Any day, a decision from the U.S. Supreme Court on Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) could disrupt the lives of Flagstaff’s young immigrants, who are hoping for a miracle but expecting the worst.
Maria Lopez has lived in Flagstaff since she was 4 years old and now owns two Mexican restaurants in town. She was one of the first to apply to DACA in 2012, thrilled by the idea of a future she had not thought possible.
“When I graduated from high school, I said, ‘I’m not going to college. It’s too expensive. That’s it.’ And then DACA came in and I thought, ‘OK, I can go to school now,’” said Lopez, who attended both Coconino Community College and Northern Arizona University. She graduated from the university in December with a bachelor’s degree in biology. “I think we were all just way too excited to really have that many concerns about it at the time.”
Just a few years later, though, worry is now a part of everyday life for DACA recipients as they await a decision from the U.S. Supreme Court on the future of the DACA program, which allows people who may have come to the U.S. illegally as children to apply for a two-year period of protection from deportation. It also provides a renewable work permit and additional privileges, like the ability to apply for a Social Security Number and driver’s license.
In 2017, President Donald Trump announced he would end the program; however, several lawsuits in federal court have blocked the action since then. The Supreme Court is now set to determine if the termination of DACA is lawful.
“Most of us have accepted, for the most part, that DACA is probably going to be terminated,” said Omar Gomez, a DACA recipient who has also called Flagstaff home since his toddler years. “The only thing we can do is just to keep doing what we’re doing. There will be something different that happens legislatively with the Senate or Congress.”
Gomez completed two bachelor’s degrees at Northern Arizona University in biological science and anthropology and is now working on his master’s of public health, with hopes to attend medical school in the future. During his time as an undergraduate student, he packed his schedule with classes, a full workweek and research opportunities to get the most of his education while he was able. Meanwhile, other DACA recipients he knew dropped out after their tuition rate was increased last year by 50%, from the resident rate to a separate rate for non-resident Arizona high school graduates.
Planning for the future is more of a challenge now, Gomez said, because if DACA is terminated, it’s unclear if people previously protected under it would be have their same rights until their permits expire or if it would all be negated immediately and deportations would begin.
Lopez and her three siblings all recently renewed their DACA status, just in case. The process shaved about six months off each of their permits, except for her youngest sister, who lost a year, and cost each of them more than $1,000 for application fees and to pay a lawyer.
DACA renewal fees currently cost $495; however, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services has proposed an increase to $765, a decision that will be finalized after the review of recently submitted public comments.
“It’s only two years and it goes by so fast,” Lopez said. “It’s been hard, but we know we have to [renew] it if we want to continue to do the things we do now.”
She is considering applying to a master’s program that would allow her to provide therapy for people with autism; however, her recent experiences with DACA could lead her down another path.
“My experience of how I had to work to get an education made me realize I want to have something built up of so I can help students in Flagstaff get the education that they want,” Lopez said.
Using profits from her restaurant work, she hopes to start a small scholarship fund for students and expand support services from there.
If DACA is terminated, Lopez has family members with status who could take over the restaurants.
“When you’re in this situation, you always have to have a plan B,” she said.
Martin Corrales, an undergraduate student who moved from Phoenix to study biomedical science at NAU, said he is taking the process one day at a time, though he dreams of becoming a surgeon after his scheduled graduation in May.
“It’s nothing good if [DACA] ends because I’ll lose my job and I won’t be able to work. I’m not sure how I’ll pay for what I owe,” Corrales said. “I’m in debt to NAU for a lot, so I might have to start selling the stuff I own to be able to pay off this bachelor’s upon graduation.”
After the tuition rate increased, Corrales was working two jobs, one overnights during the week and another on the weekends to be able to pay for his degree and living expenses. After quitting his night job to focus on school, though, he now finds it hard to afford much. Even if DACA endures, he expects he will have to take a gap year to pay off his bachelor’s degree before he applies to medical school.
“I support and work with undocumented and DACAmented students,” reads a poster taped to the office door of NAU lecturer Leah Mundell, who has been involved with immigration support in Flagstaff for the past 12 years through groups like the Northern Arizona Interfaith Council and NAU outreach organizations that work to directly support immigrant families and teach other community members how to do so, as well.
Mundell said DACA is much more of a stopgap than a permanent solution because of the financial burden it places on recipients and the lack of any path to citizenship through it. She expects DACA will be replaced by another stopgap; better than nothing, but still short of needed comprehensive immigration reform.
“It just makes me crazy because here we have these incredibly motivated, talented and thoughtful and committed people. ... To just have the certainty that they can stay in this country and participate would make a huge difference.” Mundell said of local DACA recipients. “When people become professionals, you can’t just pick up and move to a country where you haven’t lived since you were a baby and be able to continue that work. They’re doing amazing work even as they are living this precarious life. I wish that we could just make it long-term.”
To support local DACA recipients, the Northern Arizona Dream Fund nonprofit has contributed funds from its online fundraising efforts to DACA application fees and educational costs for more than five years.
Another local group, Keep Flagstaff Together, has also been working with this population for several years, providing free legal clinics to help people apply for renewal of their DACA permits. The organization has recently received status as a nonprofit, Northern Arizona Immigration Legal Services. The nonprofit will take over the legal components of the group, while Keep Flagstaff Together will transition to more community outreach, said Erika Hess, a longtime volunteer and founding member.
Hess said the group is recommending that individuals renew at least eight months, even up to a year, before their DACA status is set to expire.
“If DACA does end up being cut, then any time that they can gain by renewing now will be additional time that they’re protected,” Hess said.
Since Keep Flagstaff Together was formed, Hess estimated she has assisted with more than 20 individuals with their DACA renewals, but she expects there are far more DACA recipients locally than have ever sought help in this way. If deportations were to occur, she expects the effects to Flagstaff would be devastating.
“They are active members of our community. They are, as a group, tremendously hardworking in trying to create lives for themselves. Many of them are married, often to citizens or legal permanent residents, and have children and families,” Hess said. “It would be an unthinkable loss for our community.”
Kaitlin Olson can be reached at the office at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at (928) 556-2253.
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