DACA and people of faith

October 4th, 2017

One pastor’s DACA story

When the Reverend Orlando Gallardo was 15 years old, he undertook a harrowing journey across the border between Mexico and the United States. At one point during the treacherous trip, he was forced to wade across a freezing river with no clothing.

Gallardo’s mother had filed an application to allow his older brother, a U.S. citizen through marriage, to become Gallardo’s legal guardian and immigration sponsor. However, when the application was denied, Gallardo and his mother decided that he should immigrate without legal papers. “It was my best shot,” Gallardo recalls.

Today, Gallardo serves as associate pastor at United Methodist Trinity Community Church in Kansas City. He is one of the 800,000 people covered by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program initiated by President Obama in 2012. Because Gallardo arrived in the United States as a child, DACA prevents him from being deported and also allows him to apply for a work permit.

The Trump administration’s September announcement ending the DACA program leaves Gallardo with an uncertain future. Last year he married his wife Emily, a U.S. citizen, and is trying to obtain a spousal visa. However, this process takes a minimum of a year and a half, and it’s unlikely he’ll receive it before DACA expires.

What is DACA?

Over the past 16 years, Congress has made repeated attempts to pass legislation that would protect young people from deportation if they were brought to the United States as children. Various iterations of the DREAM (Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors) Act have been developed to provide both legal status and a path to citizenship for the young people in question. Due to the name of the act, many who would qualify refer to themselves as “Dreamers.”

The DREAM Act came closest to success in 2010 when it was passed by the House but fell five votes short in the Senate. In response, President Obama established DACA in 2012 as a stopgap measure. “It’s not a permanent fix,” Obama said at the time. He presented the program as a way to “focus our resources wisely while giving a degree of relief and hope to talented, driven, patriotic young people.”

To qualify for DACA, recipients had to have arrived in the United States before age 16 and were required to be under age 31 as of June 15, 2012. DACA recipients also needed to be enrolled in high school or college, be a high school graduate, have obtained a GED or have been honorably discharged from the military.

DACA doesn’t provide recipients with legal immigration status, but instead it grants them a deferral from potential deportation and the ability to receive work permits. In return, applicants must pay a $495 application fee and undergo an extensive criminal background check. Both the background check and application fee must be resubmitted every two years to renew DACA status.

Trump rescinds DACA

On September 5, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that the Trump administration would be ending the DACA program and that no new DACA applications were being accepted. Current recipients whose work permits expire before March 5, 2018, were allowed to apply for renewal up until October 5.

Maria Diaz, a 22-year-old DACA grantee, was brought to the United States as a one-year-old. Her family settled in Olathe, Kansas, where she has lived ever since. As a high school student, Diaz applied for DACA, which allowed her to attend the University of Kansas and pay in-state tuition. (Some states allow DACA grantees to pay in-state tuition; others don’t.) While working on her degree in business, Diaz also works full-time at Bank of America. With the end of DACA, Diaz is worried about the future of both her job and her education. “My education can hopefully continue, but without the income, I’m not sure,” Diaz said.

Other DACA recipients worry about the consequences of giving so much of their private information to the government. Sheridan Aguirre, a DACA grantee and leader of the advocacy organization United We Dream, says he believed the assurances he was offered during the application process that the addresses, photos, fingerprints, and bank statements he provided wouldn’t be shared with Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Now, Aguirre says, “It’s a scary situation. It really is.”

Immigration attorney and former Obama administration official Leon Fresco is particularly troubled by an online post made by the Department of Homeland Security. The post states that private information will not be “proactively” shared with immigration enforcement agents, but it also carves out exceptions and says that the policy can be changed or eliminated at any time.

Faith leaders alarmed over DACA’s termination

Though faith leaders may be divided on a number of political issues, concern for Dreamers largely unites them. Pastor Tony Suarez, a member of President Trump’s evangelical advisory board, disagreed with the administration’s decision to terminate DACA. “We told the president that if you’re going to build a wall, then you must also build bridges — bridges of compassion, bridges of mercy to understand the plight of these undocumented children,” Suarez said. Ashley Feasley of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops says that for Catholic bishops, DACA “is a hugely personal, pastoral issue for them.”

United Methodists are also among those raising their voices in support of DACA. Bishop Minerva G. Carcaño of the San Francisco Area wrote an editorial for Time magazine in which she called the end of DACA “unchristian.” Carcaño called on political leaders to place the welfare of immigrants, especially young people, before “broken immigration policies” and political debates. “Jesus himself time and again demonstrates through his actions the importance of children, healing them, welcoming them into his presence and declaring that God’s kingdom belongs to the children,” Carcaño wrote.

Will Congress take up the DREAM Act?

In July, a new version of the DREAM Act was introduced in both the House and Senate with bipartisan sponsorship. The proposed law grants conditional permanent resident status to DACA grantees and allows other undocumented people who entered the United States illegally before age 18 to apply for this conditional status if they’re in high school or college or if they’ve earned a high school diploma. After meeting a number of conditions that take a minimum of 13 years to satisfy, the DREAM Act would allow these groups to apply for citizenship.

A few weeks after the Trump administration announced DACA’s termination, the President met with Democratic leaders for dinner. Afterward, the parties announced that they were “working on a plan for DACA.”

However, the final outcome of this meeting remains unclear. House Speaker Paul Ryan referred to the meeting between the President and Democratic leaders as “a discussion, not an agreement or negotiation.” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said they provided Democrats will support if it’s paired with the DREAM Act. However, the President said that any package would not include a path to citizenship for DACA grantees, which is currently included in the DREAM Act. Also, some Democrats have expressed concern about border security items being added to the DREAM Act.

The United Methodist General Board of Church and Society, citing official support for the DREAM Act by our General Conference, is urging church members to contact their members of Congress. Their petition to Congress reminds United Methodists that “our immigrant brothers and sisters deserve dignity, welcome and the opportunity to flourish.”

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