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DACA offers no clear-cut road map to U.S. citizenship

| Sunday, Sept. 10, 2017, 12:36 a.m.
Ana Alberto, 23, of Bethel Park, a DACA recipient, poses for a portrait at her place of work in the South Side on Friday, Sept. 8, 2017.
Nate Smallwood | Tribune-Review
Ana Alberto, 23, of Bethel Park, a DACA recipient, poses for a portrait at her place of work in the South Side on Friday, Sept. 8, 2017.

Geraldine Donahue, an 84-year-old ardent supporter of President Trump, wanted to be clear.

"I am not opposed to immigration," the Sewickley resident said firmly as she held up a "Honk 4 Trump" sign, prompting beeps from cars whizzing by on Babcock Boulevard in Pittsburgh's North Hills. "It's coming in the right way, the legal way."

Donahue — whose parents hailed from Italy, her husband's from Ireland — joined five Trump voters at a counter-rally to a larger anti-Trump protest on Wednesday, the day after the president announced he will end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program in six months. They stand by Trump's decision to "wind down" DACA — which benefits more than 790,000 immigrants, including nearly 6,000 people in Pennsylvania.

"Let them figure it out in Congress; there's a good way to do it," said Cherie Reilly, a fellow Trump supporter from Ohio Township. She added that she believes most DACA recipients are "here innocently" and should have the option to stay, so long as they're educated and willing to work or join the military. "But they've got to be willing to give something in return."

'No right way'

Trouble is, for many young undocumented immigrants — including DACA recipients, who have lived in the United States for years and went to school here — there remains no clear-cut path to citizenship. Even DACA recipients granted protections from deportation over the past five years have not been placed on such a track.

If you don't marry a U.S. citizen, find an employer to sponsor you for a green card and its fees, or have a lot of cash — as much as $500,000 to $1 million — there is no simple way to obtain citizenship or even get into a meaningful line to be considered. An alternative route is to be so exceptionally gifted or skilled at something that you qualify as an "alien of extraordinary ability." Or, if your home country is eligible, you could be one of 50,000 winners in the annual green card lottery , according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

Ana Alberto, a 23-year-old DACA recipient who's lived in the United States since age 10, hears it all the time from well-meaning customers at her hair salon in the South Side: "Why don't you just do it the right way?"

"There's no right way to do it," said Alberto, a West Mifflin Area High School graduate who used her work eligibility from DACA and $17,000 her father had saved up to complete cosmetology school. Before DACA, she couldn't pursue a community college dentistry program or get car insurance because she had no Social Security number.

Undocumented college students in Pennsylvania do not qualify for state or federal financial aid.

"The visas that they give are limited, and they're not going to give those visas to poor people that work on the farm in Mexico," she said.

Nationwide, 1.9 million of about 11 million undocumented immigrants have been eligible for DACA, including 21,000 of 137,000 undocumented people living in Pennsylvania, state and federal data show.

With Trump's decision, DACA recipients and their advocates are voicing growing fears over what could happen to them while Washington contemplates a permanent solution.

"These children should be protected while we still continue to have the conversation," said Sheila Velez Martinez, director of the immigration law clinic at University of Pittsburgh School of Law.

What is DACA?

Enacted under the Obama administration in 2012, DACA provides work permit eligibility and protection from deportation for people who arrived in the United States without documentation before their 16th birthday.

DACA recipients must have clean criminal records and be enrolled in school, have a high school diploma or the equivalent or have been honorably discharged from the military. They pay a $495 fee for a two-year enrollment, undergo background checks and submit personal information, including their fingerprints and home addresses.

"All they get in return is a $500 bill every two years, the chance to pay taxes and the opportunity to work in America," said Wasi Mohamed, executive director of the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh in Oakland.

Any DACA recipient whose enrollment is set to expire within the next six months must submit an application for renewal by Oct. 5.

DACA recipients pay taxes and contribute to Social Security; however, they are not entitled to Social Security benefits. They do not receive federal financial aid for college, though states such as California offer tuition discounts.

In Pennsylvania, anyone who can prove that they've lived in the state for 12 months qualifies for the in-state tuition discount, according to Kenn Marshall, spokesman for the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education, which includes nearby California, Indiana and Slippery Rock universities. He added that immigration status is not used in admissions decisions.

