No one at Michelle Soto’s high school talked about their immigration status until Donald Trump became president. But she always knew she was undocumented, even if she wasn’t always sure what that meant.
In 2001, Soto’s biological mother left Mexico for the U.S. to help pay for her brother’s medical treatment. Soto joined her in 2009, two years after the 2007 entrance requirement to qualify for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. While her classmates with DACA are protected from deportation, Soto is not.
Soto told Splinter that her mom encouraged her not to say a word: “Don’t tell your story to anybody, we’re just here to work. Please don’t make yourself seen, ever.” So she didn’t. Then, in her junior year of high school, she attended a “Know Your Rights” seminar hosted by the New Mexico Dream Team, an arm of youth-led nonprofit United We Dream.
She eventually launched her school’s NMDT chapter. The space was sorely needed, she said, as career counselors were unprepared to handle the needs of undocumented students applying for college.
Soto is one of the estimated 3.6 million immigrants brought to the country as children. Now 18, Soto is planning to attend college without the promise that she’ll actually be able to put her degree to use after graduating—if she doesn’t get deported first.
A bill proposed by Democratic lawmakers would grant people like her a pathway to citizenship. The protections would give immigrants whose mere existence is regularly attacked by the Trump administration the stability to live unbothered by their status.
Earlier this month, California Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard and New York Reps. Nydia Velázquez and Yvette Clarke introduced the American Dream and Promise Act of 2019. Under the bill, DACA recipients and other people brought to the U.S. as children not currently covered by the program, the so-called “Dreamers,” would have the opportunity to qualify for a 10-year conditional resident status, and, eventually, lawful permanent resident (LPR) status if they meet certain requirements. Green card holders can apply for U.S. citizenship after living in the country continuously for five years.
Currently, DACA exists in a limited capacity, only covering the people who were beneficiaries before the Trump administration announced, in September 2017, that it was sunsetting the program. That announcement was immediately met with lawsuits currently working their way through the courts, with a January 2018 injunction allowing DACA to continue for renewals, but no new applicants.
The Dream and Promise Act would also help anyone under Temporary Protected Status (TPS)—a designation given to nationals of countries determined to be unsafe to return to by the U.S. government—and Deferred Enforced Departure (DED), a designation granted by the president.
On Tuesday, Senate Democrats introduced a similar measure called the Secure Act the that would allow TPS and DED beneficiaries to apply for LPR status. At the same time, Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin and South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham introduced the Dream Act of 2019. The bill would give undocumented young people who qualify a pathway to citizenship, with an eight-year conditional resident status and LPR status under certain requirements. The former bill would give TPS and DED beneficiaries an immediate pathway to LPR status.
The Dream and Promise Act is already a more-unified and more-possible attempt at immigration reform than what Democrats proposed in the last Congress, though its chances of passing a Republican-controlled Senate remain to be seen.
The Trump administration’s continued efforts to delay, and in many cases outright remove, undocumented immigrants’ protection from deportation have left TPS and DACA recipients to spend hundreds more on renewing their statuses in the past two years. Meanwhile, DED beneficiaries, many of whom have resided in the U.S. for two or three decades, had been waiting an entire year for March 31, thinking they would no longer be allowed to legally reside in the country come April 1. On Thursday, Trump revised his decision that ended the designation last year, giving beneficiaries one more year under the program, until March 30, 2020.
In interviews with Splinter, four women—some protected by these programs, some with no protections at all—shared how this kind of temporary living has affected their lives. Some feel Congress’ timing might be too late. Others feel guilty being granted protection while watching people in their own family slip through the legal loopholes. But it’s the waiting game that takes the hardest toll, one made all the more excruciating as the Trump administration continues to burden their lives with fear and more uncertainty.
Liberia is the only country currently covered by DED, but Yatta Kiazolu, 28, a DED beneficiary, has never lived there. She was born in Botswana to Liberian parents, and visited the country once when she was four. She ended up moving to Georgia to live with her grandmother after Liberia’s first civil war, and her mother later joined them. Kiazolu, a PhD candidate at UCLA, was protected by TPS until 2007, when Liberia lost its TPS status and was granted DED in its place by then-President George W. Bush.
