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A ‘Life in Limbo’: What’s Next for Kansas City’s DACA Recipients?

Immigration Attorneys, DACA Recipients Digest Supreme Court Decision

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Above image credit: Frida Sanchez considers herself reserved, but lately she's pushed for people her age to vote. Sanchez, a DACA recipient, cannot vote. (Contributed)

Frida Sanchez has been living what she calls a “life in limbo” since she was six years old. 

She arrived in the United States with her parents in 2005 for what was supposed to be a short visit allowing her mom to see her parents. That same year, her sister was born. Weeks turned to months and months turned to years, acclimating to a new culture and a new language. 

“I think I’ve been stressed my whole life,” Sanchez said. “Having to take care of myself and also having someone younger who looks up to me… being the translator for my family and always having to fill out paperwork. I had to grow up really young.”

At 15 years old, Sanchez applied for the Deferred Action of Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. 

It was a lengthy process, sifting through old documents and clicking through the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services eligibility boxes. Luckily, her parents had stored all of her school report cards, achievement certificates and projects with the dates scribbled. That along with transcripts from the school district could help prove her eligibility for the program. 

Frida Sanchez with her family
Frida Sanchez was six years old when she came to the U.S. with her family. Her baby sister (pictured here) was born the year they arrived. (Contributed)

She was eligible. Even with DACA, which she calls a “subscription service to the U.S. government,” navigating the system and living day-to-day continues to be a journey. She was never certain about her life trajectory and never felt supported, not even by college counselors. 

“I’ve always known I’ve been undocumented,” Sanchez said. “That fear has always existed. Like, what’s going to happen to my family? That fear is still there.” 

These days, she uses what she experienced to help the Kansas/Missouri Dream Alliance (KSMODA), a youth-led nonprofit organization. It provides support, such as DACA clinics and legal counsel for the immigrant community. She recalls the day she decided to get involved. It was her senior year of high school, the same year the Dream Act was voted on in Congress

“I went to D.C. with KSMODA and that was when I was like, ‘I’m not alone. There are so many people who are like me,’ ” she said. “We all have our own stories but also they’re all similar.”

Unanswered Questions

Sanchez is one of about 3,900 DACA recipients living in the Kansas City metro area. Like many others in the immigrant community, Sanchez saw the June 18 U.S. Supreme Court decision to keep the DACA program as a huge victory.

The decision means the program should adhere to the original 2012 mandate, allowing people who never applied for DACA to submit. However, this does not stop the Trump administration from attempting to end the program.

This leaves recipients, attorneys and advocates with a few unanswered questions. The two biggest questions are centered on initial applicants to the program and advance parole, or, recipients traveling outside the country.

After the Trump administration announced its plan to rescind DACA in September 2017, several states, universities, non-governmental organizations and individuals filed lawsuits challenging the legality of terminating the program. Kansas City immigration attorney Genevra Alberti said one particular case was pivotal in determining their next steps.

In 2018, the NAACP took its case to the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C. That April, Judge Bates ruled in favor of the NAACP, and called the administration’s decision to end DACA “capricious” and “arbitrary.” 

But parts of his order — reopening the program to first-time applicants, and for recipients re-entering the U.S. after traveling abroad — were put on hold until the Supreme Court ruled on the government’s appeal.

Alberti says this, coupled with silence from the agency itself, is concerning.

“Of course, there is no guidance from the USCIS, so I’m still expecting them to try to reject first-time and advance parole applications,” she said. “But then we could sue in federal court if they do reject them, and we will warn clients of that potential.”

Alberti works for the nonprofit clinic at Sharma-Crawford Attorneys at Law. She represents clients at risk of deportation in Kansas City Immigration Court, and is wary of first-time applicants putting their names out there. 

“It’s a risk unless you’re already in removal proceedings,” Alberti said. “You’re bringing yourself to the attention of the U.S government by filing this application.”

However, after reviewing the SCOTUS decision in detail, the clinic decided that they will continue allowing initial applications, while also warning clients of these potential risks. One risk is the partnership between Homeland Security and U.S. Digital Services (USDS), a digital service that processes immigration applications.

“When DACA was originally created, the USDS wasn’t going to share your information with Immigration and Customs Enforcement,” Alberti said. “Right now, I think that’s all out the window. I don’t trust it at all because I don’t trust the Trump administration at all.”

Supreme Effort

Alberti remembers the clinic being flooded with first-time applicants when the program started. If they were granted DACA, her clients’ cases would be administratively closed, meaning that the government cannot actively try to deport them. 

