By Dan Russo
DUBUQUE — Gabriela spoke in a soft and steady voice as she told her story. The 23-year-old was born in Mexico and brought to the United States as a 9-month-old baby. She now finds herself caught up in the political firestorm over immigration policy since the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program was officially terminated Sept. 5.
For most of her life, Gabriela’s lived in Dubuque, but since she and her parents came to the country without legal permission, her upbringing involved challenges that most children in America don’t face.
“I didn’t tell anyone,” said Gabriela about her legal situation. “I honestly think not many people knew about my status until this announcement was made. Part of me wishes that I hadn’t, but there’s this great fear. You don’t know how people will take it. I didn’t know how big that fear was until one day I found this packet of papers and inside it (said), ‘in case of emergency, we give custody of our children to’ and they put my aunts and uncles.”
Gabriela’s parents worked and built a successful life, having two other children who are American citizens. But for them and their eldest daughter over the years, there was always a fear of deportation, and adjusting to a new culture when they arrived in the 1990s took time.
“It was very difficult,” she recalls. “There was an obvious language barrier with my parents. When I was young I would have to act as a translator, even though I was in first and second grade. At that time, there was still a very racist attitude in Dubuque. I don’t remember everything that happened but my parents would tell me how when they would go to the grocery store people would stare at them and make remarks… ”
“A lot of what (our parents) taught us was to kind of keep moving on and hold your head up high and persevere,” she said. “That they were just words and that in no way should the things people say about us hinder what we do. I think that helped, especially now in this day and age when tensions are very high.”
Her legal status made it difficult for Gabriela to receive financial aid when applying to college and led to other obstacles. Then during her college freshman year, in June 2012, life changed in a big way for Gabriela. President Barack Obama announced that he would be taking executive action to implement the DACA program. Gabriela was one of an estimated 800,000 people nationwide eligible to apply for temporary legal status.
In Iowa, there are about 2,800 DACA recipients. Those who applied had to prove that they had been in the U.S. since 2007, provide fingerprints, ID, and submit to a background check before being accepted.
“We had to find anything and everything that has your name on it,” she recalled. “We went back to 1997. We had to provide proof with a date stamp for every single month of the year since 2007 … Thankfully my mother saved every piece of paper.”
In early 2013, Gabriela, who is Catholic and a member of a parish in the archdiocese, was accepted into DACA. It gave her the opportunity to work legally, obtain a social security card, apply for educational financial aid and obtain a driver’s license. After being approved, she, like all those in the program, was required to renew her application every two years. Although the legal status was only temporary, it opened up many doors. For the first time, Gabriela was able to apply for an internship as a college student, and she found a job she liked.
“I felt normal, just like everyone else,” she said. “It was a relief to my parents as well. Their child would be protected if pulled over.”
President Obama’s decision was not without controversy, however. Some believed that, as president, he did not have the power to implement the program. Opponents argued the president was overextending his authority after Congress failed to pass the DREAM (Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors) Act in 2010. The bill would give legal status to immigrants who were brought or came themselves as children and teens.
“After the failure of the DREAM Act, DACA was based on executive action rather than legislation,” explained David Cochran, a political science professor at Loras College in Dubuque. “(DACA) addressed the broader goals of the DREAM act, but it fell short. The constitutionality of that kind of deferred action, most experts believe the executive had wide discretion when it comes to enforcing immigration laws, but whether President Obama went too far is kind of an open question.”
Several lawsuits were brought against the Obama administration, but had not reached the Supreme Court at the time President Trump was sworn into office in January 2017. Then in September 2017, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that DACA was being rescinded, with President Trump giving Congress until March 2018 to come up with a legislative solution for DACA recipients, commonly referred to as “Dreamers” as a result of the proposed law.
Since then, activists on both sides of the issue and the families of DACA recipients have been facing a time of deep uncertainty. As talk of a political compromise between Democrats and Republicans has unfolded, Gabriela relayed that she and other DACA recipients have, at times, felt like “bargaining chips” instead of being seen as human beings.
“I think the first mood was of fear and anger,” she said. “I think we all went through a process of grieving because we had made it so far. To feel that taken from under you, I don’t think a lot of us were very hopeful at first, and there’s still a lot of doubt now of what government officials will decide to do.”
The Catholic Response
The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops came out strongly against the president’s decision to rescind the program.
“The cancelation of the DACA program is reprehensible,” read the USCCB statement, in part.
Archbishop Jackels released a statement in which he also expressed opposition to the decision.
“Anyone who knows immigrants – legal or not – will attest that they are God-fearing, Church-going, family-oriented, hard-working, community-building people,” he wrote. “For the rule of law we are doing this, really? Laws are important. Laws represent the behavior expected of responsible citizens in a just society. But laws can be bad, broken, or unfairly applied. When they are, like our present immigration laws, they need to be corrected accordingly.”
The bishops called on Catholics to lobby Congress to pass meaningful legislation. Tom Chapman, executive director for the Iowa Catholic Conference, the organization that represents Iowa’s bishops in the public policy realm, put out an action alert to contact lawmakers. One of the key figures in the debate is Chuck Grassley, the senior Republican senator from Iowa.
