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Options for DACA immigrants start with legal screenings

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Hundreds of DREAMers and their allies march through the streets of Washington, D.C., protesting the absence of a legislative fix for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which would offer young immigrants a pathway to citizenship, on March 5, 2018. (Michael Nigro/Sipa USA/TNS)

President Donald Trump, Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Trump’s Chief of Staff John Kelly are cultivating, projecting and proselytizing a narrative of immigrants to suit their objectives.

Immigrants are painted as largely criminal, with lesser skill sets and lower levels of education attainment, who resist or are incapable of assimilation into American society. On the other hand, if immigrants do have skill sets, they are portrayed as stealing American jobs.

This sustained manipulation of perception allows the administration to take harsher steps against immigrants, like the termination of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, enhanced enforcement and increased arrests around the country, especially in sanctuary cities. Arrests of immigrants, especially non-criminals, have increased by 41 percent in Trump’s first year in office.

DACA was a 2012 policy instituted by the Obama administration to defer deportations of immigrants without legal status who were brought to the United States as children. DACA policy was for a two-year renewable period, permitting the individual to work, study and contribute to the economy.

A CNN poll shows that more than 80 percent of Americans are in favor of keeping DACA recipients in the U.S. You might think this kind of overwhelming support would drive the current administration’s politics. Yet, Trump tweeted, “DACA is dead,” on April 2, quickly shifting attention to border security and wall-building in the same tweet.

Since the abrupt termination of DACA in September 2017, there has been a reliance on court activities and legal injunctions to safeguard the status of nearly 690,000 immigrants in the DACA program.

On April 24, John D. Bates, a federal judge in Washington, D.C., ruled the Trump administration must accept initial DACA applications once again. But Bates gave the Department of Homeland Security 90 days to explain why the DACA program was canceled, calling the termination of the program “arbitrary and capricious because the Department failed adequately to explain its conclusion that the program was unlawful.”

Earlier this year, federal district judge for Northern California William Alsup also ruled against the federal administration’s decision to phase out protections for DACA recipients or DREAMers (Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act). In his opinion, Alsup stated DREAMers “brought to America as children, faced a tough set of life and career choices turning on the comparative probabilities of being deported versus remaining here. DACA gave them a more tolerable set of choices, including joining the mainstream workforce. Now, absent an injunction, they will slide back to the pre-DACA era and associated hardship.”

Since Congress seems frustratingly unable or unwilling to help, DACA immigrants need less expensive and functional options outside the courtroom.

At a March 13 telebriefing organized by Ethnic Media Services of San Francisco, Sally Kinoshita of the Immigration Legal Resource Center said it is possible that DACA recipients have options under immigration law that could help some people get access to green cards. “According to a recent study, the estimates are that about 20 to 25 percent of the undocumented population is eligible for one of the existing immigration options,” Kinoshita said.

The study Kinoshita referred to was a national survey undertaken by Center for Migration Studies (CMS) of New York, with support from the Open Society Foundation, in June 2016. The CMS study had 40 agencies and 66 individual participants. While a 2014 study had indicated that 14.3 percent of DACA eligible people were potentially in line for benefits that would put them on the path to citizenship, most of the respondents in the CMS study thought that the 14.3 percent figure was understated. Estimates typically ranged around 20 percent to 25 percent.

Whatever the percentage, the key idea is that there might be opportunities for DACA immigrants beyond immigration courts and statutory reform. “The people need to go and get an immigration screening to find out what options are available to them,” Kinoshita urged.
The CMS report went so far as to say legal screenings are a critical and the most consequential pathway for immigrants without papers to find legal status.

The study lists U-visas, Special Immigrant Juvenile visas, family-based immigration and the Violence Against Women’s Act as some of the possibilities for legal status relief. A U-visa is for a victim of a serious crime who assists law enforcement officers in their investigations of the crime; a Special Immigrant Juvenile visa is for minors who suffer abuse, neglect or abandonment by one or both parents; family-based immigration is a petition for legal status by a close relative; and VAWA is for victims of trafficking.

It will not be easy to qualify for these reliefs, nor will they be broadly applicable. They will give a few people reprieve from living constantly under the fear of deportation to countries of which they may have no recollection.

There are several agencies offering immigrant screenings in San Francisco, including International Institute of the Bay Area (iibayarea.org), S.F. Immigrants (sfimmigrants.org), Dolores Street Community Services (dscs.org), Informed Immigrant (informedimmigrant.com) and Ready California (Ready-California.org) as well as San Francisco’s Office of Civic Engagement and Immigrant Affairs (sfgov.org/oceia).

At a time when the Trump administration is intent on sowing confusion, legal screenings can possibly provide access to citizenship and statehood to men and women who are culturally, socially and morally American, even if they don’t carry the papers to deem them legally so.

Jaya Padmanabhan can be reached at jaya.padmanabhan@gmail.com. Twitter: @jayapadmanabhan. In Brown Type covers immigrant issues in San Francisco.

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