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No Direction Home: NJ’s Dreamers Have Few Legal Options if DACA Dies

More than 22,000 Dreamers brought to this country as youths face a future with ‘no road to citizenship’

Cinthia Osorio
Cinthia Osorio is one of more than 22,000 "Dreamers" in New Jersey who face an uncertain future.

The fates of Cinthia Osorio, Rey Amaya, and more than 22,000 other so-called Dreamers in New Jersey who were brought to the United States as children are unknown. Most know no other homes and are working toward, or already have made, productive lives in the United States but are now at the mercy of the federal government.

Congress is currently negotiating a deal to keep the federal government open for another month, and U.S. Senators are pushing to include what’s known as DACA, or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, to allow Dreamers to stay in the country.

President Donald Trump has set a March 5 deadline to end DACA, which helps explain why it is imperative to negotiate a solution now to prevent the possible deportation of Dreamers.

No other home

Neither Osorio, a senior at Centenary University, nor Amaya, a freshman at Fairleigh Dickinson University in Teaneck, can imagine how they would survive if forced back to the countries in which they were born. Osorio was three when her mother brought her here from Mexico. Amaya was four when he and his mother were able to join their father, who came earlier from El Salvador with Temporary Protected Status. Neither remembers much about their birth homes. Both consider themselves American.

“I really don’t remember Mexico,” said Osorio, 22. “I grew up not knowing I was undocumented.” When she was readying for her driver’s test, she told her mother she needed her Social Security card and that’s when he mother “took a deep breath and said, ‘You weren’t born here.’ It just kind of hit me like a train.”

“Honestly, I don’t remember anything,” Amaya, 18, said of his native El Salvador. “I consider myself to be American.”

Fleeing poverty

Osorio, her mother, and her aunt left their small town in Mexico to escape abject poverty. After spending a year in California, they settled in Dover where some family friends from Mexico were living. Amaya’s story is similar; his father came looking for a decent job to support the family. They settled in Elizabeth.

The stories and feelings of Osorio and Amaya are likely typical of the estimated more than 800,000 Dreamers in the United States. One study found that ages 2 to 5 were the most common at which DACA recipients were brought to this country. They are as young as 11 and as old as 36, based on the criteria in the program President Barack Obama put in place in 2012. Dreamers are in school or have completed school and are working. Their lives have gotten significantly better since DACA gave them freedom from deportation and, for those old enough, a work permit.

Killing the dream

Trump ended that protection last September when he announced an end to DACA as of March 5. A federal judge earlier this month issued an injunction blocking any action to end the program while lawsuits fighting an end to DACA proceed through the court system, but the Trump administration has said it will appeal that injunction through both regular channels and directly to the Supreme Court.

DACA recipients and supporters have been lobbying congressmen for months. At least one bus full from New Jersey was in Washington, D.C. on Thursday, protesting and meeting with officials. Still, the House voted 230-197 for a temporary spending measure to keep the government open for another four weeks. That measure did not include any changes in DACA, although it did include a six-year reauthorization of the Children's Health Insurance Program, which some representatives also wanted to see covered in a spending bill.

It’s unclear what will happen to that bill in the Senate, though, where Democratic leaders and at least three Republicans have vowed not to support another budget bill if it does not also address the Dreamers.

They say, and the vast majority of Americans agree, undocumented immigrants who came to this country as minors should be allowed to stay here. A new CBS news poll found nearly nine in 10 Americans support allowing DACA recipients to remain in the United States. More than six in 10 do not support the construction of a wall along the border with Mexico, which Trump has tweeted is a requirement of any DACA deal. However, by small margins, those polled do not want to risk a government shutdown over either a DACA accord or a border wall.

What often gets lost in discussions of undocumented immigrants, and particularly in the case of Dreamers who did not choose to come to the United States and did not know they were here improperly until they reached their teen years, say advocates, is that the vast majority of them have no other way to stay in the country. DACA does not even cover all individuals brought here as children, but only those who arrived before 2007 and met such other criteria as either being in school or having completed at least a high school equivalency degree and had no criminal convictions.

‘National crisis’

“Everyone knows this is a national crisis,” said Johanna Calle, director of the New Jersey Alliance for Immigrant Justice. “It’s not that people don’t want to adjust their status, it’s not that people don’t love this country. There is no path to citizenship.”

New Jersey’s current system of immigration is based predominantly on family and work factors. Few visas are available to those who either do not have a close relative who is already a citizen or a green-card holder or who are not among five categories of specialized or highly skilled workers or people who invest at least $500,000 in a business here.

Osorio said her family has mixed status: some are undocumented, one holds a green card, and an uncle is a U.S. citizen. She has completed paperwork to begin the citizenship process but its approval is not guaranteed. The process can take between four and nine years, she said. And if she is given the OK, she may be forced to spend a decade outside the United States as a penalty for having entered the country illegally.

“I tried joining the military, but they denied me because I was not a citizen,” she said, noting that military service can expedite the process of becoming a citizen. “I wanted to join the Marines, not just because of my status, but because I love this country.”

Amaya, on the other hand, has no family members who are citizens.

‘No path to citizenship’

“We have no path to citizenship,” he said. “There are no loopholes or anything we can do.”

“Many long-term residents here have no legal status and no way to apply for temporary status,” said Farrin Anello, senior staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey. “People applied for DACA because there wasn’t another option for them … DACA is a very temporary permission, not a path to citizenship.”

Little about immigration is simple, but the situation Dreamers find themselves in is especially confounding. While announcing the end to DACA, the Trump administration also said it would continue to renew two-year permits for those whose approvals would expire through March 5, but the Department of Homeland Security has stopped doing so. As a result of the injunction, DHS has announced it is again accepting renewal applications, but only those that had expired recently and as they are expiring, not in advance.

Both Osorio and Amaya have been forced to think about the future should DACA end.

Amaya, who was among those who traveled from Make the Road New Jersey to lobby in Washington on Thursday, is in a somewhat better situation, saying he was able to renew his status before DHS stopped processing applications.

“I was blessed and got the maximum time available,” Amaya said, adding he can stay in the United States into 2019. That does not make him feel comfortable. “It definitely scares me. I am really optimistic. I want to believe the best will come.”

Osorio said that when Trump first announced the end of DACA, the family members sat down together and braced for the worst.

“I said, ‘If all the DACAs are pulled away, I want you to know I love you,’” she recalled saying. She also recounted her fears, “Where am I going to go? Where am I going to stay? Am I going to get picked up? Is ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) going to come to our house?”

Osorio said one can typically apply for DACA renewal up to 150 days before expiration and because hers expires in August she should be able to apply on February 9. But whether that would be approved is unclear, given the DHS’s statement.

“I don’t know if they are going to close the application renewals,” she said. “Right now I don’t know what will happen tomorrow. I don’t know what’s going to happen overnight.”

And ultimately, if she winds up deported, she doesn’t know what she will do.

“Do I really want to stay in Mexico? It would be good to see family I have not seen in 20 years, but I don’t really know them,” said Osorio, who is part of a program that will give her a job in social work in state government for the next two years. “Where am I going to go? Am I going to be able to use my degree?”

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