The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to decide whether the Trump administration has the authority to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program any week now. This could have a huge impact on DACA recipients in the Roaring Fork Valley.
Junior Ortega is a founding member of AJUA, a youth-led organization that works with immigrants to build community in the valley and beyond.
Ortega grew up in Carbondale and is one of the Dreamers - a name that comes from a bill in Congress called the DREAM Act that would grant legal status to certain immigrants brought to the U.S. as children. Under DACA, Ortega has a driver’s license and he pays taxes, but his work permit expires this year.
“I’m in the boat, where depending on the Supreme Court decision, that would change a lot of things for me,” Ortega said. “I know it's scary, but I'm not going to let that bring me down.”
Ortega works for the City of Glenwood Springs’ Landfill Department, where he helps manage their solid waste program. Ortega said he’s one of many local Dreamers working in essential industries during the pandemic, including healthcare, education and food services.
“I mean, what do you tell them? ‘We need you, but we can’t hire you?’,” Ortega questioned.
There are about 700,000 Dreamers in the U.S. and roughly 27,000 are health care workers. Since 2012, the program has provided work permits and temporary resident status to eligible immigrants who were brought here as children. Ortega said these community members are all at risk of being deported if the court allows the Trump administration to end DACA.
Back in 2017, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the Trump administration would wind the DACA program down. No new applications would be accepted, and all existing DACA recipients would lose their status after their two-year expiration date.
Ever since that announcement, there’s been legal action that’s taken the case all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court to resolve whether the Trump administration has the authority to end DACA. Last November, the justices heard oral arguments on the case, and a decision was expected no later than June 2020.
Ortega emphasized the policy was never a path to citizenship.
“DACA was not a solution for the problem,” he said. “It was only a bandaid and now someone is ripping that bandaid off.”
Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court accepted a supplemental brief submitted by DACA recipient plaintiffs, including a legal services organization at Yale Law School and the National Immigration Law Center. The brief, which was filed last month, urged the justices to consider the estimated 27,000 Dreamers working in healthcare and the effect of ending the program amid the pandemic.
“DACA recipients are essential to protecting communities across the country endangered by COVID-19,” the new filing said. “Termination of DACA during this national emergency would be catastrophic.”
Glenwood Springs Immigration Attorney Lucy Laffoon said this new development will likely strengthen the oral arguments made in the hearings last November for keeping the program.
“The Supreme Court certainly has to take into consideration what the result of ending DACA would be,” she emphasized. “That's the biggest question that everybody's going to have, ‘What happens next?’ And I don't think they're going to be able to answer that.”
Laffoon said the U.S. has a duty to protect its borders, but she pointed out it’s imperative for the justices to consider that Dreamers were brought to the U.S. as children and protected under DACA for a reason.
“These children had no choice in where they came from and where they were born,” Laffoon said. "They have been here for several years and several decades even. And at the end of the day, what are we doing when we tell them that they no longer belong here?"
Ortega is one of about 15,000 DACA recipients in Colorado. He and his siblings were kids when his mother decided to make the long journey from Nayarit, Mexico.
“I remember walking at night and getting my jeans stuck on some barb wire,” he said. "At six years old, I knew this is what we were told, 'Don't cry, don't say anything. Just be quiet and walk with us.'"
Ortega said that he and many local Dreamers have been living with uncertainty about their future since they came to the valley as children.
“All the attacks constantly coming our way have prepared us for things like this, everyone has gone to their survival instincts,” he said. “We didn't have DACA before, but we still had to figure out how to do things.”
Laffoon suggested putting an end to the uncertainty by giving Dreamers the opportunity to adjust their status and become permanent residents.
"If you want to destroy DACA,” Laffoon said, “pass a law that would allow them to remain here and eventually become U.S. citizens.”
Mateo Lozano is the Rocky Mountain Regional Coordinator for the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition. As a DACA recipient himself, Lozano said the pandemic has added to an already stressful situation.
“This decision has been looming over our heads for years and now we're coming up to it,” he said. “A lot of DACA recipients are very anxious right now.”
Lozano grew up in Summit County after his family came on a tourist visa from Bogota, Columbia when he was five. In Bogota, his dad was a local radio host and his mom was the mayor of a neighboring town.
“They both understood that there was a lot of violence happening in Columbia and we had to leave,” Lozano remembered. “We came to the United States with the hopes that we could eventually find citizenship.”
Lozano said he’ll never forget the day his DACA application was accepted.
“I became a DACA recipient when I was eighteen and six months and two days,” he said.
The way things are going, Lozano said he doesn’t think he’ll become a citizen until he’s at least forty.
“Why is it easier for a person that has a lot of money to be able to come to this country,” Lozano said, “when it was founded on the principles that everybody is created equal and that everybody has a chance.”
Despite the uncertain road ahead, Lozano said he considers himself “one of the lucky ones.”
“At least I have a job. At least I have a way to be able to maintain the light over my head and the food on my table,” Lozano said. “But that's not the case for a lot of folks in the community, and it's just heartbreaking to see that happening right now.”
As immigrant rights advocates, Lozano and Ortega said they’re calling on Congress to create a path to permanent resident status and citizenship for all members of their community.
“A lot of people say you can get in line, but there really is no line for people who are poor and running from violence,” Lozano said. “Hunger doesn’t wait. Violence doesn't wait. Death is the only thing at the end of that.”
With the U.S. Supreme Court decision on the horizon, Ortega and Lozano said they’re preparing for the worst, but hoping for the best.
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