Uncertain Immigration Policy Leaves Families Anxious
No matter where you stand on the political spectrum, 2017 has been a divisive and tumultuous year for this country. Heated rhetoric abounds on all sides, and the facts are often overlooked in the debates. As adults, it can be challenging to sort through all the vitriol to make sense of the issues. For our kids, whose news comes primarily from social media, it can be even more confusing. Immigration, specifically DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals Program), impacts each and every Oklahoman in one way or another, and unfortunately, it’s an issue where the relevant information needed to form a rational opinion has been lost in the polemics. The better educated we are as parents, the better we can help our kids develop their own philosophies and opinions about the world around them.
What is DACA?
DACA protects eligible undocumented immigrants by providing them with a temporary legal status to reside in the United States. It is not a path to become a U.S. citizen or even a legal permanent resident. To be eligible, DACA applicants must have arrived in the U.S. before they turned 16 and have lived here since June 15, 2007. In addition, applicants could not have been older than 30 as of 2012 when the Department of Homeland Security enacted the policy.
DACA applicants have to provide proof of education and pass background, fingerprint and other checks verifying their identities. Those who have been convicted of a felony or a significant misdemeanor, or three or more other misdemeanors, or those who otherwise pose a threat to national security or public safety, are not eligible for DACA. The application fee is $495, which is also the cost to renew the status every two years.
Recipients can obtain valid driver’s licenses and enroll in college, as well as legally hold a job. Employed DACA recipients pay income taxes, just like their citizen counterparts.
The program was created as part of then-President Obama’s immigration policy. The current administration is rescinding DACA. It’s set to expire March 5, 2018, and President Trump has left it to Congress to decide what to do about the almost 700,000 people who currently have temporary legal status in this country because of DACA.
DACA in Oklahoma
Close to 7,000 DACA recipients live in Oklahoma, the majority of whom came from Mexico. DACA recipients and immigrants (both documented and undocumented) in general play a huge role in the state’s economy. Immigrants of all kinds represent a significant part of the workforce in fields such as construction, tourism and hospitality, and manufacturing.
It’s estimated that Oklahoma’s entire foreign-born population paid $135.2 million in state and local taxes in 2016, of which Oklahoma DACA recipients were responsible for $17.4 million. While statistics vary, ending DACA would likely cost the state nearly $350 million in its annual GDP.
People - Not just Numbers
Of course, behind all of the statistics are real people, many of whom have never really known another country and consider this one to be their home. They are your child’s friends and classmates. They are your nurse, your electrician, and your neighbor. They are people just like you and just like your child.
“They were brought here as children. They didn’t know they were crossing without proper documentation,” explained Blanca Zavala, president of the Coalition for the American Dream, a Tulsa based immigrant advocacy group. “Many didn’t even know they didn’t have legal status until they were ready to graduate from high school or get a driver’s license.”
Zavala noted that many DACA recipients know very little about the country where they were born.
“Most DACA recipients grew up with the belief that they belong to the United States, that they’re no different than any other kid who was born in the United States because they have the same values,” she said. “By heart, this is their country. They don’t know anything about the country in which they were actually born. A lot of people fail to connect those things and start calling them names when they didn’t do anything. They’re not at fault.”
Twenty-three-year-old Fatima is a DACA recipient who moved to the United States from Mexico when she was 11. Fatima currently works at OSU-Tulsa with the Juntos program, a collaboration between the University and Tulsa Public Schools that helps Latino youth succeed in middle and high school and pursue paths to higher education. She’s also taking classes at TCC. Regardless of what Congress decides to do about DACA, Fatima has no intention of leaving the U.S.
“I’m staying, no matter what,” she said. “There is no reason why I should go back. I moved to the United States when I was 11. I’ve lived half of my life here. I’m not ashamed of who I am or my [Mexican] culture. I’m bilingual, and I love my language. I have an accent that defines who I am, but that doesn’t mean I don’t belong here.”
Fatima’s younger brother, now 11, was born in the U.S., which makes him a citizen.
“My brother was born here. How am I just going to say, ‘Let’s all forget about the United States and go back [to Mexico]’?” she said. “This country may not be mine by birth, but I’m working here. I’m feeding it. It’s feeding me.”
Fatima emphasized that DACA recipients are attending school, paying tuition, holding jobs, paying taxes and contributing to the economy just like any U.S. citizen.
“It’s not just bilingual people with Spanish and English. I have a lot of friends with other languages and their services are being used, especially in the medical field,” Fatima noted. “I have a friend who is studying to be a doctor right now. He’s already out doing big things, saving lives. Are you going to fire him because of a card that doesn’t have valid dates?”
The uncertain future of the DACA program is unsettling for many recipients, especially families like Fatima’s whose members are a mix of documented and undocumented individuals, as well as U.S. citizens.
“I’m worried about the two kids in our home. I have a brother who was born in the states. My brother said, ‘Why do they keep asking me when I’m going back? Where are we going? Am I leaving? I don’t want to go, my friends are here,’” she recounted. “I’m not going to take him out of his home. I have a sister who is undocumented because she couldn’t apply for DACA.”
Many parents are scared and worried about their children should they be deported.
“I was talking to another family where the kids said they had a big family meeting. The parents taught them to fill out checks in case they needed to pay rent or buy groceries on their own – in case the parents were deported,” she said.
“Right now, they’re like a piñata,” Blanca Zavala said of the individuals she helps through her organization. “They’re being hit, and they’re being played in a political arena. They’re the piñata of both parties. They forget that these are people.”
Both Zavala and Fatima agree that education is key to helping others understand the reality of DACA and what it means for the recipients and for this country.
“I don’t blame people for saying what they say or doing what they do,” Zavala said. “More than anything, it’s just a lack of education. I would ask them, ‘How would you feel if this person were you?’ I believe more than anything in dignity and respect for all. Regardless of legal status, we should all be treated with the same respect and dignity, the way everybody would like to be treated.”
“I would encourage people to read and ask questions, but ask more than one person,” Fatima commented. “Not every documented person has the same story. Get informed and don’t go only by what the media says.”
“It’s a very critical time for immigrants nationwide, but I would not lose hope,” Zavala said. “I think better things are coming. Sometimes we have to go through hard times and struggles, but I think the future is going to grant them the opportunity to stay here legally, and they’re going to be able to pursue their dreams and have the happiness that all of us deserve here in the United States.”
For more information about DACA, visit www.USCIS.gov.