DACA could be described as a "Hail Mary" form of protection for young immigrants, said Shoba Sivaprasad Wadhia, director of the Center for Immigrants' Rights Clinic at Penn State University.

Qualifying for DACA does not get applicants any closer to becoming legal permanent residents or obtaining green cards — the first step to becoming a U.S. citizen, Velez Martinez said. She said some children don't realize they're not citizens until they reach milestones, like graduating from high school or applying for a drivers' license.

When she first held a Pennsylvania license in her hand, it was "one of the happiest days of my life," said Alberto, who used DACA to become the first carrier of a U.S.-issued license in her family. She held back tears until she left the PennDOT center, then wept as she called her dad to share the good news. He cried, too.

Who DACA protects

More than half of Pennsylvania's estimated 137,000 undocumented immigrants are 34 or younger, Migration Policy Institute data show.

About 30 percent — or 41,000 people — own homes. Nearly 30 percent come from Mexico, followed by India, Guatemala, China and the Dominican Republic.

"We're talking about a mosaic of cultures and communities and people when we're talking about immigrants," said Betty Cruz, who runs the "All for All" immigrant inclusion initiative in greater Pittsburgh.

Immigrants stuck in legal limbo in greater Pittsburgh span a range of situations, from growing up in the United States without documentation since they were toddlers, to students and workers whose visas expired but did not return home, sometimes because conditions were too dangerous.

DACA provided a lifeline to such immigrants, granting them the security of going to work without being targeted by deportation officials.

Of the nation's DACA recipients, an estimated 91 percent are working or in school, according to a widely cited 2017 study by the Center for American Progress. More than half have been able to get a better paying job or buy their first car since their DACA application was approved, the data show. About 15 percent were able to buy their first home.

"Most of us are very hard-working people, and we'll do everything we can to become legal," Alberto said. "We'll sell the car. If we have to, we'll spend all the savings that we have just in order to have something, even a driver's license — just to have something that makes us people."

Legal ramifications unclear

When a person applies for the DACA program, they must share information such as their full name, country of origin and where they live. The application also asks for height, weight, hair and eye color.

Now, DACA recipients are afraid such data could be used against them — and those fears could be warranted, said Wadhia.

While it seems that the government won't proactively share that information with law enforcement, Wadhia said the details aren't clear. His clinic fielded about 100 inquiries about what comes next for DACA recipients in the 48 hours following Tuesday's announcement.

Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro, a Democrat, has joined 14 state attorneys general in suing the Trump administration, arguing that plans to end DACA "violate the rule of law." The lawsuit laid out several concerns about ending the program, including making sure that the federal government does not use data provided by DACA recipients against them.

States have clashed over DACA, with 10 state attorneys general in June demanding that Trump end the program.

In August, about 100 law professors and immigration lawyers signed on to an open letter outlining why the president has legal authority to implement and uphold DACA.

At the crux of their argument was the fact that deferred action — a temporary reprieve from deportation, granted by the Department of Homeland Security — has been used before. The letter cited a deferred action program for students affected by Hurricane Katrina and another for widows of U.S. citizens, both enacted by the George W. Bush administration.

Last week, Attorney General Jeff Sessions sent his own letter to DHS in which he dismissed DACA as "an unconstitutional exercise of authority by the Executive Branch."

Both sides want reform

The pro-Trump demonstrators crashing the pro-DACA rally last week had at least one thing in common with the anti-Trump folks: They all want comprehensive immigration reform, and they blame Congress for failing to act for decades.

Immigrant advocates, however, warn that the jobs and safety of children and families shouldn't be used as political bargaining tools.

"It seems like there's a lot of political arguments that are putting people's lives at risk, and this posturing or whatever it's supposed to be is missing that important point — we're talking about people's lives," said Cruz of "All for All."

At this point, it's not clear how the Trump administration will proceed, Velez Martinez said. She and colleagues in the legal community are studying the information that's available to determine what type of advice to give to DACA recipients.

Alberto said she's "very worried" but not without hope that she can continue building a life here.

"I have faith that the Congress is going to do something right," she said.

Natasha Lindstrom and Jamie Martines are Tribune-Review staff writers. Reach Lindstrom at 412-380-8514, or via Twitter @NewsNatasha. Reach Martines at 724-553-2804, or via Twitter @Jamie_Martines.

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