How undocumented Coloradans can prepare as DACAs end looms

In the sterile office of an immigration attorney, 15-year-old Annie Aviles-Zamora tuned out the lawyer’s words as she felt her world crumble.

Aviles-Zamora and her mother met with the attorney in 2017 to begin the teen’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, application process. Aviles-Zamora craved a driver’s license and a job like her friends, but being brought from Mexico to the United States when she was 4 years old precluded her from the same opportunities.

When Aviles-Zamora’s mother learned about DACA, she thought it could guarantee her hardworking daughter a normal life. The Obama-era program provided two years of renewable protection from deportation and work permits to people who were brought to this country without documentation as children.

The mother-daughter duo entered the office buoyant, preparing for celebration. But they were too late, the attorney informed them.

“I was gutted,” said Aviles-Zamora, now a 21-year-old student at Metropolitan State University of Denver who has since found an alternative to DACA that offers her comparable benefits.

President Donald Trump halted new applications for DACA protections in 2017, allowing only existing recipients to renew. Had they come in a few months ago, the lawyer told them, they wouldn’t have missed the deadline — but now Aviles-Zamora was locked out.

Since 2017, DACA and those who’ve been able to remain in the U.S. under its protections have been in limbo amid multiple challenges to the federal program’s legality. Experts predict the matter soon will reach the U.S. Supreme Court, where the conservative majority is expected to strike the policy down. Unless Congress acts, the futures of 600,000 current DACA recipients across the country — nearly 13,000 of them in Colorado — will be in jeopardy and hundreds of thousands of immigrants who would have been eligible for the program’s protections will lose a legal pathway to live and work in the U.S.

The end of DACA would have far-reaching implications for those who are undocumented, their families and the economy as a whole. Hoping to help blunt those impacts, immigration advocates in Colorado are urging people who are undocumented to seek out alternative programs that provide similar benefits to DACA. State legislators, meanwhile, are considering strategies to ensure people brought to the U.S. as children without documentation can continue to live and work in Colorado, regardless of what happens at the federal level.

“Many of the folks with DACA are adults now and are integrated into our economy, our workforce and have children of their own,” said Arturo Jimenez, an MSU Denver affiliate professor and immigration attorney. “The end of DACA would just be devastating for the nation, including Denver and Colorado.”

A federal judge in 2021 declared DACA to be illegal because of the way the Obama administration enacted it in 2012. Last October, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld that ruling, but sent the case back to the Texas judge, asking him to take another look at it after the Biden administration made changes to the program. The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas heard arguments in June, but that ruling is still pending.

The courts have allowed existing DACA recipients to maintain their protections and apply for renewals as the case continues to be litigated. But legal experts anticipate DACA likely will end within the next year or two, possibly sooner, Jimenez said.

“I hope I’m wrong,” he said.

Humanitarian parole

An additional 8,230 Coloradans were estimated to be eligible for DACA in 2022, according to the Migration Policy Institute, but they are blocked from seeking the program’s protections as U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services is no longer accepting new applications.

To be eligible for DACA, immigrants must have arrived in the U.S. before their 16th birthday, lived in the U.S. continuously since June 2007, be free of any felony convictions or significant misdemeanor offenses, and pose no threat to national security or public safety, among other requirements.

While the legal pathways to citizenship are slim, there are alternatives to DACA that people living in the U.S. without documentation can apply for to keep living or working in the country legally.

For example, Citizenship and Immigration Services is still processing requests for advance parole, a temporary travel permit that allows people involved in U.S. immigration proceedings to leave the country for a short period of time and re-enter with the same status they held when they left, without having to apply for a visa. This can be a slow process, Jimenez said, but the federal government is more quickly processing emergency humanitarian parole applications for people to leave and come back.

“If they have a sick uncle or grandparent outside the country and that person is receiving treatment in the hospital, with a doctor’s letter, they can go see them,” Jimenez said. “I’ve had many clients file, leave and come back within two or so weeks.”

More importantly, Jimenez said, emergency humanitarian parole allows a person to enter the U.S. legally, which opens more doors for their immigration status down the line. “The legal re-entry is really important,” he said.

There are many myths within the undocumented community about what might hurt a person’s chance at citizenship or DACA renewal, Jimenez said.