As a child, Kiazolu’s grandmother sponsored her mother for a green card, which would have covered Kiazolu, but she aged out of that possibility when she turned 18. After Kiazolu’s grandmother died, Kiazolu’s stepfather laid the groundwork for her mother to get her green card. Her mother then petitioned for Kiazolu to get her own.
Kiazolu was still waiting on the petition when on March 27 of last year, she and an estimated 4,000 other DED beneficiaries were told by the Trump administration they had a year to change their immigration status—or become deportable back to Liberia.
“My parents were also pretty devastated. I know my mom’s taken on a lot of the stress of the uncertainty as well. I know I can call in the middle of the night because she’ll be up as well,” Kiazolu told Splinter. “...It’s just a hard concept to grasp, because I’ve lived here my whole life, and it just feels like a very traumatic thing to go through—to say, well, let me pack up my stuff from the only place [I’ve known] and move somewhere under these kinds of circumstances.”
She is one of 15 people suing the Trump administration for revoking Liberia’s DED status. While the administration’s decision came down last March, the group filed their suit just earlier this month.
Oren Nimni, one of the lawyers representing Kiazolu and her fellow litigants, told Splinter that it’s not safe for DED holders to return to Liberia; a 2017 State Department report listed numerous human rights abuses in the country, including extrajudicial killings, criminalization of same-sex relationships, and a lack of accountability for violence against women and children.
Trump seems to have come around to this determination. The Liberians represented in the lawsuit had a hearing on Thursday, March 28, on their motion for an injunction from Trump’s DED decision while the court decides the lawsuit. But hours before the hearing, pressured by the suit and the testimonies of DED, TPS, and DACA beneficiaries to Congress, Trump announced a one-year extension to the DED deadline. Now with the extra year, the lawsuit can now move forward at a regular pace, no injunction necessary.
“In a memorandum dated March 27, 2018, I determined that...conditions in Liberia had improved and did not warrant a further extension of DED...” Trump’s memorandum to DHS Sec. Kirstjen Nielsen reads. “Upon further reflection and review, I have decided that it is in the foreign policy interest of the United States to extend the wind-down period for an additional 12 months...The overall situation in West Africa remains concerning, and Liberia is an important regional partner for the United States.”
In the weeks leading up to the March 28 court date, Kiazolu was trying to focus on other things. Her best friend’s wedding was last weekend, where she was the maid of honor, and she’s hoping to still finish her PhD program this year. She’d been feeling neutral, not wanting to get her hopes up.
Now, less than an hour after hearing the news of the DED extension, Kiazolu said that at first, she couldn’t believe it. Once the reality set in, however, she began thinking about all of the plans she couldn’t plan before: her driver’s license expires April 1; she needs to try and get a DMV appointment to renew it; classes at UCLA begin again next week; she needs to call her adviser. Her mom called her first, so excited, Kiazolu said, that she couldn’t even articulate her happiness.
But Kiazolu said she’s still frustrated, knowing that a year-long extension is no permanent replacement for a pathway to citizenship. For that, she said she still plans on staying involved in the advocacy for herself and other immigrants over this next year.
“I feel like I’ve been holding my breath for a long time, and now I have room to breathe...While this is like a necessary win, we need permanent residency for those of us without pathways,” Kiazolu said. “I’m really grateful for the work of organizers and allies. I just want people to understand that...the pathways to citizenship...still don’t exist without Congress passing legislation. We have lives that exist after 2020. I want to be prepared for that as well.”
While TPS and DED beneficiaries would have an immediate pathway to permanent residency under the Dream and Promise Act, the requirements are stricter on undocumented youth. Anyone seeking the 10-year conditional resident status must have been under the age of 18 when they entered the U.S. People who want full permanent residency status must complete a higher education program, at least two years in the military, or work for three years (as long as 75 percent of that time was completed with a work authorization permit). The Senate’s Dream Act offers a similar proposal, but gives beneficiaries eight years of conditional resident status.
Despite these limiting guidelines, immigrant organizations and advocates such as United We Dream, which helped shape the Dream and Promise Act, have commended the proposal’s lack of “border security” concessions often demanded by conservative lawmakers, and have thrown support behind the Senate bills. Meanwhile, José Palma, coordinator and spokesman for the National TPS Alliance, told Splinter that the organization is allowing its committees to review the House bill before endorsing it, though the alliance has called the Secure Act a “robust permanent solution.”
