Illinois Issues: Deferred Decision

Nov 23, 2016

Editor's note -  More than 40,000 undocumented Illinois residents, who came to the country as children, are protected from deportation and are able to work under an executive order put in place by President Barack Obama. But during his campaign, Donald Trump pledged to “immediately terminate” the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program — often referred to as DACA. 

This week, hundreds of university presidents and chancellors from across the country wrote an open letter calling for preservation of the protections for the roughly 750,000 young people approved for DACA nationwide. Some administrators from Illinois are signed on to that letter, including the chancellors of the University of Illinois’ Chicago and Urbana campuses.

Trump’s Chief of Staff Reince Priebus told CNN on Sunday that Trump would first be focused on passing legislation to build a wall to secure the border and removing immigrants with criminal backgrounds. “What he's also made clear is after all those things are done, he will then look at what we are going to do and how we're going to deal with the fact that there are millions and millions of people here that aren't bad people and in many cases [were] brought here by their parents when they were little. But that's a subject that's going to come up after those first two things are taken care of,” Priebus said. He described his statement as “the position of president-elect Trump.”

This week, Illinois Issues revisits a story looking at the uncertain future of DACA. When the story was first published in August, undocumented immigrants and groups that work with them were closely watching the presidential election, in-part because of the U.S. Supreme Court appointment that would fall to the next president. The court deadlocked on an expansion of DACA and a similar program that would have offered legal protection to the parents of the young people granted protection under DACA. As a result, neither was implemented. Without an administration willing to support these actions in court, that legal battle is over.

That now likely irrelevant aspect aside, we at Illinois Issues believe that this story is worth another look because it lays out what is at stake under the DACA program. 

Kenia Gonzalez’s mother brought her to the United States when she was 5 years old. Now 22, Gonzalez will start her senior year at Eastern Illinois University later this month. She was unable to get financial aid for college because of her undocumented status, but she managed to pay for her education working part-time jobs.

Gonzalez is able to work because she qualifies for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA. President Barack Obama’s administration created the program in 2012 as a way for undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as children to have temporary protected status from deportation and be authorized to work. More than 40,000 young residents of Illinois have been approved for DACA since 2012.

Gonzalez says it was important for her to earn money so she could help her family.

“In my case, I’m the only child, and I’ve seen my mom work ever since we moved here. And she’s a single parent, so I’ve had to see her work long hours. And my goal is to ease that for her,” she says. “I knew that going to college and doing something with myself was the best way to do that.”

The U.S. Supreme Court split 4 to 4 in June on a Texas federal judge’s order halting the Obama administration’s 2014 proposed expansion of DACA, which would have lifted the age cap. It also stopped creation of a deferred action program for Parents of Americans or Lawful Permanent Residents, also known as DAPA, which would temporarily protect parents from deportation.

The Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights conducted a town hall meeting after the Supreme Court deadlocked.
Credit The Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights

Those who are eligible for DACA under the 2012 requirements can still apply, and those who have already qualified for it can seek renewal.

“So, the deal we’re putting forward is this,” the president said in a 2014 speech on the DAPA and DACA expansion. “If you’ve been here for more than five years, if you have children who are American citizens or legal residents. If you register and pass a criminal background check and pay your fair share of taxes, then you can apply to stay temporarily. You can come out of the shadows and get right with the law.”

Breandán Magee, senior director of programs for the Chicago-based Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, says about 280,000 immigrants in Illinois would have been eligible for DAPA or expanded DACA. But the Supreme Court deadlock means they will miss out for now. For parents of American citizens or legal permanent residents, the deadlock means they won’t have the same chance as their children of working and living in Illinois without fear of deportation.

Magee says immigrants and their children are contributing to the state culturally, politically and economically. Immigration is important to the state because nearly 14 percent of the population is foreign-born, he says. “It gives a rich tapestry of experience to the state of Illinois. They say Chicago is the city of neighborhoods. We’re very unique in that our immigrant history is celebrated.” 

He says 80 percent of immigrants in Illinois live in the Chicagoland area. The majority are from Mexico, with 30 percent coming from other Latin countries and countries in Asia. Magee, who became naturalized this year after moving here from Ireland, points out that Illinois also has many Eastern European immigrants, especially from Poland. 

Obama announced the DAPA program in Chicago at the Copernicus Center, a Polish cultural facility. Immigration advocates in Illinois say the Texas case is likely to come before the Supreme Court again and will hinge on what judge is confirmed to replace conservative Justice Antonin Scalia, who died in February.

“Unfortunately, it wasn’t completely unexpected,” says Jasmine McGee, executive director of downstate Illinois’ The Immigrant Project. “We kind of knew this was going to be tough, especially with not having a ninth justice being put in after the death of Justice Scalia.” 

