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Will NJ’s Undocumented Students Be Punished for Following the Rules?

They signed up for a program that deferred deportation — one that President-elect Trump wants to dismantle. Will the government use their personal data to track them down?

giancarlo tello
Giancarlo Tello, immigration activist and DACA beneficiary

Idrissa Kaba, 23, emigrated from Guinea in West Africa in 2000, when he was seven years old. He grew up in the United States, and graduated from high school in Newark. He has attempted to attend Essex County College, but repeatedly ran into financial issues that interrupted his studies.

His mother helped, but it wasn’t enough. As an undocumented immigrant, not only did he not qualify for college aid or in-state tuition, he couldn’t work legally in the United States to help offset the cost of his education.

“There were semesters that I had to take off because I couldn’t make the payments,” he said.

shadow of liberty small bug

That changed in 2013 when New Jersey allowed undocumented students to qualify for in-state tuition, and perhaps more importantly, a new federal deferred action program was put in place. President Barack Obama created the program in June 2012 when he issued an executive order that deferred legal action against people like Kaba — undocumented immigrants who were brought to the United States as children or young teens. Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) allows undocumented immigrants who were between 16 and 30 in 2012, and who entered the United States before their 16th birthday, to apply for work authorization and a two-year delay of potential deportation by the federal Department of Homeland Security. The program allows DACA recipients to apply for renewal after the two-year protection expires.

Kaba qualified for DACA, one of 23,569 New Jersey residents to do so as of June, according to the Migration Police Institute, a Washington-based research group. About 53,000 New Jerseyans were eligible, but many did not apply. Kaba received a work permit and a driver’s license, and was able to find a job at a local department store, earning enough to cover his tuition and even lending a hand at home, where he is one of six children.

“There are a lot of us in the house and we have to split up the bills and the food expenses,” he said. Because of DACA, “they are paying me enough to make a difference.”

DACA, however, was never meant to be a permanent measure. Obama created the program as a response to congressional inaction on immigration, saying he hoped Congress would move forward with a more comprehensive reform of the national immigration system. Because of this, DACA’s existence could be in jeopardy as Obama prepares to leave office.

His successor, New York businessman Donald Trump, ran as an immigration hard-liner — calling for large-scale deportations and strict limits on new arrivals. As part of this agenda, he promised to end Obama’s two executive orders on immigration — DACA and a second, which stalled in court, that would have expanded DACA and created a companion program for the undocumented parents of U.S. citizens and legal residents.

President-elect Trump has sent mixed signals on DACA since his November 8 victory. His website continues to promise that he will “Immediately terminate President Obama’s two illegal executive amnesties” and that “All immigration laws will be enforced.” But in a video released in November outlining his first 100 days, he did not mention DACA or the executive orders.

More recently, he told Time Magazine during his Person of the Year interview that his administration was “going to work something out that’s going to make people happy and proud.”

“They got brought here at a very young age,” he told the magazine. “They’ve worked here, they’ve gone to school here. Some were good students. Some have wonderful jobs. And they’re in never-never land because they don’t know what’s going to happen.”

On Friday, Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Dick Durbin (D-IL) introduced federal legislation that would create new status for DACA recipients — “provisional protected presence.” As reported by The Huffington Post, the status would last for three years and would expand eligibility beyond those who currently have DACA status to all who qualify.

The uncertainty about the program has many in the immigrant community “freaking out,” said Brian Lozano, an organizer with Wind of the Spirit, an immigrant resource center in Morristown. Many immigrants in the Morristown area have approached Wind of the Spirit with concerns about whether to apply for renewal, what it would mean for work and school, and what they can do about it.

“There is so much uncertainty and skepticism that Donald Trump will do away with DACA,” Lozano said. “It is a popular program and it’s been good for business and the community.”

Karol Ruiz, an attorney with Wind of the Spirit, said the immigrants who already signed up for DACA are a strong group.

“They have survived family separation, the mass deportation of the Obama years, and the nightmare of the Dream Act never passing,” she said in an email. “They have learned to be stronger than they should have to be for their parents and their loved ones.”

She said there is fear, but “they refuse to show it or express it.”

“When they do,” Ruiz said, “it is often in private and in tears because they refuse to let people like Trump defeat them or see them cry.”

Giancarlo Tello, an activist and DACA beneficiary, said both the fear and the fact that so many are on the DACA list — and known to the federal government — is something they live with.

“We're already on a list, unfortunately,” he said. “That's what kept a lot of people, aside from cost, from applying to DACA in the first place.”

Wind of the Spirit, the American Friends Service Committee, the Latin American Legal Defense and Education Fund in Trenton, and other immigration advocacy groups have been holding Know Your Rights sessions with their clients that explain what to do if DACA is repealed, if they are approached by Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents, or if they are taken into custody.

