- Courtesy of United We Dream
“Obama, Obama, don’t deport my mama!,” chanted dozens of protestors at the University of Texas—Austin last week. In a call to President Barack Obama, who was visiting the campus to deliver the keynote speech at the Civil Rights Summit, activists demanded the administration stop deportations and provide extended relief for undocumented immigrants. The rally, streaming live online, ended in three arrests.
It came (unrelatedly) the day following a panel session featuring SA’s own mayor and honorary co-chair of the event, Julián Castro, in which the local leader defended immigration reform and likened the fight toward citizenship to the civil rights movement.
Organized by United We Dream, the protest event was part of a new national campaign dubbed “We Can’t Wait”—an immigrant youth-led initiative aimed at halting deportations and pressuring legislators to get behind a path to citizenship. Obama has come under increasing fire for deporting the highest number of undocumented immigrants of any other U.S. president—more than 2 million people—during his time in office. The organization critically described his speech at the Summit, devoted to celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act, as “hypocritical” considering his record on deportations. His “harsh” policies, they write, “have torn so many families apart.”
The administration defends the strict policy by insisting it’s going after criminals and those who could pose a threat to the community, but an extensive study by The New York Times shows otherwise—it revealed just 20 percent of those booted out from the country since 2008 had been charged with major crimes; the rest had committed minor infractions, like traffic violations, or none at all. Comprehensive immigration reform legislation’s stalling at the Congressional level only serves to intensify the unrest.
While the group and thousands of other immigration reform activists continue to push for full reform, they point to victory with Obama’s 2012 decision to pass temporary relief for those who came to the country illegally before turning 16 years old. Deferred Action For Childhood Arrivals (DACA) allows two-year employment authorization for undocumented workers who meet certain criteria, such as being enrolled in school, graduating college and/or not receiving a felony charge. It does not grant legal status or a path to citizenship.
However, even with the opportunity for some relief, local immigration justice advocates worry that not all those able to see respite are actually being served.
The Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES) specializes in granting pro-bono aid to undocumented immigrants in 31 Texas counties, including two offices in Bexar, and has seen roughly 10,000 clients since the start of the year. They also provide legal services to DACA-qualified individuals, but as Eric Tijerina, RAICES legal program director, suspects, they could be serving many more.
“We are doing as much outreach as humanly possible,” he said. “But there are a lot of people who haven’t participated in DACA because of fear of being deported.”
Potential clients, ironically, worry their personal information, shared with the government, will be used to deport them when the two-year DACA period is up. (U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services plans to renew DACA when it expires in September, possibly quelling some of these concerns.) Others worry the information may be used to deport non-qualified family members.
About 1.09 million people are eligible for DACA nationally, yet of those, just under half have applied, according to the Migration Policy Institute. In Texas, which has the second highest number of those eligible nationwide, a little more than half of the 165,000 potential undocumented immigrants take part in the program.
Tijerina also points to a wait-and-see approach to national legislation as another impediment to potential DACA enrollees.
“And on the other hand, a lot of people didn’t apply for DACA because there’s been such a groundswell for immigration reform that leads many to just say ‘I’m just going to wait’—but that reform hasn’t come.”
The Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services DACA helpline: (844) DAC-ANOW