Area immigrants, advocates denounce ending of DACA

  • Sara Martinez, right, speaks as Patricia Garcia listens during a meeting of a Mount Holyoke College student-run group called Undocumented Immigrant Alliance, Dec. 17, 2015, in the Eliana Ortega Cultural Center at MHC. Both are undocumented immigrants who are students at the college. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

  • Rosalyn Leban, left, speaks as Patricia Garcia, center, and Sara Martinez listen during a meeting of a Mount Holyoke College student-run group called Undocumented Immigrant Alliance in the college’s Eliana Ortega Cultural Center in December 2015. Garcia and Martinez are undocumented immigrants who are students at the college. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Wednesday, September 06, 2017

NORTHAMPTON — Area immigrants and immigration advocates denounced the Trump administration’s decision Tuesday to end an Obama-era executive order protecting young immigrants without legal status from deportation.

“I’m feeling very angry. I am feeling like this is not a surprise, not a shock at all from this administration,” said Natalia Berthet Garcia, a statewide organizer with the organization Massachusetts Jobs with Justice.

She is a beneficiary of the program herself, having grown up in Leominster after coming to the United States at the age of 5 from Uruguay, a country she hasn’t been to since her arrival.

The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, more commonly known as DACA, benefits young immigrants brought to the country as children. Trump has ordered a sunset of DACA, calling on Congress to replace it with legislation before it is ultimately phased out on March 5, 2018.

There are currently almost 800,000 beneficiaries of the program, 7,934 of whom are residents of Massachusetts, according to the most recent data from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

Berthet Garcia, 28, said she has a complicated relationship with DACA. She said she’s obviously thankful that the program allowed her to get a driver’s license and “a job that treats me like a human being,” but was upset when she learned others wouldn’t be getting the same relief: her parents, who have lived and worked here for so many years; members of her community, whom she felt the program sees as the “undeserving parents” juxtaposed with their DACA-eligible “deserving children”; and other immigrant workers across the country.

Hampshire College student Eduardo Samaniego, 25, fits into that category of immigrants who were ineligible for the program. He moved to Georgia at the age of 16, which is the cutoff age for receiving DACA. Despite that, he is a strong backer of the program.

“This is by far one of the biggest attacks on the immigrant community and the Latino community,” he said, adding that other communities are also deeply affected by Trump’s decision. “As someone who didn’t qualify for DACA, I can tell you DACA is personal. DACA has become part of my friends’ lives, our community’s lives.”

Samaniego said immigrant advocates will now call on Congress to pass the DREAM Act — a bill that would grant conditional residency, and then possible permanent residency, to immigrants who have arrived in the United States before age 16 and graduated from a U.S. high school. The act has been introduced several times, but has never passed.

Some of the political burden, Samaniego added, also falls to state lawmakers, whom he criticized for not passing legislation that would help immigrants like himself, including a bill that would give in-state tuition to immigrant graduates of state high schools, a law that would allow undocumented immigrants to get driver’s licenses and a state version of the DREAM Act.

“Democrats have a responsibility that they’re coming short on fulfilling,” he said. “Now it’s an opportunity for this Legislature, the current Legislature in Massachusetts, to stand up and to say enough is enough.”

State Rep. Solomon Goldstein-Rose, D-Amherst, said he believes there might be state legislation in the works that would protect the state’s DACA recipients, but didn’t have any specifics. When asked about bills to grant immigrants driver’s licenses, he said he wanted to separate that from the conversation around DACA, saying there were different policy implications to consider.

“But in general, yes, I’m supportive of legislation that makes our communities safer and more law-abiding,” he said.

Goldstein-Rose is a co-sponsor of a bill in the House that would expand in-state tuition to many, though not all, undocumented immigrants. Fellow Hampshire County Reps. John Scibak and Peter Kocot have also co-sponsored the bill.

Diminishing options

In the meantime, however, local immigrants without legal status will be left in limbo, Northampton immigration lawyer Megan Kludt said.

“Some people over the past five years having some status have been able to develop other options, but a lot of them don’t have any other options,” she said.

Kludt said that although much of the focus of DACA news coverage is on university students and graduates, many Pioneer Valley recipients are young people who met DACA’s education requirements through vocational training or English literacy programs.

“They don’t really have the same resources as some of the university-educated people do,” she said.

One serious impact of the decision, she said, is that once DACA status is rescinded, those former recipients would start accruing what’s called “unlawful presence.” If someone is unlawfully in the country for more than 180 days, they are banned from re-entering the country for three years, and for a year of “unlawful presence” there’s a 10-year ban.

Those bans can be significant hurdles to those hoping to apply for legal status, Kludt said. And once their DACA status is terminated, that clock starts ticking.

“This may be a challenge we’re facing,” she said. “Their future options for long-term immigration will run out quickly.”

Because of those and other deleterious effects, local lawmakers and education officials slammed the Trump administration’s decision to end DACA.

“Speaker Ryan and House Republicans must immediately bring up legislation to protect DREAMers from the Trump Administration’s heartless decision,” U.S. Rep. James McGovern, D-Worcester, said in a statement. “Until then, DREAMers should know that the doors to my office are always open to anyone in need of assistance and my office will always be a safe haven.”

“Turning our backs on Dreamers makes us weaker, makes us less safe, & betrays our values,” U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren said in a tweet. “America should keep its promises. If [Trump] doesn’t know that, then Congress must act to make DACA permanent.”

The presidents of the state’s 15 community colleges said in a joint statement that they remain committed to meeting the needs of all students regardless of immigration status, and University of Massachusetts President Marty Meehan and the five campus chancellors said in a statement that the decision is “an affront to our core values and undermines our mission to provide access and opportunity and support social and economic mobility for all underrepresented populations.”

“We will work closely with our UMass system immigration counsel to ensure that the interests of our students are represented and will advocate with lawmakers at the federal and state levels to explore a possible legislative path forward,” University of Massachusetts Amherst Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy said in a statement. “Student Legal Services also stands at the ready to assist students in need.”

The presidents of Amherst, Mount Holyoke, Hampshire and Smith colleges have all come out against the decision as well.

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com.