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Will DACA Parents Be Forced to Leave Their U.S.-Citizen Children Behind?

25 Oct

By Priscilla Alvarez

With the cancellation of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, an estimated 200,000 children are at risk of losing their parents.

In September, the Trump administration announced it was rescinding DACA pending a six-month delay. The program is an Obama-era initiative that shields undocumented immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children from deportation, and allows them to work legally in the country. Unless the Republican-controlled Congress passes a law granting them legal status, they could soon be subject to deportation. That uncertainty has instilled fear among many of the nearly 700,000 DACA recipients, but particularly those who are parents of U.S. citizens.

“It’s been really tough, it’s been a rollercoaster of emotion,” said Eliana Fernandez, a DACA recipient and mother of two children, ages 10 and 5. “What’s going to happen with my life, with my work, with my children? I’ve been trying to process everything.”

The vast majority of DACA expirations will come after March 5, 2018. According to the Department of Homeland Security, 275,344 individuals will have their work permits expire next year and 321,920 work permits are set to run out from January through August 2019. That means that hundreds of thousands of immigrants will suddenly be eligible for deportation and lose their ability to work legally in country.

Though often described as “kids,” a majority of DACA beneficiaries are in their 20s—and some of them have children of their own. A recent study conducted by Tom Wong of the University of California at San Diego along with the Center for American Progress, National Immigration Law Center, and United We Dream found that 25.7 percent of DACA recipients have a child who is a U.S. citizen. “If extrapolated to the total population of DACA recipients, this suggests that at least 200,000 U.S. citizen children live in the U.S. currently who have a DACA recipient for a parent,” Wong told told The Daily Beast.

While DACA was always supposed to be temporary, the ultimate outcome was meant to be legal status for its recipients, not deportation. Lawyers and immigrant-rights groups are working to address that by helping DACA parents map out what few options they have, and prepare for the possibility of deportation, in anticipation of their permits expiring. The National Immigration Law Center hosted a call this month to discuss the impact of terminating the program on the children of beneficiaries. “Many young people with DACA are parents, the majority to U.S. citizen kids. These children should be entitled to the same rights and opportunities as any other child,” said Marielena Hincapié, the executive director of the center.

Trying to obtain legal status is out of the question for many DACA recipients. The process to becoming a lawful permanent resident requires individuals to have a qualifying petitioner and to have entered—and resided in—the country legally. The latter requirement bars a majority of DACA beneficiaries from obtaining legal status since they came into the U.S. illegally to begin with or they overstayed their visas.

“The bottom line is: If there were some other form of relief, most DACA recipients would’ve already done it and been in the process.”

Some DACA recipients might be eligible for cancellation of removal, which would shield them from deportation and provide them a green card. “What you have to prove is that you’ve been in the United States for 10 years, that you have a good moral character and your deportation would result in extreme, unusual, and exceptional hardship to a qualifying relative. It can be a child, parent, or spouse,” said Michelle Saenz-Rodriguez, an immigration lawyer in Dallas, Texas. Chances of qualifying are slim, however: Immigration judges are only permitted to grant 4,000 cancellations of removal per fiscal year. DACA parents are also having to consider power of attorney, the act of appointing someone to manage private affairs in their absence.

Saenz-Rodriguez’s law office has received five or six queries per week about alternatives since the administration’s announcement to terminate DACA. “I think all the advocates are looking at whatever mechanisms are available,” Saenz-Rodriguez said. “The bottom line is: If there were some other form of relief, most DACA recipients would’ve already done it and been in the process.”

DACA recipients are overwhelmingly from mixed-status families: some relatives are undocumented while others are U.S. citizens. DACA opened the door to opportunities, like earning a legal income, providing its beneficiaries with a sense of security.

For Fernandez, an immigration case manager for Make the Road New York, a Latino advocacy organization, DACA allowed her to provide for her family. “I, thankfully to DACA, was able to graduate [from] college, work in the line of work like I always wanted to do. I became a homeowner,” she told me. Now, Fernandez, among other DACA parents, is having to grapple with how she’ll take care of her family and what to do if she’s detained.

Trump has said that DACA recipients, all of whom must have a clean criminal record to qualify, are not enforcement priorities: “We are focused on criminals, security threats, recent border-crossers, visa overstays, and repeat violators. I have advised the Department of Homeland Security that DACA recipients are not enforcement priorities unless they are criminals, are involved in criminal activity, or are members of a gang,” he said in a statement.

But according to Immigration and Customs Enforcement figures, there was an increase in “non-criminal” arrests between January 22 and April 29 compared to the same period in 2016, around 10,800 in 2017 to 4,200 in 2016.

Karina Velasco, a DACA recipient and mother of a two-year-old girl, has had discussions with her husband about the possibility of being detained. “We discussed what would happen if a raid happens. We know that Immigration and Customs Enforcement is not going to honor DACA,” she told me. “We’re working on a plan: What’s going to happen? I don’t want my daughter to not have her mother; I don’t want my husband to not have his wife.” Velasco is in the process of adjusting her status to become a lawful permanent resident.

Concerns about what may happen to an undocumented parent can take an emotional toll on a child and hinder their integration into society. “Although they have a secure status, the constant fear of losing a parent or coming home and not knowing if your parent is going to be here is something we’ve seen rise,” said Sally Kinoshita, the deputy director of the Immigrant Legal Resource Center, which frequently works with undocumented parents with U.S. citizen children. Kinoshita added that over time, some DACA recipients have adjusted their status to become lawful permanent residents.

Still, the Trump administration’s decision to end DACA effects hundreds of thousands of its beneficiaries, and as many prepare to face the risk of deportation again, they’ll also have to wrestle with what comes next for their families, including their American children.