As Lily Woo, age 23, got off of her 12-hour flight from Korea, she felt relief to be back home in the Bay Area. Even though this was Woo’s first time visiting the birthplace she had left at age 3, she felt like she was returning from a foreign country. As she approached U.S. Customs, she noticed that the arriving group was being escorted to two different lines: U.S citizens and non-citizens/visitors. Although Woo was returning to the only country that she has ever called home, she was ushered into the visitor line. She thought to herself, “Oh, this is how my country views me.” The sense of insecurity that she had felt her whole life, of feeling unwelcome in her own country, reappeared once again.
Woo is one of 800,000 recipients of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program who have qualified for a temporary protection from deportation, a protection that is now on the verge of elimination by the Trump administration. The president announced on September 5 that Congress has a six-month window to save the program by passing legislation to make the protections permanent. DACA recipients whose permits will expire during that six-month window have been given until October 5 to re-apply. Recipients whose permits expire after March 5 cannot renew their applications.
Now the Bay Area’s nonprofits and legal services organizations are coming together to assist both DACA recipients—approximately 17,000 live in Oakland and Alameda County—and Dreamers, young undocumented immigrants who would have gained a pathway to permanent legal status had Congress authorized the 2001 DREAM Act.
“We as a community—not just Dreamers or the undocumented people, but as allies and supporters—really need to push Congress to move fast so that no one is out of status,” said Shiori Akimoto, DACA coordinator at the East Bay Sanctuary Covenant (EBSC), which offers sanctuary and legal services to immigrant families all over California.
Her group has represented over 1,000 DACA clients in the past five years, along with many immigrant family and refugee cases. While the president’s announcement did not come as a surprise to Akimoto, she said it was still devastating.
“No one trusts our president. It doesn’t matter what he says. We know that his administration is capable of doing whatever, so we really didn’t rule out the possibility of them rescinding DACA.” Akimoto said. “If people have DACA we always recommended them to contact us six months before the expiration date, so a good number have already renewed and some are pending.”
EBSC will continue to provide resources—such as informational nights and workshops— to help DACA recipients submit their applications by the October 5 deadline. After the deadline, staffers will begin training volunteer law students from Berkeley Law School and UC Hastings College of Law on how to conduct immigration screenings. Immigration screenings are comprehensive evaluations by an attorney that include a biographical review about an immigrant’s case.
Karen Villegas, a 25-year-old DACA recipient, works at EBSC as a receptionist. She was born in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, but left when she was only 4 years old. Villegas recently moved to the Bay Area and was planning to stay in the area for at least five years while her husband finishes his PhD. Villegas’s permit expires next September, leaving her wondering what the future holds for her.
“It’s frustrating, because the only thing that doesn’t make us Americans is that little piece of plastic that says we are here with permanent residence or that we are citizens. I grew up here, I went to school here, I speak the language,” Villegas said. “I was raised in this country, so I feel that I am just as American as any other U.S. citizen.”
Centro Legal de la Raza (CLDLR) a legal service agency for immigrant’s rights located in Oakland is also providing informational sessions and providing grants to pay for DACA recipients’ filing fees, which are $495 per application.
Barbara Pinto, the group’s immigration senior staff attorney, advises all DACA recipients to stay informed. “If they can renew and they are eligible and there is no huge risk out of the ordinary, they should renew,” Pinto said. “If they haven’t received a full consult to see if they are eligible for anything else, they should do so.” Pinto said that some of her clients are often eligible for other help, such as a U Visa, which is a nonimmigrant visa set aside for victims of mental or physical abuse who are willing to aid law enforcement with an investigation into the abuse.
CLDLR has also served about 1,000 DACA recipients in the community, according to Pinto. Pinto said that in order to get as many people informed about DACA’s potential elimination, they are becoming more “aggressive” in their outreach by providing financial help to their clients who are filing their DACA applications.
Mission Asset Fund (MAF), located in San Francisco, has a long history of helping DACA recipients by providing them with zero-interest loans for application fees. After the announcement was made about the possible elimination of the program, MAF announced $1 million in scholarships for more than 2,000 recipients to pay for renewal fees by the October deadline.
“We were shocked and horrified to learn that President Trump ended DACA,” CEO José Quiñonez stated in a press release. “We sprang into action once we saw a small window of opportunity to help thousands of Dreamers to renew their protective status. The time to help these young people is now.”
Other groups offering support services include Catholic Charities of the East Bay, which has hosted application renewal workshops, and the East Oakland Youth Development Center, which is providing DACA recipients and their families with one-on-one counseling as well as informing them about their rights.
Bishop Michael C. Barber, the Bishop of Oakland, addressed the Trump administration’s decision during a prayer service and informational night on September 8 at the Cathedral of Christ the Light in Oakland. “I think it is unfair to penalize children who came here with their parents, who form stable and solid families in our community, who have worked hard in school and are now contributing members of our city, to face the fear of sudden deportation,” Barber said. “To the 800,000 young people, the Dreamers affected by this decision, I want to say the Catholic Church stands with you.”
Earlier this week, the president met at the White House with Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and discussed a possible agreement to allow DACA recipients to stay in the country in exchange for a border security package, which does not include funding a border wall. But no official resolution or legislation has been agreed upon yet.
While the country waits for answers, Woo says she will continue to help the community that is her home. She works as Refugee Rights Advocate for EBSC where she answers unending immigration and legal questions from the community. Woo’s DACA permit does not expire until September, 2018.
“My hope is that no matter what bills are passed that we keep fighting to make sure that these reforms that get passed include everyone and help everyone,” Woo said. “Not just these ‘Dreamers,’ not just ‘good immigrants’—because there are no good immigrants or bad immigrants.”