Out of time: Nonprofits scramble to respond to the new DACA deadline

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People protesting President Trump's decision to repeal the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy in Lower Manhattan. (Shutterstock)

Since President Donald Trump’s administration ordered an end to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program on Sept. 5, nonprofit providers across New York City have responded to those directly affected by offering legal services and other help.

The move would phase out a program, created by then-President Barack Obama in a June 2012 executive order, that allows some 800,000 undocumented immigrants who arrived in the U.S. in their youth to live, work and study in the country with proper documentation.

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions said DACA won’t stand up to legal challenges and such an “open-ended circumvention of immigration laws was an unconstitutional exercise of authority.” The administration gave Congress six months to formalize the program into law.

Providers across New York, which is home to roughly 42,000 DACA recipients, are preparing for the worst.“With DACA being rescinded and nothing in its place, we will probably see poverty levels rising in immigrant communities,” said Jennifer Jones Austin, CEO and executive director of the Federation of Protestant Welfare Agencies, an umbrella group that is working with and funding organizations that provide legal assistance, education grants and scholarships for DACA recipients.

The biggest deadline DACA recipients face is Oct. 5, when U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services will no longer accept renewal applications for recipients whose two-year authorization expires on or before March 5. New DACA applications were not accepted after Sessions’ Sept. 5 announcement.

There are about 150,000 recipients eligible to renew their status before Oct. 5 and 10,000 of them are in New York state, according to an estimate provided by Driftnery Martinez, director of immigrant services at the Jacob A. Riis Neighborhood Settlement.

In New York, city and state officials were almost unanimously opposed to the federal policy pivot. Partly in response, the New York City Council voted to expand the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration has also funded legal clinic sites across the city through its ActionNYC effort, which was announced at the end of 2015.

The Center for Family Life, a settlement house in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, is on the front lines of helping immigrant communities navigate the DACA deadline and the swing toward harsher federal immigration policies. Julia Jean-Francois, the center’s co-director, said employees were rattled by the announcement. “Every part of our organization is impacted by these types of orders,” she said. “And the effect is really hard and very discouraging.”

Sessions said rescinding DACA doesn’t mean immigrants “are bad people or that our nation disrespects or demeans them in any way.” Nevertheless, anxiety has spread throughout immigrant-heavy Sunset Park, particularly among children – some of whom are in families with members of different immigrant statuses. “This is really a campaign of fear, that you only have to deport or bring in for questioning or detain a handful of people in a community of hundreds of thousands of people to spread fear,” Jean-Francois said.

The Center for Family Life has a full-time attorney and three legal navigators who work on some of the less complicated work of routine filings. The Robin Hood Foundation is also funding attorneys that work on a broad array of legal issues. Though not all clients may be eligible for DACA – which has strict age and residency requirements – the Center for Family Life is helping guide immigrants through alternative programs for education and employment. It’s also encouraging parents to prepare documents defining guardianship roles if they are deported and their children remain in the country.

“Our goal is always to put the greatest amount of control over the situation into the hands of the people who are affected by it,” Jean-Francois said. “You don’t want to start thinking about what is going to happen to your children when you’re in a detention facility,” she added.

Another organization near Sunset Park, Atlas: DIY, helps about 800 young immigrants ranging from ages 14-24 navigate the legal system, among other programs and services. While helping DACA recipients makes up a “significant portion” of its legal work, Atlas also helps youths seek asylum, acquire green cards, file for citizenship and find other resources.

“This announcement by Sessions has kind of added a whole kitchen sink of work into our laps on top of everything else that had already been happening,” Atlas Executive Director Jason Yoon said. “And it’s not just our laps, this kitchen sink of work has been dumped into the laps of tons of really important and credible immigrant rights groups across the city, so I think it’s a testament to the strength of the New York City nonprofit sector.”

With help from fellowships, Atlas has four full-time attorneys and a handful of other workers helping with legal matters. There are about 200 open cases spanning the gamut of immigration-related services.

The renewal filing fee for DACA recipients increased in December by $30 to $495, which might make it impossible for some to renew by the Oct. 5 deadline. Some organizations are offering emergency grants, scholarships or interest-free loans to help cover the costs of the filing fee.

“It’s a lot of money. It’s a lot of money to pay at once, and it’s a lot of money to pay at once for an application that may not be approved and for a program that has been in flux and is clearly under attack by our administration,” said Yoon, whose organization also has some money for DACA applications funded by Brooklyn residents.

While advocacy is obviously a major component of the strategy by nonprofits – with coalitions like the New York Immigration Coalition flooding the streets with rallies – others are fighting the policy changes in court. Make the Road New York has partnered with an immigrant living in New York in a lawsuit against the Trump administration. That lawsuit, Batalla Vidal v. Baran, has its roots in a 2016 Texas federal court ruling, but attorneys are seeking to expand the scope to include Sessions’ recent order.

FPWA is working with United Neighborhood Houses, Human Services Council of New York, United Jewish Association and the Fiscal Policy Institute on several advocacy and civic engagement initiatives. Jones Austin said advocates can capitalize on broad support for maintaining DACA, especially given the residents’ contributions and the mental health, wage and educational gains made for their families. “There’s a real opportunity for nonprofits to help tell the story of DACA recipients,” she said. “Of their journeys, of their experiences and their contributions over the last several years.”

Lutheran Social Services of New York is another ActionNYC partner. With some help from Robin Hood Foundation, which has funded Immigrant Justice Corps attorneys, Lutheran Social Services of New York has a part-time director, attorneys and a paralegal. Even before the election, the group’s Immigration Legal Program had represented unaccompanied minors, helped with DACA applications and represented clients in asylum and immigration cases.

Cecilia Aranzamendez, Lutheran Social Services of New York’s executive director of community services, said the organization’s phones were inundated after the presidential election with calls from people looking for help. It currently has legal consultations every Monday. Depending on the complexity of their cases, clients can wait anywhere from two weeks to three months for individualized services, and as many as 150 people are currently on Lutheran Social Services of New York’s waitlist. Attorneys are also offering what Aranzamendez calls “therapeutic legal services,” which connect some clients to social services as well.

This month, Trump and congressional Democrats said there was a potential compromise to protect DACA recipients in exchange for other immigration changes sought by the Trump administration. While that may ease some of the most immediate worries for recipients, Martinez said it was “unprecedented” to use nearly a million people as political instruments.

“The reality is that the lives of some 800,000 Americans – because regardless of their immigration status, they are as American as any of us – are being used as a bargaining chip, which I find to be inhumane and not what our country stands for,” she said.

The unsettled political climate has served to strengthen connections between immigrant communities and the nonprofits that help them. Shortly after Trump’s first travel ban executive order in January, Riis Settlement partnered with several local organizations to form a partnership known as the Western Queens Immigrant Coalition, Martinez said. It holds “know your rights” workshops and legal clinics. The partnership has helped them react quickly to the DACA announcement, but they still have about 60 people on waiting lists for legal services.

“The political climate is very uncertain right now and so we’re trying to build capacity and pull together resources and be prepared for anything that comes,” Martinez said.

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