A federal application form for citizenship
Credit Sarah Mueller

Most Republicans in the U.S. Senate have refused to consider Obama’s nominee, saying the next president should choose a replacement.

Texas and 25 other states challenged DAPA as an overreach of the federal government. In the lawsuit, Texas argued that it would hurt the state financially because it would have to issue driver licenses to the residents in the state who were eligible for the programs. U.S. Solicitor General Donald Verrilli Jr. argued that Texas’ objections were hypothetical because the programs weren’t yet in place. He also argued the state could change its law so residents in the deferred action programs couldn’t get driver licenses, and therefore avoid the potential extra cost.

The Supreme Court issued a one-sentence opinion saying it was equally divided.

“It’s … a bit frustrating because the decision is basically — there is no decision,” says Sylvia Puente, executive director of the Latino Policy Forum in Chicago. “So we’re not at all aware of the court’s arguments, the pros and the cons, because obviously it was a split decision. It’s just no light, and we’re left in the dark as to which justices voted for and against upholding this decision.”

While most of the justices’ opinions on the case are unknown, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg recently spoke publicly about the case. Ginsberg said the tie was “unfortunate” but could have been worse. “Think what would have happened had Justice Scalia remained with us,” the liberal justice told The New York Times in July.

Gonzalez qualified for the deferred action program for children because she was under the age of 31 in 2012, came to the United States before her 16th birthday and has lived continuously in the United States since June 2007. The downstate Arcola resident also has a high school education and no criminal record. The applications of more than 728,000 young people like her have been approved nationally.

Gonzalez was approved for a two-year renewal earlier this year. But because the program was created by executive order, that could change with the next president, who would have the power to rescind the order. 

Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has made immigration a top issue in his campaign. He says he wants to build a wall to try to stop people coming from Mexico into the United States without permission. Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton says she supports Obama’s deferred action programs.  If elected, she says that during her first 100 days in office, she would propose legislation to overhaul immigration laws.

Those who support loosening immigration requirements say the country needs immigrant labor and allowing those who are currently undocumented to legally work in the United States would increase state tax revenues. They argue that families should be allowed to stay together, especially when the children are U.S. citizens. Opponents say undocumented immigrants hurt low-income citizens by taking their jobs. They say the current level of illegal immigration in the country leads to increased crime and drains states’ financial resources.

Obama and supporters of the DREAM Act made a big push to get plan through Congress. The House passed the legislation, but it didn’t make it to a vote in the Senate. The DREAM act was first proposed in 2001 and has since been reintroduced several times. Unlike DACA, the DREAM Act would have given certain undocumented youth a path to citizenship.

Julián Lazalde, civic engagement manager for the Latino Policy Forum, says Obama used his executive power after it became clear that Congress wasn’t going to agree on changes to immigration policy, despite calls for reforms from both sides of the aisle.

“The attempt by President Obama to sign the executive actions on DACA (expansion) and DAPA in November 2014 was a telling moment,” Lazalde says. “If there were a viable path to immigration reform legislation at that time, the Obama administration would not have even attempted to sign any executive actions.”

The lack of progress in Congress has left states to address immigration policy on their own. Democratic state legislators in Illinois passed a measure in 2011 that created a private scholarship fund, called the DREAM fund, for undocumented college students. Former Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn signed it into law. But Chicago Democratic Sen. Iris Martinez says there hasn’t been as much money donated to the DREAM fund as supporters originally hoped.

Sen. Iris Martinez, a Chicago Democrat, listens to testimony from a supporter of legislation that would have allowed colleges to give financial aid to undocumented students.
Credit Illinois Senate Democrats

Martinez introduced a proposal last year that would allow all students, including undocumented students, who qualify for in-state tuition to be eligible for state-funded financial aid and other state assistance. The plan would exclude the Monetary Assistance Program, a state program that gives tuition grants to low-income Illinois residents.

“All we’re letting the universities do is actually be able to give them the power to go ahead and give out some of these stipends, waivers, whatever they need to do, to retain those young men and women who are really doing really well instead of losing them to another state because we’re not helping them financially,” she says. “Many of them work two or three jobs and carry a full load.”

The measure was passed by the Senate but stalled in the House.

Senate President John Cullerton sponsored the DREAM scholarship fund legislation. Last year, he introduced a measure, named the Trust Act, preventing state or local law enforcement from spending resources to enforce federal policy that would detain people without criminal records on immigration holds. The proposal failed to advance out of the Senate. Cullerton declined to comment for this story.

Martinez says the proposal would extend the sanctuary city concept currently in place in Chicago and Cook County to the entire state. The measure is in a holding pattern, but Martinez says she doesn’t know specifically why it’s stalled.

Ira Mehlman, media director of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, says proposals like the Trust Act and so-called sanctuary cities and counties like Chicago and Cook County put Americans in danger by not turning over “criminal aliens” to federal immigration agencies.

