September 20, 2017

Potential DACA Repeal Leaves Athens Immigrants in Limbo

Photo Credit: Nicole Adamson

Athens residents protest President Trump's announcement that he would end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program in six months.

Maricela’s future holds a lot of uncertainty. She is one of over 1.7 million DREAMers—minors brought to the U.S. illegally, named for a Senate bill that would have granted them a path to citizenship—who have received documentation under Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, an immigration policy set in place by President Obama in 2012 allowing them to live, drive and work without fear of deportation.

On Sept. 5, President Trump moved to end the program with a six-month phase-out period, urging Congress to create a replacement plan, leaving hundreds of thousands enrolled in the program unsure of what may happen. Although Trump may have cut a deal with congressional Democrats to extend the program, uncertainty remains.

A Campaign Promise

"We knew this day was coming," said Beto Mendoza at a rally at the UGA Arch following the president's decision. "There's been a whole movement against our undocumented neighbors for years."

The fear that they may face deportation has DACA recipients in Clarke County worried, though the concern dates back long before the official announcement, to Trump's promise on the campaign trail to "immediately terminate" DACA when he took office.

"I had no idea so many people supported the rhetoric the president was putting out," said Elizabeth. "Especially living in Athens, I didn't think this would be something I experienced personally."

Elizabeth was one of several undocumented people to speak at a forum at the Athens-Clarke County Library on Sept. 9 for welcoming immigrant families. (Event organizers asked Flagpole not to identify undocumented students by their full names.)

At the event, Elizabeth, a former Clarke County student who later graduated from Syracuse University, recalled when a teacher made a comment about lining up immigrants and shooting them.

"You can imagine how that felt," she said. "I ended up not being in that class… In that situation, I just got up and left the room. Looking back, I wish I had started a discussion on it, but it's hard, because you don't want to be the one to start the discussion. A lot of times you feel like it should be someone else who starts the discussion."

Elizabeth said teachers should create an environment where undocumented students feel comfortable, rather than singling out people for a conversation about immigration. "Making it known, making it public that you're welcoming is the biggest step, because people don't want to be pointed out, don't want to be discussed like they're not even there," she said.

Kelly Bivins, a former Clarke County teacher, not only welcomed undocumented students, but worked to help dozens of them receive DACA status. "As their teacher, that meant printing off an official record of their attendance in school and writing letters of recommendation," she said. "I took lots of pictures of students working all along… to prove they were in school."

After high school, some of Bivins' students go off to out-of-state colleges. The Board of Regents for the University System of Georgia bans DACA recipients from competitive-enrollment state schools like UGA, and charges them international tuition rates at open-enrollment schools like the University of North Georgia. "I saw some of my brightest students get away [because of the ban]," Bivins said.

But close to half of her students instead go directly into the workforce, taking advantage of perhaps one of the biggest benefits of DACA status: work permits. "When I got my work permit, my whole life changed," Maricela said. Born in Mexico and brought to the United States by her parents when she was 10 years old, Maricela graduated from high school in 2007 and filed for DACA.

"At first, I was skeptical, because I was giving all my information to the government, and I didn't know if that might be used against me," she said. "I knew I qualified, but I was unsure if I would be able to produce all the evidence."

Maricela said she was "pretty invisible" after graduation, and without an attendance record, she had to prove that she was here by other means. "I had a gym membership, so I [could show] when I went to the gym. I had bank statement printouts for several years. I had to get a criminal background check," she said.

One particularly stressful requirement was photographic proof that she was in the country on a specific date. "Fortunately, at the time, I had a lawyer on Facebook that said to take a picture with a newspaper," she said. "I was lucky to have done it, but I know other people that have struggled."

Signing up for DACA carries a $495, and with a lawyer, the cost rises to $2,000. The whole process took roughly six months, Maricela said, and at no point did she know if she was going to be approved. "After high school, you're stuck," she said. "DACA to me was a door that opened and allowed me to do things, simple things like have a driver's license. I'm a homeowner now. I was able to establish credit. I have benefits from my job."

Receiving DACA status relieved much of Maricela's concern for her safety. "I travel without fear. I used to stay away from airports," she said. "I was able to travel outside the country on a mission trip."

Even young people who are in the U.S. legally are worried about what Trump’s policies will mean for them. Clarke Central High School student Shahrzad Roshan—who was born in Iran and moved to Athens in 2015—said she is concerned about whether her green card will be renewed when it expires in two years, or whether she will be allowed to become a U.S. citizen now that Trump is in office.

Local Protections

Moving forward, Clarke County School Superintendent Demond Means—who speaks often about his commitment to equity and social justice—assured undocumented students at the forum that the school system “will continue to monitor the situation closely and consider all of our options to protect not only DREAMers, but also families affected by what I would consider cruel and un-American policies."

Athens-Clarke County Police Chief Scott Freeman also reassured immigrants that local police would not enforce federal immigration laws, investigate immigration status unless it's directly related to a crime, or cooperate with Immigration and Customs Enforcement unless ICE is serving warrants for serious crimes. Freeman said he views immigration enforcement as a federal issue that local police are ill-equipped to handle, and to try to do so would be unconstitutional.

ACCPD even produced a video featuring Freeman making statements to that effect, which was shown at the library forum, but after much reflection, he decided not to post it online. "ICE, if they get ahold of this, they will specifically hone in on this community," he said. "That would be very detrimental to the people we are trying to protect."

Any cooperation with ICE requires Freeman's approval or that of his deputy chief, and any operation for which ICE requested assistance would be met with "a very high level of scrutiny," he said.

Freeman also said the department would not cooperate in any attempts to use misdemeanors such as traffic violations as a backdoor way to deport people. "It's not going to happen, not as long as I'm chief of police," he said.

Young people from undocumented or mixed families are “in crisis,” said Sister Margarita Martin, a Catholic nun who runs the social services organization Oasis Catolico Santa Rafaela in the predominantly Hispanic Pinewoods community in northeastern Athens. “When they see a police car, they start hiding and crying,” she said.

Immigrants should not be afraid of ACCPD, Freeman said. “I don’t care, and our police officers don’t care, whether they are documented or undocumented,” he said.

Freeman did warn those at the forum of reports that he’s heard of “unethical” tactics like ICE posing as local police and misleading local departments regarding warrants. But he has no control over federal agencies’ actions in Athens, and ICE does not notify him when they conduct raids in Athens. "I feel confident because of my position on immigration that I would be the last person they would notify," he said.

Regardless of local action, though, the possibility that DACA may be dissolved has left Maricela without a clear future in the U.S. Democratic leaders in Congress announced Sept. 13 that they had struck a deal with President Trump to protect DREAMers from deportation in exchange for more border enforcement funding, though the White House has pushed back on the announcement. A group of DACA recipients also filed a lawsuit Sept. 18 against the Trump Administration seeking to keep the program in place.

"It gives me a lot of uncertainty, because I have a life here now," Maricela said. "I was born in Mexico, but I've been here all my life. I have a child who was born here."

In preparation for whatever may happen, Maricela has already gotten a passport for her child in case she's sent back to Mexico. She has also considered Canada.

"We [DREAMers] are good people. We contribute to society, we pay taxes, we have careers," she said. "In a way, I feel like I'm losing something, but at the same time, I feel like the United States is losing something as well."