You make choices every day, from simple decisions like choosing what to eat for dinner, to bigger decisions like buying a house. What do these choices have in common? You are able to make these choices for yourself. For many young immigrants living in America, there is one major decision that they did not make themselves: moving to the United States undocumented, or remaining in the country longer than permitted. People in this segment of the population came into the country with family as minors and were not responsible for making sure they did so legally. Undocumented immigrants are severely disadvantaged, as they cannot apply for student loans and are unable to pursue many professional careers. Although the decision to enter the country illegally was not theirs, they are still left to suffer the consequences. Or at least this was the case up until this year.
On June 15, 2012, President Barack Obama signed a memo for deferred action for these young people who came to the US undocumented and have pursued education or military service in the US. The memo – Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, collectively referred to as DACA – was enacted to allow those who qualify for deferred action to qualify for employment authorization and get a job legally. The memo does not give lawful status to its accepted applicants, but it does allow them to work legally while they are here. In other words, the USCIS gives the applicant an Employment Authorization Card that is valid for two years. Along with this card, the applicant is also eligible to apply for a Social Security Number. Both the Employment Authorization Card and SSN are only valid (and will list an expiration date) of two years from approval. At such point, depending on the current DACA rules/regulations, the applicant may be eligible to re-apply and extend his or her application.
It is important to understand that DACA is offered to applicants as a method to work lawfully in the US and does not provide a direct path to citizenship. However, those who obtain employment authorization though DACA will be given the opportunity to work towards legal status (such as employer-sponsored visas [H1B], or student visas).
The June 15, 2012 memo allows DACA applications to be accepted for at least the next two years. With the recent presidential victory for Barack Obama, more immigration initiatives are expected to develop over the next four years, making the DACA program more hopeful than when it was enacted. Prior to the election, the main issue was that even those who had their DACA applications approved were not guaranteed two years of deferred action from removal proceedings because of the uncertainty of the President’s 2012 immigration initiatives. Many believe that because President Obama initially enacted DACA, there is less of a presumption that the act will be terminated within the next few years.
On October 20, 2012, Rochester’s Volunteer Legal Services Project, along with 27 volunteer attorneys and three volunteer interpreters held a legal clinic to assist undocumented young people file for DACA. I had the privilege to be a part of the clinic and work with some applicants. Throughout the day, I met many young people who, through no fault of their own, were undocumented and were looking for a way to work and support their family while attending post-secondary institutions to broaden their knowledge and opportunities. These kids were some of the brightest, most polite, kind-hearted people I have ever met. Helping them apply for DACA in an effort to assist their families was some of the most fulfilling work I have done in a very long time. I was not alone, as all of the other attorneys I had encountered that day were equally inspired by them and as grateful for the DACA Act as the applicants were.
Rochester, being a rather large multi-cultural hub, was the first city to host a DACA clinic outside of New York City. As a result, the clinic will serve as a model for other upstate cities that are willing to participate.
It is important to understand the risks of applying for deferred action. Some of the downsides of applying for DACA include:
- DACA does not offer long-term benefits. It is only valid for an initial period of 2 years and offering no direct route to Citizenship and may deter some applicants from applying because the benefits do not outweigh the risk associated with notifying the government that they are residing in the US undocumented.
- DACA requires a long list of personal information that could potentially lead to deportation. While the information contained in a DACA application is said to be kept for DACA purposes only and not used for removal/deportation purposes, a terrorist attack or other public safety concerns that arise may bring DACA applicants into question, allowing for the use of the information in the application to be used against him or her and/or their undocumented family members in the future.
- Being a relatively new law, DACA’s allowance for travel outside of the US with permission to return may be met with difficulty at the border. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) are separate from USCIS and thus there is no guarantee of being permitted to re-enter the country as a DACA applicant.
- DACA benefits vary from state to state. Some states allow DACA applicants to apply for a driver’s license with an EAD (like California) while other states expressly forbid it (Arizona).
There may be additional risks in addition to those stated above. Because of this, it is recommended that you only apply for Deferred Action once you understand the risks involved and have met with a qualified immigration attorney.
You can also find out more about DACA by visiting the USCIS website at www.USCIS.gov.