There is some disagreement over what those eligible for DACA should do. Most immigration organizations are telling those who are eligible but who have not signed up to wait and see what happens to the program. The process is costly and lengthy, they say, and beginning the process now may not be worth the time and money. There are also questions about whether it would be wise to provide the federal government with information about status and residence if the government is not providing protections in return.

For those who have DACA status that is expiring, applying for renewal may depend on what happens to the program — they already are in the system, but the cost remains an issue, advocates say, often exceeding $1,000 for application and legal fees and acquiring paperwork from their birth countries.

That’s one of the issues being faced by Nathaniel Aragon, an undocumented immigrant from Mexico who came here when he was 2. Aragon received DACA in 2013 and it allowed him to work while he attended Clark University in Massachusetts as a bio-chemistry major. His DACA work permits have expired and he is unsure how he should proceed. He is seeking legal status through other means — his mother has become a legal permanent resident — but until that happens he has become vulnerable again.

“I’m actually not very hopeful regarding the renewal of DACA under the Trump administration, so it would be a waste of time and money, which are very scarce at this moment,” he said. “It would cost over $1,000 to reapply, and I’d be throwing it away.”

Tello is not prepared to give up. DACA is one of the reasons he can attend graduate school. His work permit allows him to be a graduate assistant at two schools, one at Rowan University in Glassboro, which covers his tuition, and the other at a county college in South Jersey, which provides him with living expenses.

Before DACA, he did odd jobs for friends, worked under the table, did what he could to earn money to pay for tuition at Bergen County Community College and later Rutgers University-Newark.

“All of it codependent on DACA,” he said. “If you take away DACA, then I can’t drive anymore. I’m only eligible to drive when I have DACA. It’s the same with my Social Security card. It is only valid with my work permit. And I need to be able to work legally to get tuition reimbursement for school.”

Tello, who came to the United States from Peru when he was 6, has been active in the state fight for tuition equality, state tuition aid, and driver’s licenses for the undocumented, has been organizing information sessions for undocumented students and for the educators who teach them. He says immigrants and their allies need to make sure the new president hears their concerns, and that regardless of his promises, he needs to “make relief for families more permanent.”

“Thankfully, I’m in a district where our representative (Democrat Donald Norcross) does support DACA and does support our efforts,” He said. “All of them are supportive. It’s just a matter of letting the president-elect know it is a very important topic.”

In the meantime, he said there are still things the current president can do before he leaves office.

“President Obama can and should take action to pardon and protect those who trusted him with our information,” Tello said.

Adriana Abizadeh, executive director for LALDEF, said she is trying to remain hopeful that the new president will see his election as a “great opportunity … to pursue and pass long-overdue reform of the immigration code.”

“The chances of this occurring are not the best,” she added. “But if he’s looking to put his name in the history books and be known for something important, reform would be a great thing to be known for. We are hopeful that he will take the opportunity to do something.”

If not, she said, the impacts will be felt “across multiple areas.”

Johanna Calle, program coordinator for the New Jersey Alliance for Immigrant Justice said many New Jersey residents — not just DACA recipients — would be affected if Trump ends the program and ramps up deportations. This is creating significant concern within the state’s immigrant community and has the potential to drive students and their parents back into the shadows.

“The biggest thing we are hearing is that, if they lose DACA, then so will their parents,” she said. The issue, she said, is not just fear of deportation, but of lost income and a more punitive environment in which immigrants are forced to work under the table, are afraid to stand up for themselves, and are afraid of calling the police or interacting with government.

“A lot of immigrant families rely on their youth,” Calle said. “For a lot, they are the only connection for families, the only way for them not to be in the shadows. If you’re the only driver in the family because of DACA, or the only one with a good-paying job, or the only one with a college degree — a lot are the link to the upward mobility for their families. That is the biggest struggle.”

Erika Nava, a policy analyst with New Jersey Policy Perspective, wrote in an email that overturning DACA could cause immigrant students to leave school, undercutting the impact that tuition equality has had for students.

“With DACA, they are allowed to work legally and not worry about deportation as much,” she said. “Once DACA is taken away, the reverse would happen: uncertainty.”

The loss of a work permit not only would affect their ability to work while in school, but also could call into question whether they should go to school.

“Without a work permit they are less likely to gain entrance to a high-paying job where they can put their degree and knowledge to practice,” she said. “Hence, the incentive to go to college would diminish, going back to the saying ‘Why go to college if I can’t use my degree to work.’”

Kaba said these questions are not just rhetorical.

“DACA has made a big difference in our lives,” Kaba said. “If it is overturned, it could break up a lot of families and cause a lot of problems. A lot of us are able to do the good things we do, like going to school, because of DACA.”

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