Patrice Lawrence, the national policy and advocacy director at the UndocuBlack Network, a national organization for black undocumented people, told Splinter that the organization has supported the Dream and Promise Act and published a statement acknowledging the Senate bills. However, she said the organization would have preferred the Senate combine their two bills just as the House did, a move that could have signaled the importance of equally valuing the three immigrant groups whose protections Trump has attacked, rather than potentially pitting DED and TPS beneficiaries against undocumented youth.
When Emma Chalott Barron, 22, heard about the Dream and Promise Act, she couldn’t contain her response: “Well finally, a solution to a fake problem.” Had it not been for Trump, Chalott Barron told Splinter, there would have been no immediate problem to fix.
Chalott Barron was in her senior year of college when Trump moved to end DACA, the Obama-era program that allows certain undocumented young people to work in the U.S. without threat of deportation, of which she’s a beneficiary. She had planned to continue her education right after college—she wanted to go to law school and was already meeting pre-law advisors and asking professors for recommendations when the Trump administration made its announcement. Instead of preparing for the LSAT, Chalott Barron decided to take a gap year, convinced she couldn’t lock herself into a program with her future so uncertain.
She will finally take the LSAT at the end of this month, just in case a more permanent replacement to the DACA program comes around. She thinks the Dream and Promise Act is considerate and more inclusive than previous bills, and feels like she might finally have the opportunity to pursue the future she had planned for. But she worries about immigrants who didn’t get DACA before first-time applicants were locked out of the program, or who never met the requirements in the first place.
“It pains me to talk about it because it’s developed a level of privilege even among the Dreamer community...It was awful having to recognize that those people [who never qualified for DACA in the first place] were worthy of that protection,” Chalott Barron told Splinter. “Now I think it’s even worse because we’re having to explain it to people who are younger and us and say, ‘It’s going to be a lot harder for you.’”
Beyond the young people who could have been protected had it not been for their age or the year they entered the country, Chalott Barron pointed out how much of the media coverage of undocumented people is centered on the “exceptional immigrants” with sterling accomplishments.
Even in this piece, this is true: two of the women I interviewed are getting their PhDs; another young woman, Soto, will be the first in her extended family to go to college; and Chalott Barron herself had her life story shared by former First Lady Michelle Obama during a speech at a national League of United Latin American Citizens conference in 2014.
Chalott Barron says these achievements shouldn’t dictate who is protected by efforts such as the Dream and Promise Act, and that it’s dangerous to tack someone’s worthiness to these narrow, shining examples of immigrant success. What about their parents, the people who raised college graduates often lauded for their promise and gains? For now, it seems that legislative fixes are aimed at the best and brightest model immigrants, and not the people who invested in them.
“My parents wouldn’t have had to come here if it wasn’t for me...[My mother did] her part to make sure my dreams were becoming a reality...All the things that [my parents] were doing were reflected in my success, so my success is just as much theirs,” Challott Barron told Splinter. “[Dreamers] don’t exist on our own. [Our parents] raised us to be exceptional and worthy individuals. What exactly about those people who raised us, why are they not worthy of protection and defending?”
The Trump administration has faced multiple lawsuits arguing against its efforts to shut down programs benefiting immigrants. These suits, as of July 2018, have successfully led to injunctions against government decisions to end TPS for an estimated 300,000 beneficiaries and DACA for an estimated 700,000 recipients. But both TPS and DACA, and the legal injunctions holding them in place, are temporary by design. A permanent resolution is desperately needed for people whose lives in the U.S. are rooted in instability.
More than three decades ago, Roxana Chicas, 36, and her mother fled a civil war in El Salvador, coming to the U.S. when she was just four years old. Chicas, now a nursing PhD candidate and clinical instructor at Emory University, got TPS in 2001 at 18 years old, when El Salvador was granted the designation after an earthquake killed hundreds.
TPS must be extended by the government repeatedly, for either six, 12, or 18 months at a time. Since 2001, Chicas has re-registered her TPS every time El Salvador was renewed for the status, as part of TPS policy. That meant that over the past 18 years, she’s renewed her TPS 13 times, paying up to $495 every 12 to 18 months (designation lengths have varied over the nearly two decades) for DHS to re-run her biometrics and re-issue her employment authorization. Chicas said her driver’s license also expires when her work authorization expires, requiring her to pay to have it renewed every time she’s up to renew her TPS, and additional lawyers fees made this cost even steeper.