“I would say there’s a good chance of something getting done,” said Chapman. “Bishop Pates (of the Diocese of Des Moines) has talked to Senator Grassley. He wants to find a solution.”
As the deadline for action comes closer, the ICC has also hired a Catholic advocacy group called “In Solidarity.” The Washington, D.C., based organization, founded by Lonnie Ellis, has helped bishops with advocacy campaigns in the past and will be assisting here in Iowa.
“The purpose of this project is really to go out and get stories from immigrants themselves and have them tell their stories,” said Chapman. “People can learn for themselves from these stories about the situation of immigrants.”
Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Dubuque has also played a role. Since 2012, the agency has provided legal assistance to DACA recipients. In 2017, the agency has assisted 35 people eligible for DACA, according to Yer Vang, an immigration attorney who works for Catholic Charities.
“We have a large portion of our labor force is made up of DACA recipients,” said Vang. “I think people need to understand that these people are very important to our labor force, and we need to pass legislation that recognizes their contribution.”
Chances for Legislation
There are several different pieces of legislation being discussed in congress, but two options are the most prominent at this point. First, there is an updated version of the Dream Act, which has some bi-partisan support.
Another is a bill called the Reforming American Immigration for Strong Employment Act (RAISE Act). The DREAM Act would provide legal status for DACA recipients. The RAISE Act would also do this, but would require stricter enforcement of immigration law within the United States and stricter border controls. Many Catholics have come out in support of the DREAM Act, including most recently the Sisters of Mercy.
The president of the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas Oct. 30 urged members of Congress to pass a bill that would help a group of young migrants who were brought to the U.S. as children without legal documentation, but one that wouldn’t include “measures that endanger” other migrants, according to a report from Catholic News Service. Some think certain Congress members would pass the bill in exchange for more money to fund a border wall with Mexico or more federal money for officers at the border. Recounting that the Sisters of Mercy “came to this country as immigrants in the 1840s,”
Sister McDermott urged politicians to consider “the reality of hundreds of thousands of young people who have little or no connection to the country of their birth. Many have no memory of having lived there, do not speak the language and have no support system if they returned.”
Others such as Marguerite Telford, communication director for the Center for Immigration Studies, believe measures to improve border security and better enforcement against people coming into the nation without legal permission is essential.
“I got involved with (immigration policy) because I had a close friend of our family who was shot in the face multiple times by a guy who came across the border (illegally),” said Marguerite Telford, a practicing Catholic who is an attorney. “He got killed, the only son of a family.”
Telford’s organization is a non-partisan group that supports legal immigration at lower levels than the current rate. She says she is open to amnesty and legal status for Dreamers, but believes any legislation must include changes to chain migration policy and mandatory e-verify at workplaces.
“We’ve got to have worksite enforcement so that pull of jobs isn’t here anymore,” she said. “Think of the thousands of illegal immigrants who have come to the border and they have paid money to (drug) cartels in Mexico. Think of how we have enriched that criminal element. It will come back to haunt us. It’s already haunting the people in Mexico that have to deal with it.”
Cochran disputes the idea that such measures to curtail illegal immigration and secure the border would be effective.
“Some studies say that most people who are here illegally did not cross the border say from Mexico, but simply overstayed a visa,” he said. “In an open democracy like the United States, there are so many ways to enter this country that it’s very difficult to completely shut down illegal immigration. That was one of the lessons of the (1986 immigration legislation).”
The partisan divide between Republicans and Democrats has become wider over the decades since the last immigration law compromise of the 1980s as they have become more rigid in their positions, and dysfunction has made compromises much less common than they used to be, according to the professor.
“There are lots of people in Congress, Democrats, but also some Republicans, who would like to see something like the DREAM Act put into place, but there’s also opposition, and it’s much easier to block something than to pass something through Congress,” reflected Cochran. “We have two political parties that historically were not very ideologically coherent.”
“Both had conservative and liberal members,” he said. “In the past 25 years or so, our parties have become much more like European-style parties that are ideologically coherent, so there’s not as much room for compromise, because the parties represent the poles. There’s hardly any liberal Republicans left and hardly any conservative Democrats. Seventy-five years ago there was a lot across the aisle. Our institutions are designed where compromise is necessary to grease the wheels.”
But Cochran has some optimism that a legislative solution could be found to help the Dreamers. Compromise will be tough, he says, but there is precedent for immigration policy compromises in American history.
“It kind of always goes through this cycle of cracking down on immigrants and then opening up for more immigrants,” said Cochran. “It’s not something that’s new to our system, and we usually muddle through somehow, even though it can be a rough ride for immigrants caught in the middle of the battle.”
Gabriela’s temporary legal status through DACA is still valid, but there’s an expiration date on her paperwork. As she waits to see what happens in Congress, she is praying and holding on to dreams for her future.
“I think (giving DACA recipients legal status) would only make the country stronger,” she said. “We were all raised here. This is all we know. I would love to own a home one day and get a loan. I’d love to have kids that know I wouldn’t be deported at any time.”
Cover photo: Young immigration activists and those enrolled in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, take part in a rally Sept. 12 in Washington to urge Congress to pass the DREAM Act. Catholic college presidents have been vocal in their support for DACA students and have offered additional resources for these students on their campuses. (CNS photo/Joshua Roberts, Reuters