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DACA decision could upend lives of 15,000 “Dreamers” in Colorado 

Future uncertain

click to enlarge Nayda Benitez advocates for immigrants in southern Colorado. - FAITH MILLER
  • Faith Miller
  • Nayda Benitez advocates for immigrants in southern Colorado.

The morning of Nov. 12, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in a case that could irreversibly alter the lives of more than 700,000 young adults nationwide.

The landmark case concerns an Obama-era program called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, which provides temporary protection from deportation for immigrants who came to the U.S. illegally as children.

President Donald Trump’s administration moved to rescind DACA in September 2017, and since then, court injunctions have prevented the Department of Homeland Security from ending protections under the program.

Congress has failed to provide a path to citizenship for DACA recipients. It’s possible that such legislation could pass at some point, depending on the results of the 2020 presidential and Senate races.

But for now at least, the future of DACA rests in the high court’s hands.

Hours after the Supreme Court heard arguments over whether Trump’s DHS acted legally in rescinding DACA, a few dozen people gathered more than 1,500 miles away in a Colorado Springs church. They heard from an immigration attorney who explained what was at stake, and from people with DACA status who live in the community.

Colorado’s 15,000 DACA recipients pay an estimated $113 million annually in federal taxes and $59.1 million in state and local taxes, according to the Center for American Progress, a liberal-leaning nonprofit research and advocacy organization.

Nayda Benitez, who led the Nov. 12 meeting, is one of these so-called “Dreamers.” She’s the regional organizer for the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition, advocating for immigrant communities throughout southern Colorado.

A few years ago, Benitez received temporary protection from deportation through DACA, after proving she met a long list of requirements for acceptance into the program. But despite having lived in the U.S. since the age of 7 — when she, along with her parents and two younger siblings, crossed the Mexican border without documentation — Benitez could eventually be deported if the Supreme Court rules in favor of the Trump administration.

For Benitez, who graduated last year from the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs and hopes to attend law school, home isn’t southern Mexico. It’s here.

“I guess I’m tired of justifying why we should be allowed to stay,” she says. “I mean, this is our home. But if people care about economic arguments ... we literally contribute millions in local and state taxes. We’re working, we’re going to school. We’re being active and contributing members of our local society.”

Whether DACA has a chance in court depends on who you ask, but those in favor of the program — 150-plus universities (including the University of Colorado system), the NAACP, 17 states (including Colorado), and more — don’t have a clear path to victory.

Attorneys for DHS are making the case that Trump's Department of Homeland Security can dismantle DACA “because in the very beginning, the way the program was created was from President Obama and his discretion, and so therefore it can be dismantled with the same executive discretion,” says Denise Maes, public policy director of the ACLU of Colorado.

But what Maes calls a “contradiction” is that DHS’ attorneys also argue that DACA was illegal in the first place, and the agency was therefore “compelled” to rescind it.

“The administration, of course, could terminate the program relying solely on executive discretion and not making any argument about whether or not DACA is legal,” she says. “But if the administration did do that, that would mean that Trump would own all the consequences of that decision — which, I think it’s clear that Trump did not want to own all of those collateral consequences.”

Polls show an overwhelming majority of Americans support allowing DACA recipients to remain in the country.

Democrats, including Gov. Jared Polis, have voiced their support for the DACA program while condemning the Trump administration’s actions.

Polis promised to support legislation providing funding for the legal defense of detained undocumented immigrants, which could include DACA recipients should the Trump administration rescind the program and deport DACA recipients when their protected status expires.

But ultimately the state can’t provide a framework like DACA for people who came to the country illegally as children. Immigration enforcement and policy authority rests with the federal government and the state can’t provide work authorization.

CIRC is advocating for a statewide legal defense fund and working to promote so-called “sanctuary” policies at the local level, through which city and county law enforcement agencies refuse to cooperate with federal immigration enforcement agencies.

Knowing that the state and local government support DACA recipients would help them feel safe, Benitez says, at a time when many are living in a “constant state of anxiety.”

“There’s an intensity to ... not knowing what’s going to happen to me, to my future,” she muses.

“I really try to focus on the work,” she adds, “on building community, on advocating for people who consider this home.”

Who are the “Dreamers”?

When President Donald Trump’s administration sought to rescind DACA in September 2017, the Department of Homeland Security stopped processing initial applications to the program. Since then, lower court decisions have required it to resume processing DACA renewals.

The more than 700,000 DACA recipients — often called “Dreamers” after the DREAM Act, failed congressional legislation that would have provided similar protections for minors — must renew their status every two years.

Dreamers applying to the program when it first opened were required to:

• have come to the U.S. before turning 16;
• have lived in the U.S. continuously for at least five years preceding June 2012
• be enrolled in school, have a high school diploma or GED, or be an honorably discharged veteran;
• have no felony convictions, significant misdemeanor convictions or multiple misdemeanor convictions;
• and be younger than 30 as of June 2012.

DACA recipients currently pay a $495 renewal fee. However, an impending change formally announced Nov. 14 by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services would increase that fee to $765.

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