She remembers it in patches — scratches on her legs from the thorn bushes, a stranger carrying her on his shoulders.
When University of Wisconsin junior Karen Peréz-Wilson woke up next to her mother and a group of strangers miles away from the U.S.-Mexico border, the coyotes — those who help smuggle people across the border — had abandoned them. They had promised her mother they would help get them across the border. Instead, they were used as a distraction to get another group across and left for the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Her mother had a small backpack with her. Inside, there was a gallon of water and shortbread cake. The bottle of water broke and soaked the food.
Her mother started crying. That was all they had to eat.
At that point, instead of running from immigration, they desperately looked for them. Once they were arrested, Peréz-Wilson’s father — who had already made it to Madison earlier — pleaded that they go back to Veracruz. Her mother wanted to try again.
The second time around, Peréz-Wilson and her mother were the only members of the group who successfully made it past the border. Once on the bus headed to Madison, ICE agents came aboard and started asking people for their IDs.
Three-year-old Peréz-Wilson had been sleeping, resting her head on her mother’s seven-month pregnant belly. They decided not to wake her up and walked away.
“We should have been detained,” Peréz-Wilson said. “I always feel like fate wanted us to be here.”
How DACA benefits undocumented immigrants
Peréz-Wilson is one of 11.3 million estimated undocumented immigrants living in the United States, and one of 787,580 undocumented immigrants that stand to be affected by the decision to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.
With President Donald Trump’s Sept. 5 announcement to end DACA, an executive order issued by the Obama Administration, thousands of undocumented immigrants are now faced with the possibility of not being able to legally work and pursue higher education.
“A four-year university was no longer just a dream — and education has always been a driving force for me. I love school, I want to get my Ph.D., and I think those nine digits really limited me.”Karen Peréz-Wilson
The DACA program functions to serve undocumented immigrants who, like Peréz-Wilson, were brought to the U.S. as children.
To be eligible for DACA, applicants must have:
- Come to the U.S. before their 16th birthday and lived in the U.S. since June 15, 2007
- Been under the age of 31 when the policy was enacted on June 15, 2012.
- Had no lawful status on June 15, 2012
- Completed high school or a GED, been honorably discharged from the armed forces or been enrolled in school.
- No serious criminal background (had not been convicted of a felony or serious misdemeanors, or three or more other misdemeanors).
Under DACA, this group of immigrants — often referred to as “Dreamers” — receive a renewable two-year period of deferred action from deportation, eligibility for a work permit that contains a nine-digit tax I.D. number and the ability to obtain a driver’s license. To maintain DACA status, immigrants must be either enrolled in school or working and continue to stay clear of the criminal justice system.
Growing up in Middleton, Peréz-Wilson drove to multiple jobs — where she was paid under the table — in fear of what would happen if she were to be pulled over and have police ask for a license she didn’t have.
That was life before DACA.
“When I got the news that I had been given deferred action, I became hopeful for the future,” Peréz-Wilson said. “A four-year university was no longer just a dream — and education has always been a driving force for me. I love school, I want to get my Ph.D., and I think those nine digits really limited me.”
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Around the time the DACA program became available UW senior Selina Armenta’s friends were working at their first jobs or on their way to getting their driver’s license. As an undocumented immigrant from Mexico, that wasn’t an option for her.
Through DACA, Armenta was able to obtain a work permit and get her license — two things that were a huge weight off her family’s shoulders as she was able to help out financially.
But while DACA provides some relief to undocumented immigrants, to send in an application containing their name, address and personal information means trusting the federal government with the stability of their lives.
“Even when I was applying [for DACA], I was hesitant. I wanted to do it, and my mom always told me ‘que sea lo que Dios quiera,’” Peréz-Wilson said. “We don’t want [immigration] to show up at our door one day, and it’s a very traumatizing thing having to explain to your siblings ‘here’s a folder with all the emergency information you need to know should I be placed in this situation.’ And going over that with them is heartbreaking … having your siblings who are U.S. citizens go, ‘but why? You’ve lived here since you were three, you’re more American than some Americans.’”