That all changed in 2018, when U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued a decision that immigrant court judges do not have the authority to administratively close cases. Shortly after, ICE started filing motions to re-calendar the cases that had already been administratively closed. 

One of Alberti’s clients was given a court date for a removal proceeding, despite his plans to renew his DACA as soon as it expires. 

“They’re telling me that even though his DACA is current, they are planning to proceed to ask for a deportation order,” Alberti said. “Of course, the DACA can go away eventually.”

A day after the decision to keep the program came down, President Trump vowed that his administration will follow the court’s guidelines and try again.

“We will be submitting enhanced papers shortly in order to properly fulfil the Supreme Court’s ruling & request of yesterday,” Trump tweeted.

Alberti said she’s not confident that the program is totally safe while Trump remains in office, given his most recent remarks. And she is not entirely alone.

“It’s exhausting to work under this administration,” Nancy Zamora Olivares-Johnson said. “I want to go back to where we’re not getting slammed every week with another violation of due process.”

Olivares-Johnson works as an immigration and humanitarian rights attorney in downtown Kansas City. She was joined by a panel of three other Kansas City immigration attorneys for a webinar on COVID-19 and Immigration issues last Thursday.

Topics ranged from seeking asylum and naturalization, to applying for work visas and DACA. Olivares and her fellow panelists mapped out the hurdles they were facing, not only from the pandemic, but also from the current administration.

“The Trump administration is shaving away all the lawful ways of immigrating,” Olivares said. “So I encourage everyone to get out there and vote.”

And while DACA recipients can’t vote themselves, many of them are encouraging their friends and family to exercise their civic duty.

Never Alone

For Mitzi Martinez, her hope lies in her coworkers’ votes in November.

“They all don’t like Trump,” Martinez said. “They all knew I had DACA and they were really happy that I was able to renew it.” 

Martinez works as a full-time receptionist at Cockerell & McIntosh Pediatrics in Blue Springs. She said she’s always been drawn to helping kids, even volunteering as a teenager at her local church to prepare kids for their communions.

Now 25 years old, Martinez has been working at Cockerell & McIntosh for the past two years. However, she hopes to someday go to nursing school and work as a registered nurse in a pediatrics hospital.

The only problem: Martinez currently resides in Missouri, a state that doesn’t allow DACA recipients to obtain professional licenses. According to a 2019 article in the American Journal of Nursing, there are currently 10 states that allow DACA students to become registered nurses.

“I was reading about which states will accept DACA, and I don’t remember which states they were exactly, I just remember California was the one that caught my eye,” Martinez said.

But Martinez said she is in no rush. She’s just thankful she was able to recently renew her DACA with ease.

Martinez first heard about the DACA program on the news when she was a senior in high school. She was then granted DACA on her 18th birthday. 

“It was definitely the best birthday ever,” Martinez said. “I didn’t have my driver’s license right when I was a senior. So I couldn’t really drive. You know when you’re in high school, you want to drive. I didn’t get the chance to.”

Her family immigrated to the Kansas City area from Mexico when she was three years old. After finishing sixth grade, her family moved to Raytown, where she still lives with her mom, dad and two younger brothers.

Like Sanchez, Martinez has also participated in local activism and outreach. She helped the advocacy group Kansas/Missouri Dream Alliance with a DACA renewal clinic two years ago, and read a prayer at a special Wednesday Mass celebrating the Supreme Court decision.

“When the Father gave us (DACA recipients) a blessing, that was my favorite part,” Martinez said. “It’s nice to know that people are praying for you.”

Sanchez echoed that sentiment.

“For so long, I felt like I was on this journey by myself,” Sanchez said.


Resources

  • KSMODA — Kansas/Missouri Dream Alliance
    • A youth-led non profit organization aimed at educating, advocating, and providing students with the resources, such as monthly DACA clinics, necessary to reach their higher education goals.
    • ksmoda.org
  • AIRR — Advocates for Immigrant Rights and Reconciliation
    • A non profit organization that works with the faith community to educate and advocate for rights for the immigrant community
    • (913) 229-6183
    • info@airrkc.org
  • Clinic at Sharma-Crawford Attorneys at Law 
    • A non profit organization that offers resources and legal services for immigration court cases
    • (816) 994-2300
    • jennifer@theclinickc.org

Mawa Iqbal is a Kansas City PBS summer intern.

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