In September, President Donald Trump ordered an end to the Obama-era program that protects DREAMers from deportation, calling on Congress and federal lawmakers to pass a replacement plan before DACA begins to phase out in March.
Local leaders have expressed concern about the effect rescinding DACA could have on the community and citizens, including students attending college and those moving to Austin for jobs.
“Communities like ours are heavily reliant on that long-standing unofficial immigration practice [of educating and employing foreign-born immigrants],” County Judge Sarah Eckhardt said. “Many industries are reliant on labor that is foreign-born. Our academic institutions invite and benefit from foreign-born students. Many of our professions invite and benefit greatly from the foreign-born and -educated. We are an international community. It would be foolish policy to pretend that we weren’t.”
HISTORY OF DACA
Over the past 17 years multiple attempts to provide a pathway to legal status for DREAMers have been made by Congress but, despite bipartisan support, never became law, according to the American Immigration Council.
The first version of the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors, or DREAM Act, was introduced in 2001. After over a decade of debate, the President Barack Obama created the DACA program through executive order in June 2012, which provided protection from deportation and work authorization for DREAMers. Those protected under DACA must apply to renew their status every two years. Currently, 1.8 million DREAMers, nationwide, are living under DACA status.
The executive order was put in place as a temporary solution to give Congress time to agree on a method to allow DREAMers to stay in the country permanently.
THE PATHWAY TO AMERICA
Robert Painter, director of North Austin nonprofit immigration legal service provider American Gateways, said there are different options available for people looking to become American residents. However, DREAMers cannot just apply for an immigration visa or green card to stay in the country, he said. They have to have a connection to the country, either through a job offer, a family member who is eligible to petition for them to receive an immigration visa, or through the diversity visa program, which admits a class of immigrants from countries with historically low rates of immigration to the U.S.
“There really aren’t a ton of ways to immigrate to the United States right now,” Painter said. “Some of the ways that do exist are inefficient or [take] very long. So it’s not as simple as filling out a form and getting a visa and coming over. It’s a lot more involved than that, and there are very few guarantees that you’ll actually ever have that
Travis County is home to 201,148 foreign-born residents. Of that, about 28,576 are living in South Central and Southwest Austin and 15,872 are considered to be non-U.S. citizens, according to the 2016 U.S. Census Bureau survey.
Juan Belman, a South Austin resident and DACA recipient who emigrated from Mexico and works as an advocate for defense against deportation, said finding a permanent replacement for DACA would be beneficial because it would mean less deportations and an opportunity for immigrants to continue their contributions to the communities in which they live.
Belman said his father has a work permit he renews annually, his two youngest siblings are U.S. citizens, and Belman and his other brother live under DACA status. If DACA is rescinded, Belman said in order to stay in the U.S., his 12-year-old brother, who is a naturalized citizen, must first turn 21 years old and then request for Belman to stay through a family-based petition. Currently, family-based petitions from the 1990s are under review, meaning a 30- to 40-year wait time for interested applicants, Belman said.
Currently the options for immigrants who are living in the country illegally to adjust their status are slim, and many are living in fear of possible deportation, he said.
“If we were to have a DREAM Act, something more permanent, it would be wonderful because it would mean an opportunity to continue to contribute to this community that we’ve been a part of, where we would honestly feel more welcome because we wouldn’t have that fear of possibly getting deported one day, so it would mean comfort for us and for our families,” Belman said.
Montserrat Garibay, secretary and treasurer for the Texas American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations, a state labor organization headquartered in downtown Austin that supports working families in Texas, said currently an average of 122 DACA recipients lose their permit daily. After March 5, the day the DACA program is expected to end if no agreement is reached, Garibay is anticipating that number to increase to 1,000 per day.
Most DREAMers have lived in the U.S. their whole lives and are integrated into the community. They contribute to the economy, speak English and are educated, Garibay said.
“They are educators, labor workers, business owners and students,” Garibay said. “They are buying homes and cars and have four-year college degrees, and all that helps the economy. ”
Travis County Commissioner Margaret Gomez, whose precinct covers South Central and Southeast Austin, believes if DACA is rescinded it will alter the livelihoods of all residents.
“Drive by the highways, and who is building our highways and building our homes?” Gomez said. “If they are gone there is going to be a slowdown on labor. That says a lot, and we’re willing to throw all that away.”
Many other local industries could suffer if DACA is rescinded, said Servando Varela, president of South Austin-based company Anything Around the House Home Repairs. Through his 15 years in the construction industry, Varela said people who are working in the U.S. illegally are some of the hardest-working and highest-skilled candidates. Gomez said she’s heard similar feedback from many business owners in South Austin.
“It’s hard to find good labor and work ethic, and to take the prime candidates out of the running, what does that leave us with and who is going to do it?” Varela said.
IDENTIFYING ALTERNATIVE SOLUTIONS
Congress should strengthen laws against illegal immigration and ensure that immigration policies put America’s interests first, according to U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith, R-San Antonio, whose district covers South and Southwest Austin.
“Immigration is a deeply emotional and complex issue that affects all Americans,” Smith said. “But giving amnesty to illegal immigrants undermines those who have waited in line to come here legally. We should promote a fair immigration system that rewards those who follow the law and punishes those who do not.”
During the latest U.S. congressional session, Smith introduced two pieces of legislation to address immigration policy as part of the Securing America’s Future Act, which aims to transform the immigration system with improved border security and interior immigration enforcement.
The first was the Legal Workforce Act, which would save jobs for citizens and legal workers by requiring employers to check work eligibility of all hires through the E-Verify system.
The second was the Immigration in the National Interest Act, which creates a new points-based merit system that gives priority for citizenship to immigrants who have the skills and abilities needed to contribute to the U.S. economy. Smith said this is a transition away from the current system, which allows for extended-family chain migration.
“These two concepts, mandatory E-Verify and changes to end extended family migration, are incorporated into the Securing America’s Future Act,” Smith said.
In September, Texas’ sanctuary cities law, or Senate Bill 4, went into effect, which requires local police to cooperate with federal immigration authorities and allows police to question detainees about their immigration status.
While Smith said he supports the law because it is important in keeping communities safe, some Travis County officials believe SB 4 to be an unconstitutional solution.
“If we are commandeered to do federal immigration enforcement, I don’t know where we find the local property tax dollars to fund that,” Eckhardt said. “We will either have to raise taxes or we will have to take dollars from other areas in the county.”
Since the start of 2018, two federal judges have temporarily blocked the administration’s decision to end the DACA program , making it possible for people whose DACA status expires after March 5 to submit renewal applications.
These rulings could result in an extension of the program past March 5.
On Feb. 15, the Senate rejected Trump’s bipartisan proposal to provide DREAMers a chance for citizenship and $25 billion for border security.The Supreme Court of The United States weighed in on the topic on Feb. 26 when it issued an order that it will not rule on the merits of DACA, meaning the immigration services department can continue to accept renewal requests until any new legislation is passed. This order does not mean however, that new applications can be accepted.
Smith believes the DACA program will not be terminated. He said Trump has proposed an immigration package that includes legalizing DREAMers in exchange for increased interior immigration enforcement such as visa overstay prevention, legal immigration reform and stronger border structures.
To prepare for the possibility that a replacement to DACA is not identified, affected residents should speak with an immigration attorney about other options that will allow them to work and live in the U.S., Painter said.
“Everybody’s case is different so there’s no blanket advice, but I think making sure that somebody has actually sat down with [DREAMers] and gone through all the potential avenues for immigration relief so you have a good grip on the situation is the best thing,” he said.
—additional reporting by Emma Whalen