‘I Have No Choice But to Keep Fighting’: Organizers and DACA Recipients Press On

"It's sort of like I have to prove my humanity to someone who can clearly see that I'm human," said 22-year-old Heyra Avila.

Given the rhetoric of the Trump campaign and presidency, Heyra Avila wasn't surprised by the DHS announcement. Kari Lindberg

Heyra Avila, who arrived with her parents in northern Kentucky at the age of 4 from Veracruz, Mexico, couldn’t be busier. At a month away from her 22nd birthday, she is currently a full-time student at Xavier University in Cincinnati, Ohio. In addition, she is working two part-time jobs—one as a medical translator and the other at a mortgage lending company—and filling a leadership role at the Youth Educating Society, a group of high school and college students that meet once a month to discuss immigration and education reform in the city.

Now though, in the wake of a September 5 memorandum issued by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to rescind the Obama administration’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program barring congressional action within six months, she has two more tasks on her plate: establishing a “Plan B” for a life in Mexico and making arrangements for her three younger U.S.-born siblings, should her parents be deported.

Given the rhetoric of the Trump campaign and presidency, Avila wasn’t surprised by the DHS announcement.

“I always knew it was going to happen,” she told Rewire. “It was just a matter of when.”

Since the memorandum was announced, immigrant organizations and coalitions nationwide have made passing a clean DREAM Act their key priority in the short term. Such an act—dubbed “clean” because it would have “no strings attached” such as “dangerous enforcement add-ons“—would create a legal pathway to citizenship for qualifying individuals who came to the United States as children.

Becky Belcore, co-director of the National Korean American Service and Education Consortium (NAKASEC)—whose organization held a 21-day vigil outside the White House in support of DACA leading up to September 5—is one of the key organizations pushing for the DREAM Act. Individuals from NAKASEC have been attending weekly meetings with members of Congress on Capitol Hill to gather further support for the bill, especially the number of Republican legislators who issued statements in support of the DREAM Act after the DACA announcement. “Right now the DREAM Act has 200 co-sponsors in the House; our goal is to get to the 218 threshold needed to pass the bill,” Belcore told Rewire.

Members of faith-based communities, who are working in conjunction with immigrant organizations to pass the DREAM Act, are calling the matter a moral responsibility. “Members of Congress, who claim to be Christian, should stop pretending that they’re Christian and start acting like they’re Christian,” said Patrick Carolan, executive director of the Franciscan Action Network, in an interview with Rewire.

Other groups note that passing a DREAM Act would make vulnerable communities safer beyond providing a pathway to citizenship. It would also, they hope, create a less violent environment for immigrants throughout the country.

A report by South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT), for instance, notes that in the United States, there were 207 xenophobic attacks in 2016 aimed at South Asian, Muslim, Sikh, Hindu, Middle Eastern, and Arab communities. While there are no similar statistics available for 2017, SAALT has documented a rise in the number of hate incidents occurring after the election.

“The failure to pass the DREAM Act and the decision to rescind DACA continues to put immigrant young people in a second-class citizen status, where they are increasingly subjected to hate violence,” said Suman Raghunathan, SAALT’s executive director, in a phone interview with Rewire. “Passing a clean DREAM Act is the only way to make sure we can address hate violence.”

After speaking to a packed church about her experiences last week, Avila said about pushing for greater legal protections, “It’s sort of like I have to prove my humanity to someone who can clearly see that I’m human.”

In the meantime, “Dreamers” with work permit authorizations that expire before March 5, 2018, have until Thursday, October 5, to apply for renewal. And time is fast running out.

“The deadlines are too short,” said Jung Woo Kim, a 33-year-old DACA recipient and community organizer with NAKASEC, in an interview with Rewire. “We are asking the government to give us more time.”

In the wake of Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria, 30 Democrat Senators sent a letter on September 25 Elaine Duke, acting secretary of the DHS, pushing for a deadline extension. The letter noted that due to the “disruption” of the hurricanes and the $495 renewal fee, it “could make it nearly impossible for some Dreamers to make the deadline.”

Attorneys who organized a nationwide resource list of all free legal clinics to help with DACA renewals have also voiced concerns about the hurdles that may be affecting DACA recipients’ ability to renew their applications.

“We’ve heard anecdotal evidence that, at least in New York, there seem to be a lot more volunteers … than there are impacted individuals seeking specific assistance with their DACA renewals,” said Annie Wang, staff attorney at the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, to Rewire in a phone interview. “There are those struggling to pay the fees, it’s a really big issue that not everyone talks about.”

Wang also voiced her concern that there may be a misconception that the deadline for renewal is March 5, not October.

But worries go beyond deadlines and fees. A group of immigration organizations nationwide, spearheaded by Desis Rising Up and Moving (DRUM), fear what may happen to personal information of DACA recipients and their families should no protections be implemented. Though they note that individuals “can and should” renew their DACA, they are calling for a deletion of the DACA database registry altogether.

“We want a concrete commitment that their information will be deleted from the database, just so we are sure that Immigration Customs and Enforcement (ICE) can’t go after those folks and their families,” said Patrice Lawrence, national advocacy and policy coordinator for UndocuBlack, a network supporting the database deletion, to Rewire on a phone interview.

For his part, Kim says he has no backup plan if the DREAM Act doesn’t pass. Kim, who received DACA at age 28, told Rewire, “The first generation went through really harsh stuff when they were young; from ages 18 to 28, I had to survive any way I could.” For Kim, that meant moving from Orange County, California, to Los Angeles, where a larger Korean community ensured that he could find work under the table.

Luckily, Kim was one of 154,000 Dreamers who are eligible to renew their work permits; he was able to extend his legal status until 2019. But, he noted, he doesn’t know what protections will be available for him and other DACA recipients after that.

“Even if the DREAM Act fails to pass,” he says, “I have no choice but to keep fighting.”

CORRECTION: This piece has been updated to clarify the name of Heyra Avila’s school.