. Desperate people fall victim to unscrupulous attorneys and organizations, which can delay the already protracted application process, she says.
Bottom line, Brown adds, is to get the ball rolling.
“I want to encourage people to apply, apply, apply,” she says. “You don’t know how that could help you in the long run in terms of more permanent status.”
It’s a message that impacts a significant share of the population in Santa Clara County, where roughly 40 percent of its nearly 2 million residents are foreign-born, according to surveys by the U.S. Census Bureau, and nearly 60 percent of families include at least one immigrant or their America-born children.
It’s hard to ascertain the precise number of DACA-eligible residents in the South Bay, the Migration Policy Institute estimates that there could be as many as 50,000.
“We have the highest percentage of foreign-born residents in the state,” says Erika Rivera, an immigration attorney who works hand-in-hand with the Santa Clara County Office of Immigrant Relations.
Fortunately, some local nonprofits help alleviate some stressors of the DACA process—particularly costs. The application fee is no small price: $495 per application. But legal dues can up that total to thousands of dollars out of pocket.
Immigrant advocates say it’s a huge burden for families that statistically earn less because of employment barriers and a lack of generational wealth—realities that persist no matter who’s in the White House.
ImmigrationHelp, a collective of Harvard University undergraduates, paralegals and attorneys formed in 2019 to relieve some of that burden by offering pro bono legal help with immigration paperwork.
Fernando Urbina, a Harvard government studies major, joined the program as an intern last summer before going on to become the team’s outreach director. As the son of a Mexican immigrant, he says he felt compelled to pay things forward by guiding DACA-eligible clients through the complicated application process.
During the lead-up to the 2020 presidential election, he says he began reaching out to prospective applicants uncertain of DACA’s fate.
“Our team really knew that a lot was weighing on this election,” he says. “It would influence the type of immigration we would see, whether that be positive or negative for immigrant communities.”
Since Biden was announced as the 46th president, the organization has seen huge surge in demand, largely from Texas, Illinois, Florida and California. Since Jan. 20, ImmigrationHelp has provided services to more than 500 people.
Brown and CET-ICP have also worked with local credit unions, which provide no-interest DACA loans, alleviating at least some of the financial burden for their clients.
“If funding isn’t coming in for filing, you have to be able to sustain,” Brown says, “so the credit unions are playing a big role in this. Times are hard. People aren’t working.”
Brown—who arrived stateside at 7 years old and got a green card through the Amnesty Act of 1986, under President Reagan—says she relates to her clientele who claim the U.S. as home, and is inspired by their hope and resilience.
As her team moves to help others, she says their greatest need is more financial assistance, whether from the county, city or elsewhere.
“They have to recognize that help is needed and be able to give the funding to nonprofit organizations like ours to bring more staff to help more people,” she says.
Because while many Democrats may have breathed a sigh of relief with the election of their chosen president, the uphill battle continues for immigrants and their children.
“The amount of work that it takes to file the application is tedious,” Brown adds. “We need funding now more than ever.”