Recipients face economic hardships
Despite the added benefits, DACA recipients still face financial hardships when it comes to paying for higher education.
As an undocumented student, Peréz-Wilson does not qualify for in-state tuition despite living in Madison since she was three. Since 2015, she has been on an educational leave of absence, working to gather the funds to pay for the cost of out of state tuition.
“A lot of them think ‘Oh, because you’re Latina you get all these scholarships and you get everything for free’ and that is not the case.”Karen Peréz-Wilson
In 2009, the Wisconsin State Legislature added in state tuition for unauthorized immigrants in the 2009-11 budget. In the 2011-13 budget, however, it was taken out, causing undocumented students to pay out of state tuition rates for public colleges and universities. At the moment, there are only 18 states where qualified undocumented immigrants are eligible for in state tuition.
“I think at UW, there is a misconception that we have financial assistance, but a lot of undocumented students and DACA students have to pay cash,” Peréz-Wilson said. “A lot of them think ‘Oh, because you’re Latina you get all these scholarships and you get everything for free’ and that is not the case.”
The reality is DACA students don’t qualify for state or federal financial aid, Armenta said. Those who are going to school for free or receive assistance are able to do so through private scholarships or scholarships specifically made for undocumented students.
While Armenta will be graduating this May, her plans to go to law school will have to be delayed because she will have to work extensively to pay for school before her work permit expires.
Facing an uncertain future
Thousands of young, undocumented immigrants like Peréz-Wilson and Armenta are now left feeling uncertain about their futures as DACA comes to an end. While both students are working to renew their DACA status by the Oct. 5 deadline, those whose DACA statuses are set to expire by the March 5 deadline stand to lose their work permits and the ability to safely travel between America and their home countries.
Under DACA, participants can apply for Advance Parole, which permits them to travel back to their home country, and be allowed safely back into the United States.
If an undocumented immigrant remains in the country — with no record of lawfully entering the U.S. — they face steep odds successfully applying for a green card or citizenship.
Having a record of lawful entry into the country, however, opens up the possibility for undocumented immigrants to get approved for a change in status, though it is not guaranteed, Benjamin Harville, UW law professor and director of the UW Law School’s Immigrant Justice Clinic, said.
Both Harville and local immigration lawyer Shabnam Lofti recommend DACA recipients not travel back to their home countries. Even if they were approved for Advance Parole prior to the recent decision, the Customs and Border Patrol retains the authority to determine the admissibility of any person at the border to their discretion.
In addition, Harville said it may be a good idea for current DACA recipients to consult a lawyer and see if they qualify for some other form of relief. While some may have to revert back being undocumented, others may qualify for another status and should start looking at options.
Along with remaining in the country, Lofti recommended staying out of the criminal justice system to maintain a good record. Though both the UW and Madison Police Departments have stated they will not assist ICE in immigration matters — unless the person commits a serious crime or poses a serious threat to public safety — many undocumented students remain fearful of being deported.
Even at the federal level, ICE continues to prioritize threats to national security, public safety, illegal re-entrants and those persons with outstanding orders of removal for enforcement, ICE spokesperson, Carl Rusnok, said in an email to The Badger Herald. ICE will generally not take actions to remove active DACA beneficiaries, he added.
Economic pitfalls to losing DACA workers
Just as DACA recipients will be faced with added challenges as some work permits are due to expire by the program’s conclusion Jan. 1, both local and national economies may also be faced with economic challenges moving forward.
Since DACA recipients have a tax ID associated with their work permit, they pay both Social Security and Medicare taxes. Once their permits expire after DACA comes to an end, they will no longer be able to contribute to the economy, thus resulting in a net loss of tax revenue both at the state and federal level.
We need to sustain economic growth, which means we need more, not fewer [immigrants]Andrew Reschovsky, UW public affairs and applied economics professor
According to a report by the Center for American Progress, a progressive policy think tank, over the next decade, the U.S. stands to lose $460.3 billion in GDP as a result of removing DACA workers. In Wisconsin alone, the reports projects the dairy state losing $427 million annually by removing an estimated 6,582 DACA workers.
