Amid growing political tension and divisions around immigration policy, it’s hard to remember that many Republican and Democratic lawmakers agree that they want to find a way to let nearly 800,000 young DACA recipients, the so-called Dreamers, stay in the United States.
DACA is the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy that allowed eligible immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children to work and study in this country.
President Donald Trump promised nearly one year ago to treat these young people “with heart.” But in September, he rescinded the DACA policy and directed Congress to come up with a solution. Whatever consensus they once professed to have, lawmakers and Trump now may be farther away than ever from a political answer to the DACA problem. Legislative talks broke down this month with a rapid volley of developments that included bickering over Trump’s now infamous alleged use of a vulgarity.
Then, a federal judge ordered the Trump administration to resume accepting DACA renewal applications. The Department of Justice struck back this week, filing an appeal and also announcing that it would “take the rare step” of asking the U.S. Supreme Court to weigh in.
As the drama unfolds in Washington and in federal courts, many DACA recipients wonder whether they’ll have a future in this country. The feelings are particularly pronounced among those who are engaged in the work of helping other immigrants gain a firmer foothold in the U.S. Here are the stories of two Dreamers in Chicago who help immigrants even as they face losing their own status.
‘It’s almost absurd’
Irakere Picon, 29, said he came to the U.S. with his family when he was 2 and grew up in Rockford. He says he became an immigration activist as a college student at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. That’s where he learned the fundamentals of grassroots organizing, then took a trip to Alabama with classmates to protest the state’s anti-immigration bill.
Those experiences led Picon to what he wanted to do in his life.
“I figured I can work in this type of community with the immigrant rights, but do it in a different capacity,” he said. “Not so much as an organizer, more as an attorney.”
Today, Picon is an immigration attorney at the National Immigrant Justice Center based in Chicago. Thanks to DACA, Picon was able to obtain his Illinois law license and find legal employment. He said his time is spent helping clients file family petitions, green card application renewals, naturalization applications, and defend themselves in immigration court against deportation.
Picon’s DACA status expires in November 2018, and he said if the courts or Congress don’t provide a fix, he faces few options to stay in the U.S. legally. Though he could eventually obtain legal status by marrying his U.S.-citizen girlfriend of five years, Picon said they don’t want to feel forced onto a faster timeline than they otherwise would have followed. He said he will not consider leaving the U.S., even though losing his DACA status would make him no longer legally employable in this country.
Picon acknowledged the deep irony of his situation. Even while he is undocumented, he works every day to help other undocumented people find ways to remain in the U.S. legally.
“Working with clients who I’m very similar to is … very weird. It’s surreal,” he said. “I guess it’s almost absurd.”
The similarities give him some insight into what his clients may be thinking or feeling, he said. But it also makes the work emotionally difficult.
“I’ll be honest and say I don’t want to do immigration law forever,” Picon said. “It’s especially hard when you have clients who come in with so much hope … and you have to tell them after looking at their history — their facts — that they don’t have any form of relief.”
‘Going back to Mexico is not an option for me’
Dalia Galvan Morales, 30, said she still has memories from living in Mexico before her parents brought her to the U.S. at age 11. Perhaps the most impactful was when her younger brother had an accident and fractured his elbow.
“We basically didn’t have the means to take him to the hospital and get the proper care. … So I thought … I am going to make a change … I am going to become a physician and I am going to be able to provide appropriate healthcare services to people with no money or very little income,” she said.
Because Galvan was undocumented, she said she could not take advantage of scholarships to attend a four-year college before President Obama started the DACA program. Instead, she studied biology at Truman College and got a nursing degree. Now, she’s helping low-income immigrants as the supervisor for outreach and enrollment at Heartland Health Centers. Galvan currently works at a community health clinic on Chicago’s Far North Side, where she estimates at least 80 percent of the clients are immigrants.
Galvan said that working with these clients often reminds her of how difficult it was for her family to access health services, even after they arrived in the U.S.
“We had no idea about health insurance, so we started going to Cook County Hospital,” Galvan said. “We just kind of dreaded the time when we were kind of sick because we just knew we would spend the whole day over there.”
Eventually, Galvan said her parents learned they could enroll their children in Illinois’ All Kids program, which provides health care coverage for all children 18 and younger who need it.
Galvan now helps parents sign their children up for All Kids, she helps adults who have legal status sign up for health plans through the Affordable Care Act, and she directs undocumented adults to health services at community health clinics like hers.
Galvan’s work permit is due to expire when her DACA status runs out in June.
“It’s very ironic,” Galvan said. “My job is to help people get access to health insurance. But yet, at the same time, I’m kind of thinking, well, I think I’m not going to have any (health insurance) options once my work permit expires.”
Galvan said moving back to Mexico is “not an option.” Instead, she said she would try to find a way to work for herself, either as a contract worker or a business owner. But she has not given up hope of one day becoming a doctor. She said she intends to reassess what options she may have to apply for medical school if the DACA program is renewed.
Odette Yousef is a WBEZ reporter. Follow her at @oyousef.