“They’re actually endangering the safety and security of law abiding citizens in order to prove some kind of political point they want to make,” he says.

Fred Tsao, senior policy counsel for the Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, says allowing people to live without fear of deportation increases public safety.

“Law enforcement is very vigorous against people who perpetrate crime regardless of their immigration status,” Tsao says. “Immigrants who are victims of crime or who witness crimes are more willing to come forward and report crimes to the police department or the sheriff’s department precisely because they know that their own status is not going to come under question.” 

Youth at a state Senate higher education committee hearing
Credit Illinois Senate Democrats

Mehlman says undocumented residents are also bad for Illinois’ economy and citizens’ pocketbooks.

“The city of Chicago and the state of Illinois are bending over backwards to accommodate people that are violating laws and undermining the interests of everybody else in Illinois,” Mehlman says. “It does affect people’s jobs. It affects their tax dollars.”

He says undocumented residents are a burden on state social safety nets because many lack necessary job skills.

Tsao also challenges that assertion. He says undocumented residents positively affect Illinois and the nation. “Undocumented immigrants are not competing for jobs with U.S. citizens because they occupy other sectors of the U.S. economy; they work in different jobs,” Tsao says. “They’re working. They’re earning. They’re paying taxes, and many of them are forming their own businesses and revitalizing neighborhoods in different communities.”

The Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights was administering three state funded programs to aid immigrants before the budget impasse that began in July 2015. The Immigrant Family Resource Programs helps newcomers to the state to access public benefits. The New American Initiative assists immigrants in becoming citizens. The Uniting America program recruits and trains volunteers for activities, such as community events and citizenship workshops.

The state was contributing about $6.6 million to immigration programs. Specifically, it gave  nearly $1.8 to the family resource program, $3.9 million to the New American Initiative and $165,000 to the volunteer program. Immigration programs were included in the stop-gap budget signed into law at the end of June. But, it’s doubtful, Magee says, that the coalition will be repaid for services from last year.

Gonzalez, the EIU student currently protected from deportation under DACA, is worried about her future after November’s election. She says it’s hard not to be able to participate as a voter.

“It’s upsetting because I can learn and follow up and have my own opinion on a vote, but I can’t put it towards the election,” she says. Trump’s comments on immigration have motivated some eligible immigrants in Illinois to become naturalized citizens, Magee says.

Magee says there are 371,000 legal permanent immigrant residents in Illinois who could potentially vote in November’s election. He says some Latinos are motivated by Trump’s comments.

“You've got the candidate in the Republican Party who's basically, you know, called many people coming from Mexico ‘rapists,’” he says.

State Rep. Sara Wojcicki Jimenez, a Springfield Republican, speaks to Martha Holt, who is trying to prove her citizenship. They were at a workshop sponsored by The Immigration Project.
Credit Sarah Mueller

One Illinois resident who really wants to vote in November is Martha Holt. The great-grandmother came to the United States from Mexico when she was 17 years old. She’s now 65 years old and wants to be recognized as American because she was married to a U.S. citizen and her mother was born in California. She didn’t pursue naturalization in earnest until recently, but now she says she can’t get the documents to prove her citizenship.

Holt says this election is particularly important to her and not just because of immigration. She says she had to work harder as a coal miner during 1970s to prove women could equal the male miners.

“I feel if we get a woman president, it might help people like us,” she says, referring to women.

Lazalde says the Latino Policy Forum doesn’t expect any federal legislation on immigration until early next year, after November’s presidential election. He says Latino voters are frustrated that politicians consider immigration to be “radioactive” and have been taking it out on candidates for office for the last few election cycles.

Frank Sharry, executive director of the national immigration reform group America’s Voice, says Obama’s decision to wait until after the 2014 midterm election to implement his executive actions expanding deferred action for children and creating a deferred action program for parents may have disillusioned some Latinos and cost Democrats some votes. In May 2015, Sharry released a paper asking whether Democrats will embrace the 2016 “new politics” of immigration.

But Lazalde acknowledges that supporting a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants is risky for some politicians. Sen. John McCain, a Republican from Arizona, sponsored legislation in 2007 that would have offered a path to citizenship. Lazalde says the former presidential nominee paid a political price for that proposal when he nearly lost his seat in a primary challenge in 2010.

“As recent history has shown, immigration legislation can be detrimental to re-elections (or) political aspirations,” Lazalde says. “So there’s little chance of having any serious legislation introduced (in Congress) at this point.” Until Congress takes up the issue, the focus of advocates will be on state lawmakers, judges and the next president — all of whom have the power to shape immigration policy in America. 

Illinois Issues is in-depth reporting and analysis that takes you beyond the headlines to provide a deeper understanding of our state. Illinois Issues is produced by NPR Illinois in Springfield.