Joel Viad doesn’t remember anything about being brought to the United States from Mexico at the age of 4. Viad didn’t know English and he recalls school being very challenging until a classmate and teacher spent a semester helping him learn the language. By the next year, he called English his first language, speaking it more than Spanish.
It wasn’t until taking a test his freshman year in high school that he understood he was undocumented. Everyone’s social security number was on their test booklet but his didn’t have one.
“I was confused but I didn’t want to ask the teacher,” said Viad. “When I asked my mom, she explained everything to me. She told me it would be hard for me to find a job and get a driver’s license. I was in shock.”
Viad applied for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, not long before the Trump administration rescinded the program in early September. The immigration policy, enacted by President Obama in 2012, allows undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. as children to receive work permits and exemption from deportation. Recipients can get a driver’s license, pursue their educations and pay taxes. Although the purpose of DACA was to support young, law-abiding, hard-working immigrants, it never provided a path to citizenship, merely an opportunity to come out of hiding to contribute to the only home most of them have ever known. There are currently more than 800,000 DACA recipients in the U.S.
Though Viad and the immigrant community in Oklahoma City were expecting the announcement from Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Viad still felt scared when he got the news DACA would be rescinded, especially because his own application was still in limbo. His friend and mentor Jace Kirk, assistant director of FaithWorks of the Inner City, a holistic community development agency for families of southwest Oklahoma City, reassured him that although no new DACA applications would be accepted as of Sept. 5, all those like Viad who had previously applied are grandfathered in. DREAMers, as DACA recipients are known, can stay in the U.S. until their current DACA permits expire. Those whose permits expire before March 5, 2018, could apply for renewal by Oct. 5. Though not formally announced by the White House, CNN reported the Department of Homeland Security urged DACA recipients in a memo to “prepare to leave the United States.” The Trump administration did note that DHS enforcement priorities will continue to focus on undocumented immigrants who have been convicted of crimes or are a threat to national security.
DACA has been criticized for a number of reasons, with opponents calling the program illegal or unconstitutional because President Obama created the program by executive order when immigration policy is the responsibility of Congress as the country’s lawmaking body. The Trump administration has said it’s now Congress’ responsibility to create and pass legislation to protect DREAMers. Chris Brewster, superintendent of Santa Fe South Schools, acknowledges the “mess” of the current immigration system is largely one the current president inherited.
“This can has been kicked down the road for some time now,” said Brewster. “As a country, we don’t seem to have been willing or able to solve this complex and emotional issue. It appears we must do so now. The clock is ticking for the most vulnerable members of our community.”
Community advocates like Judith Huerta, an employee of Oklahoma City Public Schools and a member of immigrant advocate group DREAM Act Oklahoma (DAOK), said while there is fear permeating the immigrant community in Oklahoma City, they will renew their strength and fight to keep protection for DREAMers.
“There should be no gap in protection,” said Huerta. “We need legislation that will protect our immigrant youth.”
As DREAMers and their friends and family wait to see whether Congress will pass such legislation, Viad and others like him vow to continue to work hard to better themselves and the community around them.
“I’m just going to keep going to school and live like everyone else,” said Viad. “I have faith that something good is going to happen.”
Who are the DREAMers?
Oklahoma is home to more than 6,900 DACA recipients whose futures are now uncertain, including college student Alejandro Raigoza Munoz. Munoz dreams of becoming an elementary school teacher. He discovered his calling through mentoring and teaching children and college students in various Bible study groups. Munoz came to the U.S. when he was just 18 months old and didn’t even know he was born in Mexico until the sixth grade.
“I was undocumented,” said Munoz. “I wasn’t able to apply for jobs, I wasn’t able to drive a car legally and I didn’t know if I had a future in education.”
Angelica Villalobos, advocacy and outreach director of DAOK and a DREAMer herself, said Oklahomans without legal status face daily obstacles in accessing simple and fundamental things, including enrolling a child in school, purchasing a car, renting or buying a home, setting up utilities, accessing healthcare, filling prescriptions, traveling, accessing higher education or the legal system, calling the police, caring for elderly parents and accessing childcare. Like Munoz, Villalobos experienced many of these hardships herself prior to becoming a DACA recipient. When Munoz became a DACA recipient six years ago, he said it allowed him to support his family and fulfill his educational dreams.
