WASHINGTON — Juventino Meza Rodriguez is one of the lucky ones, at least so far.
He was one of the first undocumented youth in Minnesota to benefit from a program implemented by President Barack Obama’s administration that allowed immigrant children who were brought to the United States by their undocumented parents to avoid deportation and legally work in the United States.
Rodriguez, who lives in West St. Paul, was brought by his parents to Minnesota from Mexico when he was 15 years old. Now 34, he qualified for the Obama-era program, known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, in 2013, just as the initiative was being rolled out.
DACA’s life-changing provisions allowed Rodriguez to finish high school, graduate from Augsburg University and enroll in Mitchell Hamline School of Law. He hopes to graduate with a law degree in the spring.
But DACA is now threatened by a lawsuit, and the only way to protect Rodriguez and more than 600,000 young immigrants like him is for the U.S. Senate to reach an immigration deal that’s under discussion in the dwindling last days of this session of Congress.
“It would be a huge deal,” Rodriguez said of congressional action that would help him and other immigrant youth known as “Dreamers.”
But at least 10 Republican votes in the Senate are needed to move legislation to help Dreamers like Rodriguez, and the current version includes a measure that would make the deportation of other immigrants much easier, drawing the ire of some immigration advocates.
For 10 years, DACA has provided Dreamers with temporary lawful status that prohibits their deportation and makes it legal for them to work and obtain a driver’s license.
“Even though DACA isn’t permanent status, DACA gave me peace of mind that I didn’t have,” Rodriguez said.
Many other immigrants in the state received this temporary help. The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service says that about 5,000 DACA recipients live in Minnesota.
Veena Iyer of the Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota said her organization has helped about 1,000 young Minnesotans apply for DACA status since 2017 when former President Trump tried – but failed – to end the program. Its fate since then has been embroiled in court battles.
“We need a permanent solution,” Iyer said. She called the current uncertainty over DACA “extremely frustrating and antithetical to what Americans want.”
In October, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled DACA unlawful but allowed the program to remain in place for current recipients like Rodriguez and for those processing renewals pending further court action, which could include an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Rodriguez said he knows it’s unlikely that the Biden administration would deport him or other Dreamers if DACA is eliminated. Still, Rodriguez said, “The safety of not facing deportation would go away.”
More immediate, he said, is the financial impact elimination of DACA would have because Rodriguez and all other Dreamers would lose their right to work.
A last-minute effort in the U.S. Senate
There are few details about the immigration deal that’s in the works. With DACA in a precarious state, Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, an Arizona Democrat who on Friday turned independent, and Thom Tillis, R-North Carolina, are trying to forge a compromise in the Senate that would establish DACA into law. But it would also extend a controversial Trump-era border policy, known as Title 42, that allows for the expulsion of migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border. It’s not clear yet how Sinema’s leaving the Democratic Party will affect negotiations.
That program, implemented at the outset of the pandemic as a public health measure, is set to end later this month by court order.
Rodriguez said he and other DACA recipients are concerned and conflicted about the proposed deal.
“We are uneasy because of what it would do to others,” Rodriguez said.
Like many immigrants, Rodriguez belongs to a mixed-status family. His parents are undocumented, but his youngest two siblings were born in Minnesota and are U.S. citizens. An older brother won residency on his own, an older sister never left Mexico.
Another brother was deported and another sister “self-deported” to Mexico because she was pessimistic about her chances of ever becoming a legal resident.
Immigrant advocacy groups are lobbying lawmakers to reject what they view as punitive measures in the proposed immigration agreement.
Sarah Silva of the Minnesota Immigrant Rights Action Committee (MIRAC) and other members of her group met with the in-state staff of Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Tina Smith on Thursday to voice their concerns. To underscore their point, MIRAC members, joined by CAIR-Minnesota, an Islamic Civil Liberties and Advocacy Group, held a demonstration outside of Klobuchar’s Minneapolis office.
Silva said there are immigrants all over the world crossing the U.S.-Mexico border who would be hurt if Title 42 becomes law. She said making DACA permanent should not be “leveraged” in a way that hurts the senators’ other immigrant constituents.
“It’s not just to trade DACA for Title 42,” Silva said. She said the proposed agreement would “affect a lot of demographics.”
An overwhelming majority of DACA recipients come from Mexico, like Rodriguez, followed by Central America and other Latin American countries.
The clock is ticking for those DACA recipients and the program has been frozen by the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals so that younger Dreamers can’t apply for the program’s protections. That means a growing number of young immigrants who were brought to the United States by their parents have no protection from being deported to a country that’s alien to them.
The issue of what to do about the Dreamers has become increasingly partisan.
The U.S. House last year approved a bill, called the American Dream and Promise Act of 2021, that would give Dreamers a path to U.S. citizenship. All House Democrats voted for it but only nine House Republicans – none from Minnesota – supported the legislation.
Those opposing the bill said it would give those who violated immigration laws “amnesty” and encourage more undocumented people to enter the country.
GOP concerns about helping Dreamers – and their anger over the Biden administration’s refusal to extend Title 42 or enforce what they view are stricter controls on the U.S.-Mexico border – make any kind of last-minute immigration deal a long shot.
Even so, the GOP is poised to take control of the U.S. House next year, and the lame-duck session is likely the last chance Congress will have to try to help Dreamers.