However,  immigration law has numerous provisions that could help a person’s immigration status, he said, including having been the victim of a crime or having a U.S. citizen family member who is willing to sponsor their undocumented relative.

People also erroneously believe that if they have DACA status, they are not allowed to also pursue these other options.

“There are a large number of DACA recipients who have never spoken to an immigration attorney or someone with expertise with immigration to find out if they have other options for legalizing their status,” Jimenez said. “And many people do have a clear path but just don’t know it. Go to an expert and get that advice.”

“Your community is there for you”

At the immigration attorney’s office that day in 2017, through a wall of tears, Aviles-Zamora watched her mother’s horrified face turn toward hers.

“It was clear she felt responsible and thought she had ruined my whole life by not taking me sooner,” Aviles-Zamora said. “She kept saying she was so sorry and she didn’t know, and I couldn’t stop crying, but kept telling her it was OK.”

Aviles-Zamora was right. She applied — and was granted — work authorization and a Social Security card through another program, the Special Immigrant Juvenile classification, last fall.

The five-year road to get there was ripe with challenges and misinformation.

Later In 2017, Aviles-Zamora moved from Illinois to Colorado with her family and settled into classes at Denver’s John F. Kennedy High School.

She formed close relationships with her teachers and guidance counselor, who steered her toward the Rocky Mountain Immigrant Advocacy Network, a resource for the Colorado immigrant community.

“There are so many places you can get help,” Aviles-Zamora said. “Don’t be afraid to ask. Your community is there for you to help you.”

Aviles-Zamora learned about the federal Special Immigrant Juvenile classification, which provides certain children who have experienced abuse, neglect or abandonment under state law, the ability to seek lawful permanent residence in the U.S.

Her strained relationship with her father escalated to family court and eventually qualified Aviles-Zamora for that classification. She wept on MSU Denver’s campus when she got the call that she had been accepted into the Special Immigrant Juvenile program — a flicker of hope for the young woman who dreams of joining the workforce.

Labor shortages

One of the most important aspects of DACA for many of its recipients is the ability to obtain permits to legally work in the country, which contributes millions to the economy, including through taxes.

At a time when the country is facing severe labor shortages, the end of DACA could be detrimental for many employers, said Alexandre Padilla, professor and chair of the Economics Department at MSU Denver.

Immigrants often accept jobs in industries in which U.S. natives don’t want to work, including frontline work, construction or farming, Padilla said. Cutting or limiting those eligible for DACA also ends up raising costs for businesses that have to replace their workers, research has shown.

In 2017, the Cato Institute, a Libertarian think tank, estimated rescinding DACA would cost American employers $6.3 billion and require them to train 720,000 new employees. Over a 10-year period, the federal government could lose $60 billion in revenue and the impact on the economy as a whole would be a $215 billion loss in gross domestic product.

For Colorado, according to the research, that would total approximately $3.52 billion in costs to the state.

Getting rid of DACA won’t mean an end to people living in the country without authorization, but from an economic standpoint, experts point to negative effects. For example, a 2016 study showed that heads of households who were able to get DACA status saw a 38% reduction in poverty, and those with higher earnings were able to support themselves and their families, Padilla said. They are more likely to purchase homes and put more money into the economy, and their children are healthier and have fewer mental health problems. They are also more likely to pursue educational opportunities.

“The issue with (ending) DACA is that the uncertainty has a host of problems,” Padilla said. And with that uncertainty comes less of an incentive to attend college, innovate and work, which ultimately harms society as a whole, he added.

Undocumented immigrants who have DACA or would be eligible for the program in the U.S. were estimated in 2018 to contribute $1.74 billion per year in state and local taxes, according to the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy.

The consensus among economists, Padilla said, is that the benefits of immigration far outweigh the costs. He believes DACA should actually be expanded rather than eliminated, especially since the number of recipients has dropped significantly since 2018, despite how many people could have been eligible.

“Eliminating DACA might be good politics (appease anti-immigrant sentiments to capture votes and political support), but it is bad economics,” Padilla wrote in a presentation last fall titled “The Economics of DACA: What is Seen and What is Not Seen.”

That’s why Colorado lawmakers like Sen. Julie Gonzales, a Denver Democrat, and Rep. Naquetta Ricks, an Aurora Democrat, are researching ways to support DACA recipients in the state, potentially through future legislation.