“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.
Like Munoz, DACA applicants 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. They are not eligible to collect welfare benefits. Because they are undocumented, DREAMers are not eligible to apply for citizenship in the typical manner.
“A lot of people think these people just have to take a citizenship test,” said Kirk. “If that were the case, everyone I know would do it.”
To become a citizen, immigrants must first have a green card or permanent residency. DREAMers don’t qualify for green cards, and to become eligible for one, they would have to return to their original country, staying out of the U.S. for approximately 10 years. Because DREAMers left their country of origin as children, most have no recollection of where they were born, no friends or family there and no resources to support themselves. DREAMers would then have to be approved for a green card and apply for citizenship, which takes more time and thousands of dollars.
When Kirk and his wife adopted undocumented Sixto at age 14, their joy in finally calling him son was coupled with relief that Sixto would also become a citizen through adoption. That was not the case.
“I met with an immigration attorney thinking I’d fill out some paperwork, but he told me there was nothing I could do,” said Kirk. “I sat in his parking lot and cried. I felt like this was David versus Goliath: my son versus the United States Customs and Immigration Services, and that was a battle we weren’t going to win.”
Kirk made appointments with local lawmakers he said were just as baffled by the situation as he. Current immigration policy in the US does not offer a viable pathway to citizenship for Sixto. When he enrolled at OSU-OKC, which he was able to do through DACA, he realized he could not pursue a career in law enforcement because he’s undocumented. His career choices are extremely limited, and Kirk said options for DREAMers like Sixto are typically cash-paid or labor jobs.
Brenda Grant, who teaches Senior Seminar and college preparation to students at Santa Fe South High School, said it’s heartbreaking to have to tell undocumented students year after year that while they could apply for DACA, they don’t qualify for financial aid and won’t be able to pursue many of the career choices they dream about. She knows several families who have applied for citizenship who’ve been waiting for decades for their applications to be processed.
“And yet, these students continue to work and come to school and apply for college,” said Grant. “They are resilient and have a work ethic many of us need to admire. If there was an easy way for these students to ‘get in line’ [to become citizens], they would do it in a heartbeat, but it’s not that easy.”
Through his work with the immigrant community, Kirk has realized because of their limited career choices, undocumented immigrants, including DREAMers, often don’t make enough money to survive and the cycle of poverty undocumented immigrants face perpetuates the problem.
“These kids were brought here through no fault of their own,” said Kirk, “yet we’re expecting them to pay the price for this. That seems barbaric.”
DREAMers impact on Oklahoma
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Oklahoma’s immigrant population makes up nearly six percent of the state’s residents. As of 2013, 35 percent of immigrants in Oklahoma were naturalized U.S. citizens, and undocumented immigrants made up almost three percent of the state population.
While some opponents of DACA have reported undocumented immigrants harm the economy, according to the Center for American Progress, the removal of Oklahoma’s 6,000 productive, and almost exclusively bilingual, DACA workforce would create an estimated annual GDP loss of more than $343 million in Oklahoma alone. On the national level, the Immigrant Legal Resource Center reports the country would see a decrease in approximately 685,000 young immigrant DACA workers, with their unemployment costing employers an estimated $3.4 billion in turnover costs. Because DACA recipients pay taxes, the loss of their and their employers’ contributions to Social Security and Medicare would total an estimated $24.6 billion over the next decade. Nationally, DREAMers currently pay more than $11.64 billion a year in income taxes.
“The data is clear: DACA changes lives and boosts the economy in Oklahoma and across the country,” said Villalobos.
Villalobos said while the program helped thousands in our state, less than half of the 17,000 DACA-eligible Oklahomans had been utilizing the program.
“The rest are living without documentation out of fear of giving the federal government their information, a lack of funds for attorneys and filing fees and/or pending eligibility,” said Villalobos.
