The process to file to become a legal immigrant to the U.S. or file for DACA is the same, but the process is taking longer and longer to complete, according to a couple of local attorneys who handle immigration cases.
Lee Phillips is a criminal defense attorney in Flagstaff who handled the Frankie Madrid case. Madrid was a local activist who moved to Flagstaff when he was 4 months old. He was deported to Mexico last year after serving a sentence for heroin possession and committed suicide two months after being deported.
Phillips said he normally doesn’t handle immigration cases, but since the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals was created in 2012, he has found himself helping more and more local immigration attorneys and clients dig up their court records to prove their eligibility for the program.
The DACA program allows young adults who may have come to the U.S. illegally as children to get a temporary work permit and allows the government to defer deporting them for about two years, subject to renewal.
The process to get a DACA permit is incredibly complex, Phillips said. Applicants have to be within a certain age range, have come to the U.S. during a certain time period, were under the age of 16 when they came to the U.S., are currently in school or the military or recently graduated and not been convicted of a felony, a serious misdemeanor or three or more misdemeanors. Applicants also cannot pose a security or public safety risk to the U.S. and you must not have been previously deported.
For someone who has been living in the shadows for most of their life, proving that you have lived in the U.S. for the required amount of time and when you came to the U.S. is incredibly difficult, he said. Many DACA-eligible residents have moved several times during their lifetime. Even just getting your court records can take an excessive amount of time.
Right now the DACA program is in a state of limbo and it’s likely to stay that way for at least several months, Phillips said. President Donald Trump announced in October 2017 that he would end the program on March 5, 2018, unless Congress came up with a program to solve the problem. Several lawsuits in federal court have temporarily blocked the end of the program as the court cases go through the appeals process. Trump tried to jump over the appeal process by appealing directly to the U.S. Supreme Court but the court rejected his request, requiring the cases to go through the entire federal appeals process.
In the meantime, the federal government is no longer accepting applications for new DACA permits. It is however, accepting applications for renewals of existing permits, Phillips said. It is also still processing new permits that were in the pipeline before October 2017.
However, the application and renewal process has slowed dramatically since Trump took office, Phillips said. What used to take a few months, after gathering all of the requisite paperwork, now takes much, much longer.
Phillips said a bipartisan bill was introduced in Congress in January that would have extended DACA, provided $25 billion for a border wall and more border security officers and a path to citizenship for DACA recipients. But the bill was rejected by the U.S. Senate.
Another bill introduced by the Democrats that would have just extended DACA and provided money for the wall and security was shot down by Republicans, he said.
STILL AWAITING AN ANSWER
Philips said he has one undocumented client with three children who are U.S. citizens and who applied in September for DACA for the first time and she is still waiting for an answer on her application. In the meantime, she can’t apply for a driver’s license, so she has to find alternative ways of getting to work, going to the store and picking up her kids from school.
The delay in the approval process has caused a lot of concern among his clients and the clients of immigration attorneys he knows, he said. Some who have previously had DACA permits have not renewed them because they’re afraid of being deported and some who were considering applying for a DACA permit before Trump took office haven’t. They’ve decided that going back to the shadows is preferable to providing the federal government with information that could help them be deported.
Phillips said his client with three children had already been contacted by Immigrations and Customs Enforcement agents, who told her that they are holding off on taking any action against her until her application is approved or denied.
COLLEGE STUDENT, RESTAURANT OWNER
Maria Lopez is one Flagstaff DACA recipient who is in the process of renewing her permit. She owns a Mexican restaurant in town and is working toward a degree in physical therapy at Northern Arizona University. She’s two semesters away from graduating and one of the first in her immediate family to finish college.
The DACA program has allowed her to do many things that will give her a better life than she could have hoped for without it, she said. It’s allowed her to attend college and open her own business.
Lopez was brought to the U.S. when she was 4 years old and grew up in Flagstaff. This is the only home she’s known. However, she’s not that worried about her permit getting denied. All of her previous renewals have been approved. She has plans in place to take care of her restaurant if her permit is denied. She’s not sure what she would do or where she would go if she was deported to Mexico. She has extended family who live there, but she doesn’t know them all that well.
She’s really more interested in finding a solution for those who are living without proper documentation in the U.S. Expanding DACA to include others who may have come to the U.S. illegally as children and providing a path to citizenship for those applicants would be a better solution than the current program, which is limited to people who meet certain criteria, she said.
Omar Gomez is another Flagstaff DACA recipient. He also came to the U.S. at around 4 years old. His family came from an area in Mexico where there was a lot of discrimination against residents with indigenous blood and a lot of government corruption.
He applied for DACA in January 2013 and has renewed his permit several times. He’s not sure what might happen to him if DACA would end suddenly and he was deported. He doesn’t have any immediate family in Mexico anymore.
“It was an executive order. We always knew that it could be ended by the next administration,” he said. However, he plans to continue to fight for the program and a possible solution that would allow a path to citizenship for all of those who came here as children.
“My parents brought me and my siblings here because they wanted a better future for us,” Gomez said. “They saw that the education opportunities where they were living were lacking. They didn’t want us to have to struggle. They always told us, ‘Make the most of this opportunity because you don’t know how long it’s going to last.’”
Gomez is doing his best to meet his parents' request. He’s currently working on a double major at NAU, a bachelor's in biological science with a minor in chemistry and a bachelor's in anthropology. He hopes to go to medical school after he’s graduated and plans to continue to be active in the immigration debate.