With comprehensive immigration reform a real possibility this year, we look at how our broken system affects Colorado—and how things could come into focus in the near future.
Colorado’s young undocumented immigrants are taking advantage of Obama’s controversial executive order.
Ana c. says she finally feels like she belongs to a country. Soft-spoken yet opinionated, with wavy black hair that falls just below her shoulders, the 20-year-old has lived in the United States—in Texas for three months and in Colorado, currently in Aurora—since she was three years old, but that doesn’t mean she has always felt welcome. Undocumented immigrants like Ana often spend their youths growing up in the shadows.
Ana’s parents entered the country legally—with Ana and her sisters in tow—but didn’t return to Mexico when their tourist visas expired. Her parents found more opportunities here and wanted to create the best possible future for their children. Ana has no memory of the Mexican state of Chihuahua where she was born.
Ana learned she was undocumented in the third grade but says she didn’t fully understand what that designation meant until high school, when college scholarship offers began rolling in. Regis University, Benedictine University, and Metropolitan State University of Denver presented financial incentives that Ana had to pass up because undocumented immigrants cannot receive state or federal aid for higher education. “I realized then,” she says, “that this is what it’s like to be undocumented.”
Ana’s newfound sense of belonging came courtesy of a controversial executive order issued in June 2012 by President Barack Obama. Dubbed Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), the policy targets young individuals in Ana’s situation. DACA allows qualifying undocumented immigrants—those who have been in the country since they were under the age of 16, were less than 31 years old on June 15, 2012 (when the policy was announced), and haven’t been convicted of a felony or more than two misdemeanors—to remain in the country legally for two years (after which point the temporary status can be renewed). The policy allows for a work permit and other documents that have previously been off-limits, such as a driver’s license. To apply, applicants must be at least 15 and be in school, have graduated high school or hold a GED, or have honorably served in the military.
Obama announced DACA while campaigning for re-election, ultimately scoring points with the country’s large and growing Hispanic population (after deporting illegal immigrants in record-high numbers in his first term). For advocates, DACA was a critical win for the estimated 1.7 million young undocumented immigrants who were brought here as children, often speak English better than their native tongues, are familiar with American laws and history, and are assimilated into American culture. Yet because of decisions made by their parents, they’re prevented from becoming productive members of U.S. society. “We’re here to work,” Ana says, “to help this country be great.”
Ana is one of Colorado’s many undocumented immigrants who has leapt at the opportunity DACA offers. As of January 17, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services had received 8,152 deferred action applications from Colorado, ranking the state 10th in the nation for such applications—even though Colorado does not rank among the top 10 states with the highest undocumented populations. An October Immigration Policy Center analysis found that Colorado has 15,848 individuals currently eligible for DACA, and a total of 33,448 who could be eligible (once they come of age or enroll in school).
DACA is discretionary, however, and eligibility does not guarantee approval. And at $465, the application is expensive. It’s also complex: Applicants must prove that they have lived continuously in the United States since June 15, 2007, and that they were physically present in the country on June 15, 2012. That’s a lot of paperwork—things like school records, phone bills, anything to prove an established life here—to produce. But applicants across the state have deemed it worth the effort—and the risk.
The irony of obama’s deferred action plan is that it’s a government policy, and most undocumented immigrants have spent years intentionally avoiding contact with the government. With deportation as a near-constant threat, many people without paperwork believe it’s too dangerous to go to a parent-teacher conference at a public school, much less fill out government forms admitting to being here illegally. Applying to DACA requires faith in the government—even if there are no guarantees, and even if it means potentially exposing older family members who aren’t eligible for DACA to even further vulnerability.
“You’re sort of raising your hand at the government and saying ‘Hi, I’m over here,’ ” says Paul Kyed, a Denver attorney who assisted DACA applicants on a pro bono basis at Holland & Hart. Because the application is so arduous, many applicants have sought assistance from immigration attorneys or from local organizations like the Rocky Mountain Immigrant Advocacy Network (RMIAN), the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition (CIRC), and Together Colorado.
Abbie Johnson, an attorney with RMIAN, says what surprised her most about DACA is how quickly young people have jumped to apply. She says that even after explaining that DACA is not a path to residency or citizenship, that there are no guarantees and indeed there are risks, the response from potential applicants is almost always the same: This is something I’ve been waiting for. Even though it’s not perfect and even though it’s not a permanent solution, it’s an opportunity and I’m going to grab it with two hands.
DACA may be a miracle for some, but not everyone loves the policy. The Federation for American Immigration Reform, which advocates for strict immigration policies, has called it a “backdoor amnesty” program that rewards legal wrongdoing. There are also concerns that the policy weakens the economy by flooding it with workers.
In Colorado, state Representative Brian DelGrosso, a Republican, says DACA is too new to judge its impacts locally, but he’s skeptical of its merits. DelGrosso also opposed the ASSET bill, legislation introduced for the seventh time in the state Legislature in January, which ultimately passed and grants in-state tuition to undocumented students who’ve attended Colorado high schools for at least three years—and graduated. He argues it’s unfair to American citizens who have to pay full out-of-state tuition, and that neither the ASSET bill nor DACA solves the broader problem of insufficient jobs. Under DACA, he says, “There is more of an ability to get a job, but that still doesn’t guarantee that there’s going to be a job.”
For Ana C.—and the thousands of other Colorado DACA applicants—it’s about possibility. They know the president’s executive order offers no guarantees, but they’ll take what they can get—and right now, that’s two years’ time to feel like they have a home. “I finally feel like a normal person, which is bittersweet,” says Ana, who has been granted DACA relief. “It’s sad that I have to have that permit to feel like a normal person in the United States. But it’s also sweet because I don’t have to fear being deported.” —Rachel Cernansky