Immigrants rights and advocacy groups in Colorado say they are hesitantly hopeful following the Trump administration’s decision to keep a program that protects some younger immigrants from deportation. Department of Homeland Security Secretary John F. Kelly announced Thursday evening that the administration will keep in place the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, known as DACA.
Instituted in 2012 by former President Barack Obama, DACA gives renewable two-year work or study permits to immigrants brought here illegally with their parents. The program only applies to certain immigrants— those who arrived before June 15, 2007, but are under the age of 31 as of June 15, 2012. It does not grant anyone legal residency, and the benefits are only for the applicants themselves, not their parents or other family members. The decision, a surprising reversal of Trump’s campaign promise to eliminate the program, came on DACA’s fifth anniversary.
Monica Acosta, field director for the Denver-based advocacy group Padres y Jovenes Unidos, says she’s glad that DACA has been reaffirmed, but notes it creates a divide within an already stressed and scared immigrant community.
“It reinforces the narrative of the type of immigrant that deserves to stay, versus the type of immigrant that doesn’t deserve protection and doesn’t deserve to stay,” Acosta said.
About 33,000 DACA-eligible individuals live in Colorado, according to the Migration Policy Institute. Of those, 19,000 are eligible for work permits and education, with the rest either eligible for education only, due to age, or on the road to eligibility. These estimates might be slightly lower than current levels, since they were conducted in 2013 and are based on a system of self-reporting.
The DACA announcement came days after Colorado Republican U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman of Aurora defended a path to citizenship for undocumented children who are in the country illegally during a telephone town hall.
Coffman said he was concerned about keeping families together and helping integrate those who are currently here, while still working on tighter immigration restrictions, possibly implemented through a nationwide e-verify system.
“There is a special place in my heart for the young people that were taken here by no fault of their own,” Coffman said. “There was a young girl who graduated from an Aurora high school at the top of her class and approached my office about applying for the United States Naval Academy and it turns out that she couldn’t because of her legal status. She met all other qualifications, but she was undocumented. And the fact is, her parents took her here when she was one year old. I mean, she’s doesn’t know anything about Mexico. This is the only country she has ever known. And so, I think she oughta be able to join the military and have a path to citizenship for her military service.”
Regardless of DACA-eligible individuals, Coffman says he is interested in seeing “a path to legal residency for those here followed by a “real tough system” of enforcement.”
One Colorado-based group that advocates for strict immigration changes, the Colorado Alliance for Immigration Reform, wrote it felt a sense of “betrayal” that Trump would go back on one of his biggest campaign promises of deporting DACA-eligible immigrants. The group also conceded the move could be a strategy in a time of increasing criticism of the president.
Marco Dorado is a 25-year-old DACA recipient who has lived in the U.S. since he was three. He says his excitement and relief about this announcement is tempered by his feeling that the Trump administration has repeatedly demonstrated a willingness to deport almost anyone its immigration agents come across.
“So, for me it was like, ‘This is really great, but what’s the tradeoff?’ Yes, 800,000 of us will continue to be protected, but we don’t exist in a vacuum,” Dorado says. “What happens to our siblings who may not qualify or our parents or other members of our community who might still be in limbo?”
He notes that just days ago Immigration and Customs Enforcement Director Thomas Homan told a congressional committee that every undocumented immigrant “should be uncomfortable” and “looking over [their] shoulder.”
“That statement says, ‘We are going to go after everyone and anyone’ and the announcement this morning is saying, ‘OK, we’re not going to go after you,’” Dorado says. “Which is worrisome and I think it’s something we need to be making sure we are keeping a pulse on.”
The announcement on Thursday included a second action that did little to calm uncertainty for some. Secretary Kelly formally shut down the Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents, also known as DAPA.
Obama proposed the separate program at the request for a DACA-like policy for the parents of DACA recipients and U.S.-born children. DAPA would have given similar protections to older illegal immigrants as DACA gives to younger ones, benefitting over 4 million nationwide. However, the program drew an immediate court challenge and remained in limbo because of a 4-4 Supreme Court decision in 2016 — until Thursday’s announcement. A clause in DAPA would have extended the duration for DACA permits from two years to three, but was never fully implemented. Now, with the new rejection of DAPA, that will not be on the table at all moving forward.
Colorado Democratic U.S. Congresswoman Diana DeGette says she is disappointed with the rejection of DAPA. She cites the separation that families experience during deportation, when children might be protected under DACA but the older family members aren’t protected, as a traumatic and isolating experience.
“Instead of continuing to implement unfair immigration policies that hurt our economy and violate our values, the President should work with Congress to pass comprehensive immigration reform to fix our broken immigration system,” she said in a statement.
Victor Galván is the civic engagement and license campaign manager for the Colorado Immigration Rights Coalition. He is also a DACA recipient.
Brought to the U.S. when he was eight months old with his mother and other family members, Galván was in college when Obama first announced the DACA policy. After first waiting— with some cynicism— to see if it might be used to flag illegal immigrants for deportation, he applied and has since found it beneficial.
As an advocate for the immigrant community in Denver, Galván says the decision to keep DACA is a step in the right direction but the news is bittersweet. He worries his mother and other family members who are undocumented and not protected by DACA— but might have been eligible for DAPA— could be snatched away. The issue encourages him even more to advocate for his community.
“It’s not a matter of the mind, it’s a matter of the heart,” Galván says. “We just need to change the hearts of those who just don’t understand or haven’t heard our stories. We all see it as a problem and we need to fix it. There is a process, but sometimes this is not an option for people. It’s about trying to understand and meet people on common grounds, on human grounds.”
Tina Griego contributed to this report
Photo by Frederick Dennstedt for Creative Commons on Flickr.
Correction: a previous version misspelled Congresswoman Degette’s first name. It is Diana, not Diane. We regret the error.