The New Mexico Immigrant Law Center (NMILC) has created an innovative and unique program to help students and young adults apply for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA).
DACA, which was announced by the Obama administration in 2012, allows people born after June 15, 1981 who arrived in the U.S. as children to obtain temporary permission to stay in the U.S., along with work authorization, for 2 years. DACA recipients can now apply for a 2-year extension. DACA has allowed hundreds of thousands of young people to lose the fear of imminent deportation. They can focus on schoolwork, work legally, buy cars and are in a better position to contribute to their families and communities.
Many organizations around the country are running programs to help young people enroll in DACA. But the NMILC project—unlike all the others —doesn’t just wait for students to show up. Instead, NMILC has set up programs with several Albuquerque schools to provide screenings and services for DACA-eligible youth. The partnership is a win for all—more students get access to legal services and schools increase their students’ ability to enter the formal workforce upon graduating.
NMILC currently has programs at three charter schools, which have welcomed the chance to participate, offering funding, staff time, and their facilities. These schools include South Valley Academy, ACE Leadership High School, and Health Leadership High School. Additionally, NMILC will be starting programs at two Albuquerque public schools in early 2016—Highland High School and Albuquerque High School.
Building on the relationships between the schools and their students, the staff at several of these high schools provide preliminary screenings for DACA-eligibility. NMILC’s legal assistants and a Jesuit Volunteer then follow up weekly or bi-weekly to let students know how they can apply for DACA, answer questions and help the students gather the required documents.
NMILC attorney Jessica Martin, who currently oversees the school partnerships, reports that NMILC staffers, simply by appearing regularly at the schools, have lessened students’ fears of applying for DACA. Fears arise from the fact that applying means revealing students’ undocumented presence to the government. But students who see NMILC staffers interact with teachers and social workers are more willing to step forward.
Once the students have been interviewed and know what documents they have to gather to meet DACA requirements, they are offered individual representation for more complicated cases or are signed up for a free DACA Workshop, where NMILC’s legal staff assists the students to prepare their applications.
The DACA screening process at the schools also gives NMILC staff a chance to see if the students, and their family members as well, are eligible for other forms of relief. These include “U” visas for crime victims or Special Immigrant Juvenile Status, a form of relief available for youth who have been abandoned, neglected or abused by a parent. In other words, the school-based DACA program can serve as a gateway to legal status for the whole family.
NMILC’s staff goes to the schools at the beginning of the academic year to train new staff and students to provide preliminary screenings and to set up a sign up system.
With the addition of Alejandro Macias, a Public Ally through AmeriCorps, to NMILC’s staff in fall 2015, the DACA school partnerships have expanded to three new schools. “Because the schools decide to take a more active role in assisting their students, they’re able to connect services not only to the students but to their families. This creates a more open space to talk about immigration status and to get more students to apply.”
NMILC staffer, legal assistant and Victim Advocate Lizdebeth Carrasco, was one of the first to set up the program at South Valley Academy. The program carries special meaning for her. She graduated from SVA and is herself a DACA recipient. “I was once in their shoes,” she says. “I knew DACA was good, but I was scared. With NMILC’s help, my DACA application was approved. So I know how to approach the students and can explain that they can do it too.”
Lizdebeth knows first-hand what DACA can do. She and her family had been living on Pajarito Mesa in a house with no water or electricity. She and her sister did their homework by flashlight and petroleum lights that gave them headaches. Now Lizdebeth is a University of New Mexico graduate, hoping to attend law school someday. In the meantime, she will apply to be an accredited representative, approved by the Board of Immigration Appeals to represent people, under NMILC’s supervision, in filing immigration applications. Her sister, who studied architecture, is working in Carlsbad.
Currently, Javier Garcia, a second-year law student at the University of New Mexico School of Law, meets with students at South Valley Academy (SVA). Javier taught health and New Mexico history at SVA for one year before going to law school. Now, as a legal assistant at NMILC, he provides consultations to SVA families. He also helps his former students apply for DACA in order to help them have the opportunity to work and save money for college.
Martín Zaldivar, Jesuit Volunteer, who holds a master’s degree in Social Work, goes to ACE Leadership High School once a week to promote NMILC’s DACA program. The school makes a point of ensuring that students have legal representation, food, and career goals.
DACA can’t fix the U.S. broken immigration system. The program simply offers a temporary fix for some undocumented young people. Yet immigration reform foes are up in arms over the program. Proposed expansion of DACA, and attempted creation of a similar program for parents of citizens and lawful permanent residents, have been stymied by a lawsuit filed by 26 states with mostly Republican governors. But for hundreds of students whom NMILC staffers have helped to gain DACA, the DACA program has changed their lives.