An immigration reform rally (pbs.org)
On June 15, 2012, Kurt was interning at his mother's insurance brokerage firm in Long Island, having wrapped up a rigorous freshman year as a finance major in the Macaulay Honors Program at Baruch College. He got a text from his aunt saying, "Did you hear the news about Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA)?" Kurt went online and read about President Obama's immigration initiative that allows undocumented young adults who grew up in the United States a two-year deportation reprieve, work authorization, and the ability to obtain a driver's license. It was Obama's response to immigration reform stalling in Congress after the 2010 defeat of the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act.
"I actually started crying," Kurt said. "I couldn't contain myself. Now there will be so much opportunity that will open up to me."
A twenty-one-year-old Guyana native, Kurt came to the United States when he was five years old. He has been active in the New York State Youth Leadership Council, lobbying and organizing for the recently defeated New York DREAM Act. Kurt attended a DACA orientation sponsored by Atlas DIY, an advocacy group for undocumented youth, and asked it's executive director, Lauren Burke, to handle his application. He was her first approval. This summer he will have an internship with JP Morgan.
Kurt is representative of the first wave of college bound and college enrolled "dreamers" who are invested in immigration reform and rushed to apply for the DACA program when it was launched nearly two years ago.
Nationally, applications for DACA peaked in October 2012, with 116,222 applications that month alone, but they have steadily dropped since, dipping to a total of 36,309 for the final three months of 2013. In New York City, an estimated 79,000 people may be eligible for DACA, 16,000 of whom lack the necessary education qualifications, notes the New York Legal Assistance Group, which provides free legal services to DACA applicants. According to immigration analysts and advocates, misunderstanding about eligibility and barriers that many immigrants face in meeting DACA's requirements are behind the drop and have kept a large segment of the city's immigrant population from applying.
The latest version of the federal DREAM Act, introduced on May 11, 2011, would allow students who came to the U.S. at age 15 or younger and at least five years before the date of the bill's enactment to qualify for conditional permanent resident status upon acceptance to college, graduation from a U.S. high school, or being awarded a high school equivalency certificate in the U.S.
The conditional permanent resident status would last six years and count toward the residency requirements for naturalization. During that time, unrestricted lawful permanent resident status would be granted if the applicant had graduated from a two-year college or certain vocational colleges, studied for at least two years toward a B.A. or higher degree, or served in the U.S. armed forces for at least two years.
The educational requirements for DACA are broader than those of the DREAM Act and reflect the range of immigrants' educational experiences. The memo that created DACA says that to qualify, a person must show, among other things, that he or she is "is currently in school, has graduated from high school, or has obtained a general education development certificate." U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services has interpreted the "currently in school" language to include literacy and job training programs.
Still, for many immigrants, DACA is equated with the DREAM Act, the main beneficiaries of which would be college students. "People who were extremely plugged into the pro-immigration movement had the most to gain from DACA," said Dr. Arianna Martinez of LaGuardia Community College in Queens, who specializes in local impacts of immigration policy. "People who fit the age and other requirements about how long they've lived here but don't have a high school diploma and are working don't see themselves as eligible for DACA."
Along with eligibility confusion, the steep application fee of $465 has been another barrier, particularly in homes where more than one person is eligible. "If there's going to be a fee, it was hoped it would go toward a permanent solution that would lead to a green card or citizenship," said Bridget Splain, Project Coordinator, Office of New Americans Opportunity Center at Mercy Center in Mott Haven, the Bronx.
It's this segment of the city's immigrant population, the under-educated and poor youth, that the New York City Council set out to reach through its January infusion of an additional $18 million into literacy education and high school equivalency (HSE) programs specifically for undocumented immigrants. The funds also cover the cost of legal assistance and DACA application fees, as well as outreach efforts by community organizations.
Betsy Plum, Outreach Coordinator for the New York Immigration Coalition (NYIC), is working with over 200 immigrant services organizations to get the word out about DACA. Where in the past immigrant services groups rarely connected with each other, NYIC is liaising to increase awareness of the range of services offered throughout the five boroughs.
"It's really wonderful to get adult education, legal providers and outreach providers all in one room and say, "How do you navigate the issues with someone who would legally qualify for DACA if you can get them into an adult education class?" said Plum. "It's making connections with different programs, knowing that program X is really great for individuals who work nights."
