DACA provides lifeline for young immigrants even as Republicans threaten to overturn it

Longmont resident Venancio Noya came to the U.S. for a better quality of life. As Obama's immigration reforms are threatened, so is the life the Noya family has worked so hard to build.
Angela K. Evans | Boulder Weekly

Venancio Noya moved to Colorado from Veracruz, Mexico when he was 5 years old with his parents and only younger brother at that time. Born with Spina Bifida, or an incomplete closure of the spinal column, Noya and his family came to the U.S. to seek better medical treatment and a better quality of life.

“I came here to get more help with medication and this and that,” Noya says. “Over there (in Mexico) I couldn’t get help.”

Having used a wheelchair from a young age, Noya, now 24, changed schools frequently but graduated from Skyline High School in Longmont in 2010. “For two years I couldn’t do anything. I couldn’t go to school. I couldn’t get a job,” he says. Although the U.S. is the only home Noya can remember, he remained undocumented, with few options of establishing an adult life.

So he involved himself at the YMCA in Longmont, coaching and refereeing youth soccer and basketball. But then he learned about Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), a federal program that allows young people to remain in the U.S. without fear of deportation for two years at a time while legally obtaining work authorization. President Obama first initiated DACA through an executive order in June of 2012. Since then, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) has approved more than 770,000 first-time DACA applications and almost 500,000 renewals. In Colorado, approximately 26,000 total applications have been approved, almost 17,000 of which are initial applicants and 9,000 are renewals.

With the help of a local lawyer in Longmont, Noya successfully applied for DACA first in 2013, and then he renewed his certification this year. Noya and his family paid the $465 application fee both times.

Since receiving his first DACA certification, Noya has worked at Marshall’s, temp jobs at IBM and most recently the YMCA in Longmont where he helps with after-school programs and watches kids anywhere from 3-weeks- to 14-years-old as part of the childcare program.

“For me, DACA changed a lot. I have a chance to get a job, probably another job after that. And with college, I can apply for college,” he says. “Just right now, I haven’t applied for college because I want to help my family with a job and paying bills.”

Noya’s father is currently in immigration proceedings following a DUI arrest in 2010. The constant uncertainty of his father’s status has been extremely difficult for the family, Noya says. “He has court after court [dates] with immigration. Right now, I just feel like he’s not going to be with us anymore,” he says. “At the end they’re going to see if he can stay or they’re going to take him away from us.”

It has been especially difficult for two of Noya’s younger brothers, age 15 and 11, who were both born after the family’s arrival in the U.S. They have struggled to stay motivated with school, Noya says, with their father often gone for weeks at a time. He was last held in immigration for six weeks in March and his next court date isn’t until February. “My third brother [11], he was struggling with school just because my dad was with immigration,” Noya says. “My other little brother [15] didn’t want to go to school. We were just struggling, trying to tell them they didn’t have to be sad all day.”

Noya’s remaining brother who was also born in Mexico, now 21, is not eligible for DACA because he didn’t finish high school, a requirement of the program. Noya says he’s “struggling” to find work and provide for his family. The brother was married in July to a U.S. citizen, and the family hopes he has permanent residency options through marriage. The couple has a child together.

Helping to pay bills includes Noya’s own medical expenses. He last had surgery three years ago, which cost his family $24,000 out of pocket. Although DACA offers the opportunity to obtain a social security card, driver’s license and work permit, it does not necessarily guarantee access to health insurance benefits.

And while DACA guarantees young immigrants life without the threat of deportation for two years, it does not provide any path toward permanent residency or citizenship. “They don’t have any kind of lawful, legal status, they just have permission to be in the U.S.,” says Erica Tarango, DACA program director at the YMCA of Boulder Valley. “They have legal presence but not legal status.”

The Boulder Valley YMCA recently took over administration of the Colorado DACA Project, which seeks to educate, inform and provide financial assistance to families with youth eligible for DACA. The YMCA program provides orientation classes, followed by resource workshops to help applicants gather the necessary paperwork before they are connected with immigration attorneys, at little to no cost, to help them submit the application and finish the DACA process. The YMCA also offers scholarships for the $465 application fee depending on financial need.

