Between Coronavirus Pandemic And Looming Supreme Court Decision, DACA Recipients On Edge

DACA recipients rally in Washington, D.C.DACA recipients rally in Washington, D.C.Courtesy of Marissa Molina
Marissa Molina, center right in the back, with other Colorado DACA recipients at a rally outside of the U.S. Supreme Court in November 2019.

Marissa Molina, a Denver DACA recipient, said uncertainty isn’t new to her. But this is an especially tough time for people in her position. 

“Having to wake up every single day that the Supreme Court could potentially decide the rest of your life, at the same time you’re just hoping that you can continue to stay employed and be a source of support for your family,” Molina said. “That weighs really heavily on a lot of us.”

These are uncertain times for most, and even more so for some undocumented immigrants living in the United States. The Supreme Court is expected to make its decision soon on whether to continue Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals — the Obama-era program that protects those who were brought to the U.S. as children from deportation.  

Molina is one of about 15,000 immigrants in Colorado who are enrolled in the DACA program. She’s the state director for FWD.us, a bipartisan immigration policy organization. She’s advising other recipients to renew their status now if they can, instead of waiting until they have to. She says it’s not easy for everyone. The process is expensive. 

“When you lose your employment because of what's happening and you're also worried about, ‘Can I make the $500 payment to be able to renew my DACA?’ That becomes a pretty scary decision to have to make,” Molina said. “Often it's making rent or buying food, or being able to secure your future for two more years.”

The $500 cost may jump to $765, making the decision even more difficult.

DACA recipients are eligible for the $1,200 federal stimulus check, but they’ve been cut out from other available coronavirus emergency aid. 

The CARES Act includes grants for students to cover expenses like housing, food and family needs. The Department of Education limited those grants to students who are eligible for federal student financial aid, which leaves out DACA recipients. 

“Having money that they could access to be able to pay for tuition, could be what helps them finish this semester versus not,” Molina said. “It's hard to even explain how to feel about the many ways in which the immigrant community is feeling the impacts of this pandemic in a very disproportionate way.”

Colorado U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, along with 27 other Democratic senators, urged Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to allow DACA students access to emergency financial aid. In a letter, the group argues the decision to leave out those students goes against the intentions of the CARES act, which is to help those most in need. 

Molina points out that DACA recipients might be the only members of undocumented families who can bring in any money right now.

“That is scary, because we know undocumented families are really hurting,” Molina said. “They're not getting any of that stimulus money. They're not eligible to receive unemployment. And so DACA recipients carry that big burden of being that lifeline to their families.” 

Molina said she’s helping support her family since her parents’ work has taken a hit during the coronavirus pandemic.

DACA recipients rally in Washington, D.C.Courtesy of Armando Reyes
Armando Reyes, in the back, second from right, with Marissa Molina, in the back, second from left, and other DACA recipients advocate in Washington, D.C., with U.S. Rep. Joe Neguse, center in the back.

Armando Reyes, another DACA recipient, graduated from Colorado Mountain College in Steamboat where he works as a senior resident assistant. He also works in a restaurant, and he’s thankful to still be employed so he can help out his family too. 

“I worry mostly about my three younger siblings,” Reyes said. “But from everything that I've heard from my mom, they’re just loving not going to school and just playing all day.”

Reyes is taking Molina’s advice and is working to get his DACA status renewed before the Supreme Court makes its ruling. Usually the process requires an in-person meeting with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. Reyes was saving up money for his application, when those offices closed because of the coronavirus. He was worried he missed his chance.

Good news came when immigration services announced it would move ahead with renewals without in-person meetings. But Reyes is still worried, and he says that feeling comes from years of uncertainty of the program’s future. The Trump administration ended DACA in 2017, and no new applicants have been accepted since then. 

The Supreme Court’s eventual ruling is constantly on Reyes's mind -- for him and his older brother, who is also a DACA recipient. Reyes said many of his friends, classmates and co-workers don’t know he’s undocumented. 

“One parent taught me that the world's not fair. And I guess in this case it's really not fair,” Reyes said. “I'm taking the same career path, but my job is in much more jeopardy than theirs.” 

Jennifer Howard is an associate attorney at Joseph & Hall, an immigration law firm with offices around Colorado. Some of her DACA clients are business owners.

“If you don't know where you're going to be in two years, it’s hard to make plans for the future for growth, for hiring employees. I think that's further impacted by COVID, because they've lost business,” Howard said.

Some of her clients might now need public benefits because of lost business or employment. Howard said they’re afraid to apply for things like Medicare or food stamps because of the Trump administration’s Public Charge Rule, which makes it easier to deny immigrants green cards who have relied on public services. Howard says the firm is still trying to figure out what to tell people when it comes to accepting aid. She said it’s case by case.

“The COVID news is changing every day, and then also immigration related news is changing almost every day. So it's a lot to try to piece together,” she said. 

Gov. Jared Polis has asked that all DACA recipients whose work authorizations expire this year get an automatic extension. In a letter to the Acting Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, Polis argued the extension would provide needed stability for both DACA recipients and the economy, because many are employed in essential industries like health care, child care and food services — restaurants and grocery stores.   

Molina said the pandemic is highlighting this. 

“These are people who are embedded in our communities in ways in which you might have never thought. But right now, because we're paying special attention to all those industries, we can tell you that a lot of the people who are driving them are DACA recipients, that they're immigrants,” Molina said. 

Molina believes that ending the DACA program right now would throw individuals, their families — and the communities they live and work in — into chaos.

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