Keeping Steamboat home: DACA recipients could face deportation amid uncertainties posed by coronavirus
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — A program that protects child immigrants who grew up in the U.S. from deportation, including at least two Steamboat Springs residents, faces uncertainty amid the global coronavirus pandemic.
According to a statement from U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, a Democrat from Colorado, the Department of Homeland Security is preparing mass deportations for recipients of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA. Many such recipients, known as Dreamers, have reported receiving notices that their deportation cases recently have been reopened nationwide, Bennet said.
This comes as immigration offices have temporarily shut down to limit the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by a novel coronavirus, which has prevented people from renewing their DACA status.
Local DACA recipients
Steamboat resident Armando Zapata said he tried to contact U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to renew his DACA membership, but he has not heard back from the agency. He typically works two jobs, but the restaurant where he cooks closed down after Gov. Jared Polis issued an order temporarily banning all in-restaurant dining across the state.
Zapato has been able to keep his second job as a resident assistant at Colorado Mountain College Steamboat Springs, where he graduated with a degree in restaurant management last year.
Zapato came to the U.S. from Mexico when he was just 4 years old with his mother and older brother. His DACA status allowed him to finish school and pursue his dream of being a chef, perhaps at his own restaurant one day.
“It’s something that opened so many doors for me,” he said.
Now his dream seems more uncertain than ever.
“I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t scared,” Zapato said.
Another Steamboat resident, Axel Garcia, is in his second year at CMC where he studies culinary arts. He came to the U.S. with this family when he was just a year old. He and Zapato have grown up in this country and consider it their home.
The thought of returning to their native country raises concerns for the two men. They have never visited their family in Mexico and do not know exactly where they live. It also would be a difficult to find employment they said, particularly due to the language barrier.
“Spanish in the U.S. is completely different than in Mexico,” Zapato explained. “It would take me a lot longer to learn the language.”
Deporting Dreamers could also have adverse impacts on the U.S. economy.
FWD.us, a pro-immigration lobbying group whose list of founders includes big names like Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, has warned that deporting Dreamers would lead to a major loss of jobs and of skilled workers.
“While some visa categories can be delayed without substantial impact, delays for other categories, specifically DACA applications, would magnify the devastating consequences to our economy and communities,” the group’s president Todd Schulte said in a statement.
Colorado would be among the hardest hit if its 14,640 DACA recipients were deported, according to a job loss analysis the group published in February. The analysis estimates that about 89% of DACA recipients are working, which would translate to a loss of about 13,000 jobs over the next two years.
This comes amid a period of massive unemployment caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
On Monday, March 23, Sen. Bennet joined 36 senators and 87 members of the U.S. House of Representatives in sending a letter to the Department of Homeland Security, pressing officials to stop their attempts to deport Dreamers, particularly amid the global crisis. Two pieces of legislation that would give DACA recipients a path to citizenship currently are pending in the Senate.
History of DACA
Former President Barack Obama started DACA in 2012. Since then, the program has protected more than 800,000 immigrants who came to the U.S. illegally as children. It is not a path to permanent citizenship but allows recipients to get driver’s licenses, enroll in college and legally secure jobs. Recipients must pay income taxes.
Opponents, including President Donald Trump, say the program is unconstitutional, particularly because Obama enacted DACA by executive order without the approval of Congress.
“There can be no path to principled immigration reform if the executive branch is able to rewrite or nullify federal laws at will,” Trump said in a White House statement in 2017.
He said that DACA helped to spur a “humanitarian crisis,” sending a surge of unaccompanied children from Central America, including some who would become violent members of gangs in the U.S.
“Only by the reliable enforcement of immigration law can we produce safe communities, a robust middle class and economic fairness for all Americans,” Trump said in the statement.
He added that similar immigration policies have led to lower wages and higher unemployment for American workers. Economists continue to debate this claim, with some arguing that DACA actually boosts the American economy through added skills and productivity.
Trump has since repealed the program, and the U.S. Supreme Court currently is deciding whether or not to uphold that appeal. A decision is expected no later than June.
In a statement last week, Immigration and Customs Enforcement said it would prioritize enforcement action to immigrants who pose “public safety risks and individuals subject to mandatory detention based on criminal grounds.”
For those who do not fall under this category, the agency said it would delay enforcement measures until after the pandemic or “utilize alternatives to detention,” according to the statement. It is unclear what those alternatives would be.
While the uncertainties surrounding DACA cloud Zapato’s future, he remains optimistic. He plans to continue trying to renew his DACA status. Until then, he simply feels fortunate to have a job and a place to live.
“For now, I am just going to keep my head down and work,” Zapata said.
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