Reaching the "hard to reach" involves a mix of traditional and newer tactics such as posting flyers in native languages, advertising in the immigrant press and using social media. "We have a YouTube channel with 2 or 3-minute segments where we answer people's questions about DACA and it's utilized by a lot of older people who can't go to a workshop at 2 o'clock in the afternoon but they can access the internet 24 hours a day," said Atlas DIY's Burke.
There's also a lot of pavement pounding. Outreach workers who speak the target population's language and are often from the same country go to Mexican day-laborer sites, Chinese restaurants in Sunset Park and Korean churches in Flushing.
For education providers, the additional City funding has already made a difference in meeting the huge demand for free English as a Second Language (ESL) services and high school equivalency education that many foreign-born seek. The Highbridge Community Life Center in the Bronx has been able to add three additional ESL and HSE classes. "Where we're located in the Bronx, there's a large immigrant population and there is always more demand than what we can provide," said director Echo Shumaker-Pruitt.
The Chinese American Planning Council, located in the heart of Chinatown on Elizabeth Street has also been able to expand its ESL services. "Yes, we're offering more classes due to the City Council funding," said Simon Chiew, Director of the Workforce Development Division. "We can offer over 100 more slots this year."
Pruitt added that while they offer the necessary educational services to help individuals qualify for DACA, it's not up to the educational providers to determine eligibility. "We just take people that have the potential of being eligible because they meet the age requirement, then we refer them to legal providers who determine if they are eligible for DACA if that is something they're interested in pursuing," Pruitt said. "There might be some people who are interested in DACA but maybe they can apply for citizenship or a green card."
Another hurdle the DACA-eligible face is difficulty establishing continuous residency in the United States, something that is less an issue for younger applicants still living with parents. "As an undocumented person the number one thing you learn is you have to stay in the shadows and try not to establish a paper trail of your presence here," said Elisa Gahng, Staff Attorney with MinKwon Center For Community Action in Flushing. "Now in order to apply for DACA you have to prove your presence through documentation."
Finding documents that prove continuous residence can take some ingenuity. "We've used sonograms, mammograms, birth certificates of children born in the U.S. and children's vaccination records," said Splain.
The current policy is that individuals whose cases are under consideration for DACA will not be referred to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The policy also covers the applicant's family members and guardians.
"One of our jobs is to make sure we inform people so that they really understand what this process is," said Splain. "Certainly people are anxious, but once they understand how the process works, I don't feel that fear is at the forefront. There's more hope than fear."
The extra City Council funding and the push by outreach and education groups to inform potential applicants is paying off. "There are just 21 counties throughout the country that had more than 1,000 applicants in the first months after DACA's 2012 launch, Martinez said. "NYIC told me they've screened 650 new people since the funding got rolled out just a few months ago. That's pretty good when I think about it in that larger context."
Although DACA recipients are ineligible for health insurance coverage through the Affordable Care Act, NYIC sponsors workshops on how to access New York State Medicaid and other local healthcare resources. "It's not just you got your DACA, so now go about your business," said Martinez.
Martinez added that immigrant outreach organizations are working beyond DACA for more comprehensive immigration reform. "It's very important to a lot of community-based organizations that while they're trying to process more people into DACA, they're simultaneously pushing for the New York DREAM Act. There's concern about what happens when we've helped all these people move through ESL or the HSE and then we want to help them move toward higher education and they just can't afford it. It's important and connected." The recently defeated version of the New York DREAM Act would have expanded state tuition assistance to DACA recipients and undocumented students.
For 30-year old DACA applicant Angel, inability to afford costs without access to State aid caused his college plans to derail. "I had to stop attending college because I couldn't afford it so I was forced to work," he said.
The Dominican Republic native came to the United States at the age of 9 for what he thought would be a visit with his parents. Once here, his parents told him the U.S. would be his new home.
Angel said that during his elementary and high school years his parents encouraged him to study, but as he neared the end of high school, he realized that his immigration status was an issue that needed to be resolved.
Angel now works part-time off the books teaching martial arts to high school students in his Brooklyn neighborhood. He hopes to resume his college studies and major in architecture once his DACA application is accepted.
"DACA will give me work authorization and I'll pay taxes," he said. "That will be just a start. I'll be able to find a better job, get paid a little more, save money, go back to school, get a degree. I think that's perfect."
by Hayley Camacho for Gotham Gazette