Alejandro Raigoza Munoz is studying at OSU-OKC to become an interpreter in the medical field, helping doctors and nurses better communicate with patients who speak Spanish. He hopes to one day earn his degree in elementary education so he can inspire the next generation of young Oklahomans. Brisa Ledezma is a teacher at Santa Fe South Middle School, where she loves working with the community that once encouraged her to pursue her higher education dreams. Joel Viad is a senior at Santa Fe South High School, excelling in basketball and making plans to attend college to study business. This drive to succeed and support their communities is prevalent among the 800,000 DACA recipients nationwide, whose futures in the United States became uncertain with US Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ announcement Tuesday to rescind the DACA program.
DACA, or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, is an immigration policy that allows undocumented immigrants who came to the United States before the age of 16, most brought by their parents seeking a better life, work permits and exemption from deportation. President Obama enacted the policy in 2012, which also allows recipients to get a driver’s license and pay taxes, though it does not offer a path to permanent citizenship.
“When the DACA program was created, thousands of brave young Oklahomans made the decision to apply for the program because they wanted to live, work and pay taxes legally,” said Rev. Dr. John-Mark Hart, pastor of Christ Community Church in Oklahoma City.
DACA recipients, also known as DREAMers, must be in school, have graduated high school or obtained a GED, or have been honorably discharged from the Coast Guard or armed forces. They cannot have been convicted of a felony, significant misdemeanor or more than three misdemeanors of any kind. By allowing undocumented young immigrants to work and pay taxes, Angelica Villalobos, advocacy and outreach director for DACA in Oklahoma, said DACA has made a tremendous impact on the economy in Oklahoma and nationwide. According to the Center for American Progress, the end of DACA in Oklahoma would cause a loss of 6,000 productive and almost exclusively bilingual workers and create an estimated GDP loss of $343.6 million. The country would see a loss of $460.3 billion from the national GDP over the next decade.
Three of the more than 6,900 DACA recipients in our state, Munoz, Ledezma and Viad all came to the United States before the age of 4. None have any memories of the journey and they know no other home than Oklahoma. Munoz was in 6th grade before he even learned he was born in Mexico.
“Recipients of DACA were children when they entered the United States and should not be punished like criminals for decisions they did not make,” said Villalobos, who adds DACA has made it possible for her to do simple things like obtain medication for her family, volunteer at her daughters’ schools and get a job to support her family. Villalobos said the looming end of DACA has shot fear and anxiety throughout the immigrant community in Oklahoma City.
“There is an ever-present fear of deportation from the United States based on the whims of those who hold the power in our country,” said Villalobos.
According to Tuesday’s announcement, DREAMers can stay in the United States until their current DACA permits expire. Those whose permits expire in the next six months can apply for a renewal by Oct. 5. No new DACA applications will be accepted as of Sept. 5, 2017, though those like Viad who previously applied and are still waiting for a permit are grandfathered in.
Local school districts, including Santa Fe South and OKCPS, have issued statements reassuring immigrant parents and students that they are safe, valued and welcome at school. Chris Brewster, superintendent of Santa Fe South Schools, implores Oklahomans to consider that DACA recipients are “deserving of the opportunities and protections we would want for our own children,” and remains hopeful that Congress will act quickly to craft a permanent, compassionate and complete solution for the DREAMers. He said for elected officials to remain silent on the issue is “morally wrong.”
Judith Huerta, a member of DREAM Act Oklahoma and an employee of Oklahoma City Public Schools, believes it’s the stories of immigrant children that brought DACA into being in the first place and will be what keeps the program from dissolving completely.
“We DACA recipients and undocumented folks need the community,” said Huerta. “There is power in numbers, and your support in this vital cause will help us create the change our communities so desperately need.”
DREAM Act Oklahoma (DAOK) is completing a postcard drive to send messages to Senators James Lankford and Jim Inhofe from individuals who want them to take action to protect immigrant youth. Advocates say the best way community members can join the fight against ending DACA completely, and the deportation of hundreds of thousands of immigrant children and students, is to write or call their congressmen. Community members are invited to join El Camino OKC, a network of churches in the metro committed to loving immigrants and protecting immigration injustice, for a family-friendly prayer vigil to pray for lawmakers and urge Congress to protect DREAMers on Sunday, Sept. 10 at 2 p.m. on the south lawn of the State Capitol.
“Understand that they love this country,” Gloria Torres, vice-chair of Oklahoma City Public Schools board of education, said of DREAMers. “They are contributors. They are educated. They are goal-oriented. They are people. They have feelings. They are family. They are our co-workers, our neighbors and church members.”
[Editor's Note: We're following this topic and will begin a three-part series on young immigrants in OKC later this fall.]