Over the past five years, Maggie Kawinski watched as her young clients' lives slowly came into focus. The New York immigration attorney has been working with undocumented people covered by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program protecting those brought to the US as children since Barack Obama started it in 2012. These protections have allowed many young immigrants to take part in major milestones of American life. Teenagers unable to apply for college now have degrees. Twenty-somethings no longer have to get paid under the table; often, they can actually drive to work.
But just as the shape of the future was gaining definition, Donald Trump took office. He immediately instituted travel bans. ICE enforcement suddenly seemed less predictable, and rumors and anecdotes fused to make it feel like unleashed agents might be everywhere. And last month, the administration announced DACA protections would end—and that everyone eligible needed to renew by this Thursday, October 5, if they wanted to keep the work permits that have propped up their lives for the past five years. If Congress doesn't pass its own version of DACA by next March, the program will die, putting its recipients at far greater risk of deportation.
With just days left before the deadline to apply for another two-year renewal, "the threat of losing that is starting to sink in," Kawinski told me. "The threat of going back to before."
Plenty of people worrying about exactly that were on hand Thursday evening at Medgar Evers College, the CUNY campus in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, named after a murdered civil rights activist where Kawinski is based. CUNY Citizenship Now!, which has been helping immigrants in New York City for 20 years, was holding a DACA renewal clinic, and about 30 students ranging from their early 20s to early 30s were perched in rows of black chairs. As the setting sun snaked through windows surrounding the room, the young people diligently filled out out yellow forms to the soundtrack of organizers answering questions and shouting numbers to announce who was next. Attorneys like Kawinski offered legal assistance at plastic tables topped with staplers and an array of paperwork in a rainbow of colors.
Near the entrance to the clinic, the Haitian American Student Association and campus counseling services were offering free water bottles and lollipops to those signing in—or leaving in relief.
None of the DACA recipients were entirely new to the process, some having renewed their status as many as three times. But this time there was no room for error: It might be their last chance to get a work authorization and guarantee that, say, their driver's license would remain valid. They had to be sure everything was in perfect order so they wouldn't get rejected on a technicality.
Among the applicants were a pair of 24-year-old twins from Pakistan who had finally been able to pay for college thanks to DACA. One wanted to be a financial analyst, the other a makeup artist. Their mother, who has a green card through their brother, was worried, they said, and had taken to telling them they should get married at least once a week.
One 34-year-old DACA recipient didn't even know she couldn't get a driver's license as an undocumented person until she went to the DMV. DACA protection felt good in small symbolic ways, too, she said, like when she went to a club and was able to pull out identification smaller than a passport. Her friends have been joking about their immigration woes since last November, feeling otherwise helpless as the White House and Congress deliberate their fate. If they have to go back to Jamaica, a place she hasn't seen since she was three, she told me, at least they'll go back together.
Another 24-year-old DACA recipient from St. Vincent first realized being born somewhere else was limiting her life choices after she got scholarships for college—and couldn't accept them because she wasn't a citizen. Now she's in school, and financially independent enough to care for her two-year-old son.
These before-and-after diptychs undergirded the workshop, along with the overwhelming sense that the fate of DACA was not the immigrants' only concern. Many knew that even if Congress did something, they might have to return to a home they didn't remember if their parents were deported, just to keep their family intact. Or, if they were deported—a fear deferred, DACA recipients remind themselves, is not one extinguished—their own children might have to move to another country despite being American citizens. "I don't remember Jamaica," one person told me, "but I know the American anthem like the back of my hand."
Even if they did renew, some wondered, what happens in six months? Variations on the DREAM Act have existed for more than a decade, so everyone who's been watching this process for years knows that action from Congress is far from guaranteed. "I would love to be able to say to my clients, 'Everything's going to be OK. There will be a new law in March,'" Sarah Borsody at Bronx Defenders, a nonprofit legal aid group, told me. "But I can't ethically say that. The truth is we just don't know what's going happen."