“Through this program the Y wants to nurture the potential of the immigrant teens by helping their American dream become a reality,” Tarango says. “The Y wants these kids to grow and feel that they can become contributing members of our society. They can set these goals and meet them and be successful people.”

The largest barriers young people face applying for DACA are the financial burden the process requires and a lack of information and education about the DACA program, Tarango says. But the biggest risk is submitting personal information, such as birth certificates and school records that list parents without legal status as well, which puts immigrants on the government’s radar. “Essentially you’re giving all your information to the government, and if you’re application is denied for one reason or another, the government now has you’re information and you may be put into removal proceedings,” Tarango says.

“Our participants are connected with attorneys and these attorneys are going to sit with them and go through their entire immigration history,” she says, “and really figure out if DACA is the correct thing to do or if it is far too risky.”

There’s no question that the availability of DACA has changed Noya’s life in Colorado. The only question is for how long?

Most of the 2016 Republican presidential candidates have vowed to overturn DACA. Plus, an appeals court ruled against the Obama administration’s more recent immigration policies on Monday, Nov. 19.

In November 2014, President Obama announced DACA 2, which would extend DACA benefits for three years at a time, and Deferred Action for Parents of Americans (DAPA), which would allow immigrant parents of U.S. born or permanent resident children to receive the same benefits as DACA youth.

However, after the White House announced the expanded program, Texas challenged the executive authority to grant deferred action to approximately 4 million undocumented adults. A district court judge ruled in favor of Texas in January 2015, delaying the implementation of the expanded DACA 2 program and DAPA. On Nov. 9, the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the earlier injunction in a 124-page ruling that took five months. The Justice Department plans to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court officials announced the morning of Tuesday, Nov. 10.

Although the court ruling further delays the benefits of DACA 2 and DAPA, the ruling has no impact on the current DACA 1 program or Noya’s DACA status.

“DACA 1 remains in effect and all the [ruling] does is really make it clear that for a very long time it will be the only form of immigration relief for undocumented people who meet the eligibility criteria,” says Christina Fiflis, an immigration lawyer with offices in Boulder and Denver.

“The [appellate court’s] opinion in any way does not diminish the opportunity for DACA 1 or enjoin continuing to pursue DACA 1,” she says. “But it just pretty clearly sets forth the path that if you want immigration relief and benefits this is all you have right now.”

Fiflis maintains President Obama has the prosecutorial discretion to grant DACA and DAPA status. Deferred action has always been an option for undocumented immigrants, she says, and DACA has only streamlined the process and made it easier to obtain work authorization. And although some have voiced concern that the recent court ruling doesn’t give much time for the case to be heard in the Supreme Court before the end of Obama’s presidential term, Fiflis says “there is time, everybody is optimistic that will happen.”

If nothing else the ruling gives greater urgency to the DACA 1 process, and both Fiflis and Tarango say now is the time for eligible applicants to start the process. “The way I see it is if we get as many kids who are DACA eligible to apply and be granted DACA and push for more immigration reform it makes it harder for this next president coming in to reverse it or take it out completely,” Tarango says. “They’ve been here for so long, they’ve gone through our educational system. Why not let them contribute to our nation? Why not let them get these degrees? Why not let them be part of the workforce and grow our economies?”

Noya says the three-year extension possible with DACA 2, as well as the DAPA program, could bring much needed stability to his family. “My mom, she has nothing bad on her record. It would be quick,” he says. “For my dad, it would be harder for him because of his immigration status.”

Like Noya and his family, numerous other families are experiencing the uncertainties and challenges that come with the current immigration reform and discussion in the U.S. And Noya, for one, wants to help. He explains listening to families tell their struggles with immigration status. “It kinda breaks my heart,” he says. “I want to help a lot of families — to tell them not to be afraid to speak about their status. … We need DACA. We need DAPA.”