It’s been nearly a month since the deadline passed for Congress to make changes to the DACA program – or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. This week’s Friday Forum brings us different perspectives on the issues faced by this immigrant group.
Last fall, President Donald Trump issued an executive order to end the DACA program. Lawmakers were given six months to form a compromise bill -- but didn’t accomplish the task by the March 5 deadline.
Courts have enabled current DACA beneficiaries to renew their status, and the Department of Homeland Security agreed to renew the two-year permits that expired before the March deadline, but it’s uncertain what will happen next. The program remains in limbo.
Pablo Valencia-García is with Dream Action NIU. The student-led group at Northern Illinois University aims to raise awareness about situations faced by undocumented students in the U.S. Valencia-García says his parents – who are undocumented -- urge him to act with caution.
“My parents tell me every single day, ‘Be careful. Don’t do this. Don’t do that. Don’t commit a crime. Because that will put you in deportation proceedings,’” he said. “And it’s the same thing with my parents: They drive every day to work carefully. They try to minimize all the risks for them to not get deported.”
Valencia-García says that, when he first transferred to NIU, he kept to himself and was reluctant to trust others. But he says Dream Action NIU has boosted his confidence.
“I have the ability to talk and say, ‘Hey I’m undocumented,’” he said, “but no one can retaliate and say, ‘I’m going to report you to ICE; I’m going to report you to this.’ and just have you start the process of deportation.”
Several dozen people gathered at McHenry County College earlier this year to share their support. Others voiced their concerns about the DACA program.
Sandy Lopez, with the NIU Center for Latino and Latin American Studies, tried to quell some of the anxiety. She led an informational discussion at the event about current laws and misconceptions. She says undocumented students face extra burdens on top of coursework and finances.
“They have to deal with the stress and anxiety of ‘Am I protected from being deported? Am I going to be able to work? Am I going to be able to use the degree that I’m earning right now once I graduate?’” Lopez said.
She says Congress should not be stalling on addressing the now-expired program.
“It’s being held to get what politicians need,” Lopez said. “They’re using it as a tool to push through certain agendas and legislation. But it’s the 880,000 students’ lives they’re playing with.”
She says more support is needed outside of the undocumented community.
“There are students from a variety of countries that are being impacted from this issue who may not be as vocal about it,” she said, “because, within that undocumented community, they’re a minority.”
Lopez says change starts with how undocumented people are labeled.
“If you hear a professor or a student using the term ‘illegal,’ stop them and say, ‘You know what? The term is ‘undocumented,’” she advised. “Only actions are illegal, not a human being.”
While she says NIU offers great resources for undocumented students, Lopez thinks educators can help sooner.
“At the high school level, it’s about training those high school counselors and teachers on how to advocate for these students and teach them, yes, they can go to college,” she said. “There’s a possibility.”
And Lopez says she wants the Illinois General Assembly to take up House Bill 4503, which could help undocumented students who are considered Illinois residents for tuition purposes.
“So this would open up the ability for universities – public, four-year institutions – to give funding,” she said. “Every four-year, public institution has agreed to this.”
But the measure has been stalled in the House Rules Committee since Feb. 2. Lopez says it’s critical to pass because, right now, undocumented students do not receive federal or state funds.
Elgin-based attorney Shirley Sadjadi handles a lot of the legal side to immigration. She helps DACA recipients renew their permits. Sadjadi says her parents are from Iran, which inspired her to work with immigrants. She says she doesn’t know when Congress will act on the DACA program.
“Does that mean June? Does that mean September? I’m not exactly sure about that,” Sadjadi said. “So, the best we can do … the people who can renew their status should renew their status, as long as they understand that they could lose their money if it’s terminated prior to that.”
She says President Trump’s travel ban added more unneeded stigma to immigrants.
“It’s so hard for them to get visas in the first place. It’s really not that they needed more vetting,” Sadjadi explained, “and just to classify groups of countries, not just especially Iran, all the countries. There’s so many people that love Americans, and to just say, ‘Oh they’re bad people,’ is just totally outrageous. Outrageous.”
Sadjadi points to the system backlog. She says she knows a pair of siblings from Mexico who applied for a visa in October 1997. It’s just now being addressed.
“Now they can apply for their residence,” she said. “Twenty years they waited – twenty years. That’s the line.”
Sadjadi says that’s why some may decide to cross the border illegally. But she says they’re not bad people; they’re just in desperate situations to come to the U.S. – or cannot afford the steep fees. Sadjadi says attention should be focused on those who are committing crimes.
“Just legalize the people who are making no problems,” she said. “Go after the bad guys; we all want to go after the bad guys. But what you’re doing is blocking the immigration courts with all the good guys.”
She says immigrants and undocumented people should not be judged just by how they look or where they come from.
“Racism is not immigration policy. Dehumanizing people is not immigration policy,” she said. “It just doesn’t work.”
Sadjadi says time is up for lawmakers who are deprioritizing a DACA compromise bill.
“There are people who have sat down and said, ‘We need immigration policy,’” she noted, “but, until our country determines what we’re looking at in the future, we’re never going to have logical, good laws that actually reflect what we need to do.”
Jim Marter ran against Adam Kinzinger for the Republican nomination for the 16th District Congressional. The Oswego businessman didn’t win, but he says he was fighting for tougher immigration laws than Kinzinger. Marter agrees with Sadjadi that the immigration system is broken; but he says the solution is more complex.
“Just waving your magic wand and saying, ‘Just making everyone a citizen’ isn’t the answer for that,” he said.
He says employers letting undocumented people work is costing the taxpayers.
“Folks are getting money that is directly coming out of our federal government – our taxpayer dollars,” he said, “and taxpayer dollars is the money that comes out of the pocket of every working person in America.”
Marter calls for a stiffer hiring process.
“We need to put into place eVerify, which means you need to verify that someone you hire is an American citizen,” he said. “And if you can’t prove they’re an American citizen, you can’t hire them.”
Marter says he wants the Green Card “lottery” system tossed out because he says it’s unfair to those who may have skills to fill a workforce demand.
He says he’s worked in different countries around the world.
“If I want to emigrate to another country, they’re going to look at the merits of why they would let me in,” Marter said. “It’s this country you’re going to emigrate to that should have the decision to apply.”
Marter says letting people stay here illegally breaks principles of what it means to be American.
“These people … at one sense, they’re coming here for freedom, but they’re being literally treated like slaves,” he said. “And when they come here, they have to live under the radar, and again, they’re violating our immigration laws, our minimum wage laws, and all kinds of laws to stay and remain.”
He says he supports President Donald Trump’s 10 Point Immigration Plan – which includes building a border wall and forcing other countries to take back their natives deported by the U.S.
Marter says the plan may not receive bipartisan support but, regardless, he says addressing the DACA program needs to happen sooner rather than later.
“If we allow a system like our current, broken immigration system to continue, that is not compassionate,” he said, “because people are dying to get here, and people are being subjected to human trafficking and all sorts of malfeasance.”
Until Congress agrees on a solution, whichever direction it takes, the 800,000 DACA recipients will have to wait to escape their limbo.