Similarly frenzied clinics have been going on all over the country, but turnout for legal assistance wasn't always as high as organizers hoped. Nicole Hallett, who runs the Community Justice Clinic at the University of Buffalo, worked at one such clinic last Monday during a statewide Day of Action, and has otherwise tried to be available for DACA recipients over the past two weeks. But instead of helping mobs of people, she said, she's had a lot of time to consider why some may not be taking advantage of the offer. Is it a matter of geography—and DREAMers who need help being too away from an urban area to know that there are resources available? Are the applicants comfortable enough doing this on their own at this point? Or are people just afraid of coming forward again?
Stories about ICE arrests appear in newspapers across the country every week, scaring undocumented immigrants away from courts, public transportation, or even their front door. Also: Buffalo is not a sanctuary city, and thanks to its proximity to Canada, Border Patrol has always been a presence, Hallett said.
The timing of the decision—and the difficulty of making sure people know about it—might have been an issue too. Although one federal judge questioned the October 5 deadline, the Department of Homeland Security said last week that it won't be extending the due date. "There was only a month between the announcement and the deadline," Hallett said. "People have lives and jobs and everything else."
Still, she hoped that people renew, especially because of the unique problems the undocumented face up north. Driver's licenses were a special godsend for DACA recipients she knows, as getting to work without a car can be impossible in more rural settings like upstate New York. Those without them are in unique danger, as being pulled over for a broken taillight can lead to eventual detainment. (New York is not one of the 12 states plus DC and Puerto Rico that offers driver's licenses for undocumented immigrants.)
The excitement many undocumented immigrants felt when DACA was first announced has been largely replaced by a steady diet of anxiety. "Folks are realizing that DACA is not as protective as they thought it might have been," Borsody told me. "Having DACA doesn't mean that you can't be deported. Maybe people feel, 'This isn't going to help me that much.'"
The renewal application also costs $495, and many DREAMers might not be able to swing that expense on such short notice. CUNY has announced its students' fees will be paid through the New Economy Project, which has been writing out checks to the Department of Homeland Security for any New York City resident who needs help. As of Monday, it had helped more than 100 New Yorkers in this (possibly) final push, with applications continuing to pour in, according to project founder Sarah Ludwig. At the Medgar Evers clinic, CUNY Citizenship Now!* needed to send someone on an emergency dash to find extra checks. And with the deadline creeping closer, New Economy has set aside funds to help people pay to overnight their applications.
Ben Monterroso, executive director of Mi Familia Vota, a nonprofit focused on immigration reform and advocacy for Latino residents, wondered if people might just be procrastinating. "Every day that people don't come," he sighed, "that is obviously one of my worries." He hasn't heard of anyone not applying because of money, but many of the renewal workshops being held in his organization's six states have also seen low turnout, he said. "Money shouldn't be issue," he added. "It's about time and information." The numbers have looked okay in Arizona, but attendance in Nevada and Colorado hasn't been robust at all—and in Texas and Florida, disaster might be getting in the way of people's renewal plans, Monterrosa said. "We are forcing people, because of Mother Nature, to be in the shadows when they otherwise could have taken advantage of that."
The number of people eligible to renew is not especially large—at least in context. Although nearly 800,000 young undocumented immigrants have applied for DACA, only about 154,000 needed to renew before the deadline, according to the Washington Post. If you had DACA but let it expire, waiting to renew until you had more time or money, your chance to reapply ran out after Trump's new policy was announced in early September. If your DACA protections expire after March 5, 2018, you cannot reapply, and if you hadn't previously applied for DACA, it's too late to do so now.
But if you are one of the eligible DREAMers who has yet to renew, there's still time—albeit precious little. "You cannot wait until Thursday to apply," Camille Mackler, the attorney at the New York Immigration Coalition who helped organize the Day of Action last Monday, told me. "Immigration needs to have received your application by Thursday. You need to be sending it by overnight mail."
Regardless of how many people file before October 5, many of these organizers will turn to fighting for Congress to keep DACA alive—and without attaching it to border security or other provisions that might make it harder for immigrants still waiting for comprehensive reform. Many of the young people at the Medgar Evers clinic are sure to be paying attention. Now that the news cycle serves as a constant reminder of how quickly their lives could revert to what it was like before DACA, tuning in is no longer a choice.
Update 10/02/17: This story has been updated to clarify the name of the organization that ran low on checks when helping people apply for renewal.
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