By Alex Emslie
SF State Xpress
President Barack Obama’s unilateral change to immigration enforcement policy announced June 15 could afford many undocumented students an opportunity that most U.S. citizens take for granted – the chance that they may one day be able to legally work in their fields of study.
“It’s awesome that we have something like this, and it’s hope for the future for us,” said Emmanuel Valenciano, an undocumented SF State biology major who applied for the new Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program on Aug. 15, the first day the forms were available.
The program does not formally change any U.S. law. Rather, it is a discretionary directive to defer for two years the deportation of law-abiding undocumented immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children and who are current students, high-school graduates or GED holders or honorably discharged veterans. The program also allows qualifying undocumented immigrants to apply for temporary work permits.
For one undocumented SF State nursing student who asked only to be identified as “Anne” because she fears repercussions from immigration enforcement and her community, deferred action relief means a chance at a nursing career.
“When I got into the program last year, they told me that even if I graduate, I wouldn’t be able to become an RN. It was a real relief for me to have this program offered to us.”
Anne applied for the DACA program a few days after forms became available on Aug. 15.
“When I work, I can have some kind of financial security, especially giving more financial help to my mom so she can pay for the house and put food on the table,” she said. “Ever since I was young, I wanted to become a nurse. It’s in me to just help people.”
HAPPY BUT SKEPTICAL
While many undocumented young people are as elated as Valenciano about the unexpected DACA program, they remain skeptical and even fearful of Obama, who has presided over tens of thousands more deportations than any other president through the controversial Secure Communities, or S-Comm, program.
S-Comm requires local police to automatically send the fingerprints of anyone they book to the Department of Homeland Security. Despite long-standing DHS policy not to deport law-abiding or low-level offending undocumented immigrants, more than one quarter of those deported through the S-Comm program in California have never been convicted of a crime, according to Immigrations and Customs Enforcement data.
The California Assembly and Senate have answered S-Comm with the Trust Act, or AB 1081, which would require local law enforcement to cooperate with ICE only in cases in which the undocumented immigrant has been convicted of a serious felony. State representatives sent the Trust Act to Gov. Jerry Brown on Aug. 24, who has never stated whether he will sign or veto the bill.
The DACA requirement that undocumented residents register themselves and family member information with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, a bureau of the same federal department that oversees immigration deportations, is an additional source of worry.
“That has been fueling a lot of the confusion and skepticism,” Said Jen Low, Immigrants’ Rights Community Advocate at the Asian Law Caucus, one of many San Francisco community organizations offering help to immigrants applying for the DACA program. “We believe that the Obama administration is doing this in good faith and that they will not hand over family member information to ICE,” she said, using the acronym for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
DREAM COME TRUE?
One undocumented San Francisco resident who requested anonymity because he fears immigration enforcement called the DACA program “the DREAM Act, light,” referring to the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act.
The DREAM Act has been introduced into every U.S. congressional session since 2001 but has yet to pass in both houses. The DACA program differs from the DREAM Act in that it could be terminated by the president at any time, and it does not provide a pathway to permanent residency like the DREAM Act would.
“Obama was pressured to do it because, after the DREAM Act wasn’t passed, a lot of dreamers kept pushing and organizing more,” the undocumented San Francisco resident said. “I hope dreamers don’t stop fighting for their rights. People might get relaxed because some people might be able to get work permits, and they will stop with the movement.”
Low acknowledged that the DACA program equates to somewhat of a mixed message from the Obama administration.
“We have one program for dreamers that are eligible and one for others that are sitting in detention centers around the country without any hopes of relief,” she said. “Deferred action is a temporary solution. We’re really hoping that we can pass the DREAM Act in the next couple of years.”
The upcoming presidential election adds another layer of uncertainty for undocumented students applying for DACA relief. Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney has publicly stated that he would veto the DREAM Act, and if he was elected president, he could conceivably terminate the deferred action program with the stroke of a pen. The 2012 GOP platform, unveiled at the beginning of the Republican National Convention on Aug. 28, outlined some of the party’s planned immigration policies.
“In order to restore the rule of law, federal funding should be denied to sanctuary cities that violate federal law and endanger their own citizens, and federal funding should be denied to universities that provide instate tuition rates to illegal aliens, in open defiance of federal law,” the platform states. San Francisco is a sanctuary city and San Francisco State University offers instate tuition rates to undocumented students under its AB 540 program.
“I’m very scared if Obama does not get elected,” Anne said. “If a different president wins, and to get that taken away from us and have our information out there, it’s scary. It would be slap in the face.”
Low said that even if Romney wins, it would be difficult to deport the huge number of people applying for DACA relief.
“Being that it is an executive program, it’s administrative relief, Obama could terminate it at any time, and so could Romney if he wins in November.” she said. “It is very unfeasible for the U.S. to detain and deport all of those under this program, though, and it would be a civil rights catastrophe.”
‘JUST LIKE YOU AND ME’
Valenciano was brought to the U.S. from the Philippines when he was 13 years old. He said he wants to become a cancer researcher because his brother died from bone cancer, but before the DACA program, there was no way for him to pursue a career in medical research once he graduated.
“Now I could actually get a paid internship,” he said. “I’ve been too busy thinking about deferred action, so I haven’t thought about what companies I could apply to. I’ll think about it more maybe once I have my work permit.”
Anne talked about the hurt she feels when she hears the words “illegal immigrant,” and said she hopes her generation can shed its apathy and try to care.
“I bet you, that you know one undocumented immigrant, and you wouldn’t even know it,” she said. “You wouldn’t know how they’re suffering and how they feel when you say something callous. They’re also a mother, a child, a classmate. They could be your teacher. They contribute to society. Many undocumented immigrants contribute, pay taxes, they do. They’re just you and me, you know?”
A version of this story was published in the San Francisco State Golden Gate [X]press on Sept. 5, 2012.