Students discouraged by DACA uncertainty, many still plan to apply
The past eight months have been tumultuous for undocumented immigrant youth in Park City seeking a path to legal status.
Many students were distraught last fall, when Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced plans to endthe Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, which provides protections for undocumented immigrants brought to the country when they were 16 or younger.. They were optimistic after a federal judge in San Francisco ruled that the decision to end the program was improper in January, allowing the program to continue to accept renewals until lawsuits played out in court. Now that a judge from Washington, D.C., recently announced that the program could be reinstated in whole if the Department of Homeland Security cannot provide solid reasoning for ending the program in 90 days, students’ hope is high.
In addition to the legal battle surrounding DACA, many in Congress have expressed a desire to find a permanent legislative solution to protect young undocumented immigrants, but no legislation has been passed.
Amid a turbulent presidential administration, however, students remain wary, said Rebeca Gonzalez, who works at Park City High School.
“The students have been very positive, but also worried about, ‘Is it true?’ ‘Is it fake news?’ ‘Is it just something that we shouldn’t get too excited about?’” she said.
Gonzalez is the coordinator of the Bright Futures program at Park City High School, which helps first-generation students prepare to enter and excel in college. She works with Latino students and said that many who are waiting on a final DACA verdict are apprehensive about making any plans for their futures.
She said that when the news broke at the end of last month that DACA might start accepting new applications in 90 days, she was slammed with calls from families around the community asking what they should do.
She told them to wait to see what would happen after the 90-day waiting period, but to start preparing their application documents so they would be ready to go if the gate is lifted.
But Gonzalez said that some students are not taking action because they doubt that the program will continue in the future. Others fear that, if they apply, their sensitive information will be leaked.
Moe Hickey, a former Park City Board of Education president, has been working with Gonzalez to connect families to legal services that can provide legal advice and assistance to those who need it. He is also helping to raise funds for DACA renewals and applications, since they cost about $500.
He said that the effort has raised about $25,000 to help pay for 50 students to renew their applications so far.
“Because of (the community’s) support, they have been able to help other students keep their jobs, keep their scholarships, keep their schooling going,” Gonzalez said. “All of these important things that many of us take for granted.”
Hickey and Gonzalez hope to raise another $50,000 to help both those who are applying for the first time and renewing, which Hickey said could be up to 100 students. DACA recipients must renew every two years to keep the protections.
Hickey and Gonzalez said that the situation is affecting many students at school, since students are so concerned about their legal status that it becomes difficult to pay attention. Gonzalez said that she will often get texts from her students when she knows they are in class. Hickey said that the amount of counseling issues and truancy is up dramatically, which is partly due to students feeling uneasy about their future and that of their family.
Many students feel like it does not matter if they work hard in school because they will have to return to their countries of origin anyway, Hickey said.
“It is really taking a lot of the foundation that we have built for these kids and, if not taking it away completely, making it very unstable,” he said. “Teenagers need that support and feeling that they can move forward. We have really taken a lot of that away from them.”
Although the acceptance rate for DACA applicants is fairly high in Park City, a couple who submitted applications last year with the help of Gonzalez and Hickey have not heard back on their application’s status. Gonzalez said that is likely because the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services is behind on applications.
One of the individuals in that position has since lost her job, Gonzalez said. Some students see that and believe that there is no point in trying to apply.
“Students and families are feeling frustrated with the system because it’s not working,” she said. “It’s not giving them the response they need in a timely manner. They are losing opportunities.”
Gonzalez said that perhaps the most frustrating aspect is seeing students closing the door of opportunities on themselves. They see their peers getting jobs or applying to college and feel like that is not an option for them.
“That, to me, is heartbreaking because they are so bright, and all they need is a paper that says they are eligible to be here,” she said.
Kate Barber, executive director of Immigrant Legal Services in Salt Lake City, said that she often hears from families who have heard stories of people being denied DACA status and worry that it will happen to them, but she said that everyone’s situation is different and that it is best to go off of an attorney’s words rather than rumors. She comes to the Christian Center of Park City for free consultations monthly and works with Hickey to provide free services to families.
Gonzalez knows how critical it is to maintain hope and take action, as someone who experienced her own set of familial issues with citizenship growing up. She said that optimism for the future is the most important thing the students can be focusing on, even if there is so much that is unknown.
“Families don’t want to give up, they want to keep that hope instilled in their children,” she said.
A Parkite who immigrated to the U.S. when he was 13 is giving scholarships and internships to three first-generation graduates from PCHS.