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Why aren’t more applying for deportation exemption?

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A round table event hosted by New America Media and the San Francisco Office of Civic Engagement and Immigrant Affairs addressed some of the pressing issues surrounding the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. (Courtesy Shikha Singh/New America Media)

The Supreme Court’s nondecision in June, which effectively blocked President Barack Obama’s immigration reform plan, is, as the president put it, “heartbreaking.” The plan was designed to keep families together.

Our political and justice systems should be advocating for pathways that create opportunity and not a sense of futility and hopelessness.

What chance is there for any sort of happiness when families are split up?

At issue is the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. Originally passed in June 2012, DACA allows undocumented people who entered the country as children to obtain a renewable two-year work permit and exemption from deportation.

DACA does not provide a pathway for citizenship. It merely confers legal authorization to work for at least two years. You see the brilliance in this policy? These individuals who came to America as children (as far back as 2007) are encouraged to work and contribute to our economy. Where’s the harm in that?

The Supreme Court decision did not affect the original 2012 DACA program. It merely struck down an expansion of the program, which would have helped undocumented parents stay with their citizen children.

At a recent round table hosted by New America Media and the San Francisco Office of Civic Engagement and Immigrant Affairs, Leticia Urrutia, a young woman from Mexico, told her story. Her parents left her with relatives and came to America when she was very young.

“Every time my dad came to visit us, he brought clothes and gifts for a younger child,” Urrutia said, noting that her father carried a mental picture of Urrutia at about the age that he had left — when she was five.

Finally, Urrutia came to the United States, illegally, when she was 11 years old, and her family became one again. It was when she was in high school and she decided to join the soccer team that her undocumented status became a problem. She was asked to produce proof of insurance. It was a small complication, but it created a huge sense of alienation.

Urrutia’s coach helped her secure low-cost temporary insurance and she went on to play for the team. The experience, nevertheless, was one of the many breakpoints in her young life.

Urrutia decided to transfer to another high school, where she met an organizer who invited her to attend immigration meetings. This led to Urrutia applying for DACA in 2014. Urrutia is due to renew her DACA status in October this year.

Sally Kinoshita, from the Immigrant Legal Resource Center, quoting USCIS statistics, indicated that while there are 1.7 million eligible to apply for DACA, only 868,615 have actually applied. That’s about 50 percent of those eligible. Furthermore, 89 percent of the applications that were submitted were accepted by the USCIS.

So why is it that more are not applying for DACA?

The requirements to apply seem simple enough: Applicants must have lived in the U.S. continuously for at least five years; physically present on June 15, 2012; currently in high school or graduated from high school or earned a GED and must not have committed a crime.

In San Francisco, according to data from the Migration Policy Institute, there were 5,000 people eligible for DACA in 2013, which amounted to 30 percent of the undocumented population.

DACA improves the lives of its applicants by helping them secure better jobs, access higher education possibilities, get health insurance and earn driver’s licenses.

For 22-year-old Madiha Kahan, it was about the privilege of owning a driver’s license card. Originally from Pakistan, Khan emigrated from Dubai with her family in 1998. She blames “bad legal advice” for her undocumented status.

Their illegal status meant that her mother did not have a legal license.

“My mother drove me around for many years, risking imprisonment. Eventually, she fell ill. Then, I drove illegally. It was very scary,” Khan said, citing the instance of when a police officer pulled her over. She was terrified she was going to be deported, but the kind police officer issued a verbal warning and let her go.

DACA has changed Khan’s life. She no longer lives in the “constant state of fear” that characterized her life before DACA.

Khan recently graduated from the UC Berkeley with a degree in philosophy and plans to go to law school to “fight for human rights.” Her DACA renewal is coming up next year.

Deferred Action SF, a project of the SFOCEIA, has launched a free legal assistance and a fee assistance program — it costs $465 to apply — for DACA applicants. This is a great move by the city of San Francisco. These kinds of projects and policies are socially and fiscally right for our city.

Annette Wong, director of programs at Chinese for Affirmative Actions in San Francisco, urged people to “come forward and seek to be a part of the community who are fighting for immigrant rights.”

So, I add my voice to Wong’s and Kinoshita’s and SFOCEIA’s and many, many others as I urge those who are afraid to see the possibilities in DACA to step forward. There is much to be gained. Take initiative and perform the responsibilities that you were charged with when you entered America.

Jaya Padmanabhan is the editor of India Currents, www.indiacurrents.com. She can be reached at jaya.padmanabhan@gmail.com. In Brown Type covers immigrant issues in San Francisco.

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