DACA recipients face similar costs in renewing their status, paying $495 every two years under the program. However, with the program in legal limbo, advocates have urged DACA holders to renew their two-year permit once a year instead (U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services [USCIS] encourages DACA renewals be made within 120 days of a person’s DACA expiration, but accepts renewals beyond that period). It’s a strategy that would cause their DACA status to overlap but extend the life of their protections should lawsuits challenging the Trump administration fail. Under Trump’s 2020 budget proposal, these fees would only go up. The administration is proposing to raise costs associated with applications by 10 percent in order to help pay for his wall, though the budget itself has little chance of becoming a reality.
Under the Trump administration, even amid an injunction, the costly structure of TPS has become more difficult. Chicas began experiencing delays in renewing her TPS work permit, finding it’s taking twice as long to process than usual, from three months to six.
According to a study released earlier this year by the American Immigration Lawyers Association, USCIS processing times for visas, green cards, and other immigration forms have reached record-high levels over the past two years. The association noted that at the end of 2018, USCIS was taking an average of 4.1 months to process the form Chicas and others use for their work authorization. This was 58 percent longer than processing times from 2016, and nearly twice as long as times from 2014.
At the time the study was published, a USCIS spokesman blamed the longer wait times on increased applications. Matthew Maiona, a Boston-based spokesperson for AILA, denied that characterization, telling Splinter that the rate of petitions being filed to USCIS hasn’t increased substantially enough to slow down the processing times so significantly. As of 2017, USCIS began automatically extending work authorizations for people who filed for their renewal before the expiration date (or are on a qualifying list decided by the agency) by 180 days to help bridge the gap between the expiration of an old authorization and the documentation of a new one. But given reported delays in processing applications and no guarantee those delays won’t get worse, 180 days is still a tight turnaround, making it extremely difficult for beneficiaries to keep their status up to date.
For Chicas, the situation goes from inconvenient to dire when it comes to her work authorization and driver’s license. She can’t get a new license without documentation of her renewed status. If the paperwork is behind, she has to go through DHS for a temporary license, then back to her local office to get her official license once her work authorization is officially renewed. And even if she’s able to drive herself between work, school, and family, she can’t work legally without a valid work authorization anyway.
Between the thousands of dollars Chicas has paid over the past two decades, plus the snags in immigration processing she’s had to navigate, the TPS program has always had the potential to become a burden. Even the term “temporary” in the program’s name serves as reminder of how she’s lived a majority of her adult life—18, and sometimes 12, months at a time. But this is the cost Chicas has paid to have her career as a registered nurse and keep her family together. She has a young daughter, two years old, who is a U.S. citizen. Chicas and her husband applied for an adjustment to her status a year ago, but given the lengthy backlog of immigration cases and the months (possibly years) it takes to get a marriage green card interview with USCIS, “I’m at their mercy,” Chicas said.
Along with many other immigrant parents with citizen children fearing becoming removable, Chicas may face a family separation of her own. Several of the people represented in the DED suit, too, are U.S. citizen children of Liberian nationals, many of them scared and confused by the thought of choosing between following their parents to a country they’ve never known, or losing them. For her own family, Chicas is asking for Congress to give her and other TPS holders a pathway to permanent residency.
“I think it’s reasonable that if you’ve been here for over 20 years, you have roots here, you have a career here, you have children here, you are a part of the American fabric—that they extend a hand to us and allow us to continue staying here and give us permanent residency,” Chicas said. “Have some compassion, be reasonable, and provide that to us.”
If the various bills winding through Congress all passed (and that is far from guaranteed), it would be a major victory for these women and the millions more like them. They have been through an excruciating ordeal. But even if they win, it’s not enough.
There are millions of others who already face the threat of ICE detention or deportation, and who are just as exceptional as any of the women I spoke to, but who will still have no protections. This must end. It is right that Congress is trying to solve at least some immigration issues, especially in the face of the brutality of the Trump administration. But true justice will come when every barrier is broken down—where we stop picking and choosing who deserves fundamental rights the most, and all undocumented people are allowed to thrive for themselves and their families without having to hide.