Mom to four daughters, all born in and citizens of the U.S., Villalobos said fear and helplessness can be debilitating. According to a study at the University of California at San Diego, about 200,000 children, themselves U.S. citizens, have parents who are DACA recipients. Those she has spoken with report their children are dealing with high anxiety and stress, unsure of their parents’ fate.
“No child should have to lay in bed wondering if the goodnight kiss they just gave their parents will be the last they share together as a family,” said Villalobos. “I want my children to grow up without that constant uncertainty, fear and burden. I want my daughters to achieve the American dream.”
What happens next?
As DREAMers watch the clock tick down on their work permits, they hope and pray for Congress to pass the DREAM Act, solidifying their pathway to citizenship.
Oklahoma Congressman Steve Russell has publicly opposed efforts to end protections under DACA. Both Russell and Congressman Tom Cole have said the responsibility of immigration reform lies with Congress, and both have released statements saying fault should not be placed on children who were brought to the country by their parents. Senator James Lankford concurs and said immigration policy, strong border enforcement and merit immigration must all be addressed. While local DACA recipients and supporters have been encouraged by Oklahoma lawmakers’ responses, uncertainty still abounds.
“This is a dangerous game [President Trump] is playing,” said Brewster. “He seems to believe that a Republican majority Congress, which cannot agree on tax reform or how to fix the Affordable Care Act, will somehow be able to sort out how to pass the DREAM Act in the next six months in order to protect these young people.”
The DREAM (Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors) Act is a legislative proposal for qualifying minors in the U.S. that would grant conditional residency, leading to permanent residency. The Act was first introduced in 2001, failing to pass then and with each reintroduction. The act is back on the table following the end of DACA.
DAOK staff has been advocating for the DREAM Act on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., meeting with local lawmakers and passing out educational postcards about the benefits DREAMers bring to the country. Back home, DAOK has been hosting DACA clinics to help recipients eligible to renew do so, even offering to cover some filing fees thanks to a grant. To better educate the community as a whole, the DAOK team has held education forums and participated in peaceful rallies, demonstrations and events across the metro.
Kirk and the leaders of El Camino OKC, a network of churches in the metro committed to loving immigrants and protecting immigration injustice, have spent much time discussing the need for holistic immigration reform, and they believe securing U.S. borders should be a top priority. They believe those immigrants who come to the U.S. legally and overstay their visas should have mandated check-ins. Finally, Kirk said the parents of DACA recipients need to be addressed; otherwise “we are perpetuating a cycle of poverty.”
Viad was recently the passenger in a car when the driver was pulled over for not using his turn signal. Kirk said Viad panicked because he thought he could be deported.
“He was brought here when he was just 4 years old,” said Kirk. “He’s an excellent student, an athlete and a leader in school. This kid is on the right path, but even he lives with a constant fear that any little thing would lead to his deportation to a place he knows nothing about. It’s a very real fear for him, and others, and it’s not a healthy way to live in society.”
Villalobos said it’s important to channel those emotions into action. She believes volunteering with organizations like DAOK, El Camino OKC or FaithWorks, or simply having conversations with friends and family about the positive impact immigrants and DACA recipients have on the state and country can help move the needle toward inclusivity and the development of a clear path to citizenship.
Viad hopes Oklahomans will call their congressmen to encourage their support of the DREAM Act. He and Sixto Kirk also share the plea that community members take time to better understand the predicament of the DREAMers.
“Before people judge us or say ‘just apply for citizenship,” said Sixto Kirk, “I wish they would learn more about our situation and educate themselves.”
[Editor’s Note: This is part one of a three-part series we’ll do looking at immigration in OKC. Find the next two parts of the series in our December and January issues.]
In late September, Senators James Lankford of Oklahoma, Thom Tillis of North Carolina and Orrin Hatch of Utah introduced the Succeed Act to address DACA recipients’ pathways to citizenship. Read more about the differences in the Succeed Act and Dream Act at www.metrofamilymagazine.com/succeed-act.