Dreamers celebrate 5 years of DACA program as its fate looms

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Brianda Galeana, right, puts up posters while Alonso R. Reyna Rivarola works with a student at the University of Utah's new Dream Center, Friday August 18, 2017. Rivarola is a recipient of DACA who works at the University of Utah as the Dream Program coordinator in the Office of Engagement. He works to support undocumented students (with and without DACA) during their educational journey.

Young, undocumented immigrants are finding it difficult to follow the advice of a new U.S. president, who recently told them to “rest easy” because his administration is “not after the dreamers.”

Utah is home to more than 10,500 undocumented immigrants who have attended school and legally held employment through the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program in the past five years.

While there is no major congressional move to end the program, 10 state attorneys general have threatened President Donald Trump with a lawsuit if he does not begin phasing it out by Sept. 5.

More recently, attorneys general in 19 states and the District of Columbia have written to the president, urging him to continue support of the program. Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes did not join the aforementioned efforts of his colleagues on either side of the issue. His office did not respond to a request for comment.

On Tuesday — the program’s anniversary — Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski joined more than 100 politicians nationwide in asking Trump to continue the program for undocumented immigrants brought to the country as young children, and often nicknamed “dreamers.”

“DACA has protected the dreams of thousands of young people in Salt Lake City,” Biskupski said in a news release. “These DREAMers improve our community, strengthen our economy, and most importantly enrich our local and national experience. Preserving DACA means defending the best of what we are as Americans, and I urge the [Trump] Administration to keep this dream alive.”

As of March, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) had accepted 10,512 DACA applications in Utah, according to the Migration Policy Institute, accounting for more than 1 percent of the national total of 886,814.

Deyvid Morales is one of those recipients, brought to the country from Mexico when he was 9 years old. Morales graduated from South Salt Lake’s Granite Peaks High School in 2010. He hoped to attend school in Louisiana to become a Christian pastor, but while riding a bus there in January 2011, immigration officers stopped the vehicle to perform a routine check.

They detained Morales for 17 days in jail before his family posted a $4,000 bond. He faced deportation but was eventually granted deferred action when the DACA program was put in place.

In the years since, Morales has become an “app-tivist,” creating smartphone applications that help undocumented immigrants understand their rights (Derecho de Inmigrantes y Ayuda), as well as help undocumented and DACA immigrants find scholarships (DACA Scholars).

(Scott Sommerdorf | The Salt Lake Tribune) The rally entitled "#SummerResistance Day of Action: Protecting DACA," put on by the Utah State Democratic Party and Utah State Democratic Hispanic Caucus at the Centro Civico Mexicano, Sunday, August 20, 2017.

Morales is not the only dreamer who has used his experience to help people in a similar situation. Alonso R. Reyna Rivarola is a DACA recipient who works at the newly implemented Dream Center at the University of Utah. He says the center is available to any student who needs it, regardless of which school that person attends.

Reyna Rivarola helps undocumented students (with and without DACA) find a way to achieve their educational goals, despite a unique set of challenges.

DACA students don’t qualify for FAFSA or student loans, he said. Many juggle multiple jobs to pay for school and support families. Any scholarships come from private donors, Morales added.

Students come into the Dream Center “in crisis mode because they’re genuinely scared for their lives, for their parents’ lives,” Reyna Rivarola said.

Brianda Galeana, a graduate student who works in the center, says she wishes professors could understand the extra pressures placed on students who are undocumented or worry about undocumented family members.

There are a lot of misconceptions that surround DACA, Morales said. “People believe the program is some sort of amnesty, and it’s not like that.”

When a person is issued deferred action, the person is “not considered to be unlawfully present during the period in which deferred action is in effect,” according to the USCIS website. “However, deferred action does not confer lawful status upon an individual, nor does it excuse any previous or subsequent periods of unlawful presence.”

The Department of Homeland Security also is permitted to “terminate or renew deferred action at any time, at the agency’s discretion.”

Recipients of DACA — one form of deferred action — must reapply for the program every two years. Upon reapplication, which is supposed to take about four months to process, applicants must pass a background check, which ensures they have not committed any serious crimes and do not “pose a threat to national security or public safety.” Those who are accepted and demonstrate an economic need to work are issued a social security number and work permit.

Even when people reapply in the recommended time frame of four to five months before DACA expires, Reyna Rivarola said, some people have gaps in their coverage.

“If you lose your DACA from one day to three weeks, chances are you’re going to get kicked out of your job,” Reyna Rivarola said. “If you have any insurance through your work, you could lose that.”

Ron Mortensen, a co-founder of the Utah Coalition on Illegal Immigration, says many undocumented immigrants use fraudulent social security numbers to obtain work, which is a form of identity theft. He sees DACA as a way for people to escape the consequences of those actions.

Mortensen believes President Barack Obama overstepped his authority when he made the executive order to enact the “flawed” program, which he says was “hastily set up” and has “done harm to American citizens.”

In an emailed statement, Rep. Chris Stewart said that while he believes Obama’s order was unconstitutional, “we cannot abandon these young men and women who have arrived here, through no fault of their own, and are currently seeking to further their education and lives in the United States.”

Stewart is cosponsoring the BRIDGE Act, which would allow qualified applicants a provisional protected presence for three-year periods and authorize their employment, and the ENLIST Act, which would permit young immigrants to enlist and serve in the armed forces of the United States.

Stewart was the only member of Utah’s congressional delegation to respond to a request for comment.

Jason Mathis, executive vice president of the Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce, said DACA recipients are “a major contributing factor in our workforce.”

DACA recipients bring in an estimated $476 million to Utah each year, the Center for American Progress says.

“I’m not speaking from a compassionate or a moral or even a national or foreign policy perspective,” Mathis said, “but from an economic perspective, these dreamers are important for Utah.”

It costs more than $400 to apply for DACA, according to the USCIS website. That money, plus the taxes paid by DACA recipients, helps Americans, Morales said, because undocumented immigrants don’t qualify for government benefits.

“We’re not getting anything for free,” he said.

As the immigration debate has grown more heated, Luis Garza, executive director for Communities United, said there’s “a sense of fear in the community.” He’s noticed decreased enrollment and “more hesitation from the families” for would-be first-time DACA recipients.

But the controversy is an opportunity, Garza said, to “put some pressure on” Reyes and other political leaders “to say, ‘We’re behind our youth.’”

“We’re talking about the future of the state,” Garza said.

Uncertainty about the program’s future has made recipients notice “the privilege that they have,” Morales said. “We’re scared to lose DACA,” and because of that, people who use it have become more politically active, he said.

Having DACA gives recipients greater peace of mind while studying and working in the professional world, Morales said. “You can live life without having to watch your back.”

Reyna Rivarola said if he were to be “sent back” to his country of origin, he would likely pursue his education somewhere else.

“I left Peru when I was 11. I don’t know Peru,” Reyna Rivarola said. “Yes, I love the food. Yes, I have family members there, but ultimately, I consider myself from here. Utah is home. Utah is my home.”