Deferred deportation for undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. at a young age began one year ago, on August 15, 2012. But a group of immigration activists say it’s not enough, adding that Congress needs to pass comprehensive immigration reform.
“The job is only half done,” said Ana Padilla, 27, an immigration organizer with Gamaliel of Metro Chicago. “It’s not permanent and there’s still a lot of instability.”
The federal Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program grants a two-year protection against deportation for immigrants who came to the U.S. prior to the age of 16. The program also authorizes approved applicants to work legally in the country. To be approved, applicants are required to either be an honorably discharged veteran, enrolled in school or have earned a high school diploma or general educational development certificate (GED).
But DACA does not create a pathway to legalization or citizenship.
A small group of Gamaliel members delivered half of a birthday cake to U.S. Rep. Dan Lipinski (D, IL-3) on Thursday afternoon, to both celebrate DACA’s first anniversary and push the congressman to recognize that the job of immigration reform remains only half finished.
“People think this is something that will solve their immigration status, but it’s only temporary,” said Padilla, a DACA recipient who immigrated to the U.S. from Mexico more than 19 years ago. “The Senate already approved immigration reform, and the president said he’d support it. It’s time for the House to act.”
Some 500,000 individuals living in the U.S. have applied for deferred action, and more than 400,000 people have been approved since the program’s implementation 12 months ago.
“DACA doesn’t provide any guarantees,” said Padilla, who lives in Chicago and who, through Gamaliel, has helped roughly 65 young immigrants apply for deferred action. “Lipinski represents a district that is highly, highly immigrant, but he doesn’t advocate for immigration reform the way he should.”
Although Lipinski has supported DACA, he voted against an amendment to the House's 2014 Department of Homeland Security spending bill that would defund DACA, the “conservative Democrat” has not backed immigration reform legislation that is making its way through Congress.
Passed in the Senate in June, the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act of 2013, S. 744, lays out a five- or 10-year pathway to citizenship for the nation's more than 11 million undocumented immigrants who meet certain criteria and pay fines.
The bill, which now sits in the GOP-led House where it faces an uncertain future, appropriates more than $46 billion to security of America’s southern border.
Lipinski, who had roughly 150,000 immigrants living in his district in 2010, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, has in the past supported legislation to secure the border and voted against the DREAM (Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors) Act.
In 2010, he was one of eight Democrats in the lower chamber to vote against the DREAM Act, which would have provided conditional permanent residency to undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. as minors, have lived in the country for more than five years continuously and have attended college or served military time.
In a statement issued shortly after his vote, Lipinski said he could not support the DREAM Act because it would have rewarded undocumented immigrants for breaking the law and encouraged further illegal immigration.
Also, in 2006 he was one of 64 Democrats in the House to vote “yes” on the Secure Fence Act, which was enacted into law and authorized the construction of 700 miles of double chain link and barbed wire fences with light and infrared camera poles on America’s southern border.
Meanwhile, Mercedes Cuate, 67, said she and her daughter both live in a “constant state of fear” because of her daughter’s undocumented status.
“We’re happy that deferred action provided the DREAMers some kind of protection,” she said, with translation services provided by Padilla. “But the other half is missing.”
Cuate’s 37 year-old daughter came to the U.S. from Mexico at 16 years of age and, as such, is was unable to apply for DACA because she did not meet the age requirement. She was forced to quit college because she couldn’t afford an education without financial aid, and now works at a distributing company.
Cuate, who immigrated from Mexico more than 25 years ago, can stay in the U.S. legally because her brother, who is a citizen, petitioned for her green card.
“We need true immigration reform that will unite and keep families together,” Cuate said, adding that the petition for her daughter’s green card is still pending. “I am always on pins and needles ... There’s always a chance that she could be deported.”
As of March 22, nearly 75 percent of all DACA applicants, 348,579 people, were born in Mexico, according to a recent report by the Brookings Institution. But there were 25 other countries with more than 1,000 applicants for the program, with El Salvador falling in second place for the most DACA requests, at 4 percent of all applications.
South Korea, which made up only 1.5 percent, or 7,007, of the total DACA applications, had the highest approval rating at 76 percent. Mexico had 57 percent of DACA applicants approved and El Salvador saw 55 percent of applicants greenlighted for deferred action.
But majority of DACA recipients seek permanent citizenship, according to the findings of a recent survey from the National UnDACAmented Research Project (NURP), a MacArthur Foundation-funded national study of the effects of DACA.
After surveying 1,402 people nationwide between the ages of 18 and 31 who were approved for DACA through June, NURP found that 94 percent of respondents said they would apply for citizenship if ever given the opportunity to become eligible for it.
Also, 31 percent of respondents reported to having had a family member deported, while 68 percent said they personally know an individual who was deported.
“After one year, we want to say that we are very happy that DACA happened,” said Rita Aguilar, vice president of Pilsen Neighbors Community Council, who participated in the demonstration at Lipinski’s office. “But we look at it as half done. The job isn’t completed when the DREAMers are wondering, ‘what’s going to happen to my parents.’”
Aguilar told a representative from Lipinski’s office that the congressman should “see the light through the eyes of our immigrant brothers and sisters:”
Emma Villarreal, 50, said Lipinski is “behind the times” because he hasn’t expressed support for comprehensive immigration reform.
“He needs to wake up and look outside,” Villarreal said, adding that she’s lived in Lipinski’s district for 12 years. “He needs to support his community, which has gotten more and more Latino over the years.”
Villareal, who was born in the U.S. but whose mother immigrated from Mexico, called Lipinski “culturally incompetent.”
“I can’t understand why he wouldn’t support immigration reform,” she said. “If he doesn’t change his views for his community, we’re going to change him.”