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The gradual loss of DACA workers is a loss in multiple ways, Andrew Reschovsky, UW public affairs and applied economics professor, said. Along with losing workers who pay taxes and contribute to the economy, there would also be a loss in the specific skills and training provided by immigrant workers.
“Others might choose to stay here, but work off the books, illegally — [one of the] ways many immigrants have managed to get by,” Reschovsky said. “But the problem is that means they’re also earning less money and paying less taxes, and in most cases, employers would still be paying security taxes … but not always, so there would be a loss of revenue.”
The economic shock would not be immediate as some work permits will be presumably renewed before the program’s end, Reschovsky said. But, future economic growth would be constrained by not having qualified workers and a well-educated labor force.
In the long run, restricting immigration by throwing out DACA workers or passing legislation that restricts immigration is harmful, Reschovsky said, as the economy would grow less quickly and robustly.
“Typically, the jobs immigrants hold are low-skilled jobs that Americans don’t want. In Wisconsin, we’ve seen that with dairy farmers,” Reschovsky said. “We need to sustain economic growth, which means we need more, not fewer [immigrants]. There isn’t a lot of strong evidence that suggests that well-trained young immigrants are taking jobs of native [born] Americans.”
Hopes of permanent immigration reform
Sticking to his promise to reverse major executive orders under the Obama Administration, Trump ordered an end to DACA, and in his official address, urged Republicans and Democrats to find a bipartisan solution in the six months before the program officially ends.
For some, there remains hope that new legislation will bring permanent immigration reform into law.
In 2001, U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Orrin Hatch, R-Uta., introduced the Dream Act to Congress. The bill attempted to introduce a multi-phase process where young, undocumented immigrants would first be granted conditional residency. After a certain time period and upon meeting specific qualifications, these Dreamers could obtain permanent residency.
Nearly two decades have passed, and several attempts to push the Dream Act through Congress have failed — the last being in 2012, which resulted in former President Barack Obama issuing an executive order creating the DACA program. In light of Trump’s decision, members of Congress have shown willingness to cross the aisle to create a permanent solution for immigration reform.
“Members of the Republican party are divided on the issue and will have difficulty settling on a compromise.”Barry Burden, UW political science professor
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In a statement, U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., and chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, said he looks forward to working in a bipartisan fashion to advance “humane, common sense legislation” and fix our “broken legal immigration system.”
Earlier in the year, Johnson introduced the State Based Visa Pilot Program bill to promote locally managed guest worker programs. Instead of creating a “one-size-fits-all-federal model,” Johnson recommended states address the shortage of workers in different areas of the economy, and manage visas and allocate them to industries that need workers the most.
While Johnson’s proposal is one example of how states can gain control in managing immigration reform while addressing specific needs for their local economies, a large focus remains on federal-level legislation. Durbin, who originally introduced the Dream Act, was met with bipartisan support after the DACA decision, with prominent Republicans such as U.S Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C, urging Trump to codify the bill into law.
But some experts, such as UW political science professor Barry Burden, believe it is unlikely Congress will manage to approve a DACA replacement in the six-month time frame demanded by President Trump.
“The current Congress has not shown ability to pass significant or controversial pieces of legislation on a partisan or bipartisan basis,” Burden said in an email to The Badger Herald. “Members of the Republican Party are divided on the issue and will have difficulty settling on a compromise.”
In addition to the divisions along party lines and within the Republican Party, Burden added Democrats — though they might work with Trump — might not trust his intentions and could resist other measures, such as border wall funding, that could get attached to the bill.
The other difficulty in addressing immigration reform is that Congress has several big issues to tackle more immediately, Burden said. Between the debt ceiling and the end of the fiscal year approaching in just a few weeks, it’s tough to see where DACA fits among these big items when Congress has not been able to do much of note this year.
In the six months Congress has to pass some sort of replacement for DACA, nearly 800,000 DACA recipients wait in limbo.
“I always pledged allegiance to this flag, I would truly give up my life to fight for this country,” Peréz-Wilson said. “I’ve never been in any trouble, and now this person wants me out of a country that I call home, it’s very hurtful.”
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