Colorado has earned a pro-immigrant reputation in recent years for its policies, including allowing people who are undocumented to get driver’s licenses, enabling undocumented workers to obtain professional licenses, authorizing DACA recipients to work as armed police officers, and making DACA recipients eligible for in-state tuition and financial aid.

Gonzales wants to take stock of what Colorado already has passed and what other states have implemented, but she said the answer may even be something that hasn’t been done before.

“Colorado has led and been groundbreaking on a lot of policy, and as we look to the end of DACA, our community’s going to look to us to lead again,” she said.

State Senate Minority Leader Paul Lundeen, a Monument Republican, said for him, the question of what happens to DACA is representative of a broader federal problem. Lundeen said he wants to see secure sovereign borders, but also a “functioning gate” that people can get through legally to live and work in the country.

The U.S. economy needs immigrants to function, he noted, and he especially wants to see a solution for those living here without documentation who entered the country as children and know only America as their home.

“I hope the federal law will get to a place where we can actually solve the problem,” Lundeen said.

In the meantime, Colorado advocates are looking to statewide solutions that have been tried in other states.

In May, the University of California’s Board of Regents announced a plan to remove hiring restrictions for all students, regardless of their immigration status. MSU Denver, which is governed by its own board of trustees, is looking into whether it could implement a similar initiative, spokesperson Tim Carroll said.

The University of Colorado Board of Regents doesn’t have plans to change its hiring processes on system campuses, according to spokesperson Jeff Howard, but it is “ready to assist impacted students” if changes to DACA occur.

On a smaller scale, CU Boulder clinical law professor Violeta Chapin is working with other faculty and meeting with state business leaders to help DACA recipients and undocumented students start their own businesses — an option that would allow those who lose work authorization to still comply with tax laws — and to provide them with resources.

Chapin, the law school’s associate dean for community and culture, said starting a small business isn’t accessible for everyone, but it’s one alternative to being able to work legally in the U.S. Federal immigration law doesn’t bar immigrants without documentation from owning small businesses.

The immigration clinic at the law school has also hosted presentations about hiring undocumented workers as independent contractors rather than employees because those tax documents don’t ask about citizenship status.

“Don’t lose hope”

The potential end of DACA shifted some of the programming for the nonprofit Juntos Community Colorado, an organization that helps undocumented families access upward mobility and build generational wealth. At first, its focus was on helping undocumented people who were eligible for DACA for the first time, said CEO and founder Luis Antezana. Then the nonprofit pivoted to helping recipients with renewals, including helping provide grants to pay for them, as well as offering entrepreneurship classes.

Antezana, a DACA recipient who immigrated to the U.S. with his family at age 7, didn’t know he was undocumented until he was a senior in high school and wanted to apply for college. He learned that without a Social Security number, he couldn’t seek financial aid and his family couldn’t afford to pay for a university education. It was a difficult time in his life, he said, but he ended up being able to go to a university through a scholarship.

In 2015, Antezana moved to Colorado and worked in education until he decided to dedicate his full-time work to Juntos in 2021. If the DACA program ceases to exist, it would not only impact the work Antezana does with Juntos, but it would also take away his own work authorization.

On one hand, it’s a reminder that “there are people in power, there’s a government that wants to terminate who I am, essentially,” the 31-year-old said. But on the other, “the sun has still risen every day, you’ve still gotten up.”

He plans to continue that work to help people and families find alternatives to DACA and ultimately thrive.

Although DACA may no longer be an option, advocates want to help undocumented people find new paths, like Aviles-Zamora was able to.

She is still awaiting her Social Security card and work authorization. The yearning for these documents that will allow her to pursue a career in law — inspired by her own legal journey — is palpable.

“I was thinking back to 15-year-old me being like, ‘Woah, I thought I was going to get DACA.’ Then I learned I wasn’t going to get DACA,” Aviles-Zamora said. “I thought I was going to have to marry out of high school to get citizenship. I didn’t even know I could apply for college. Now look at me.”

Aviles-Zamora is majoring in English and double-minoring in political science and art history. She dreams of attending law school one day, but, in the meantime, is eyeing an internship at the Denver Art Museum, where she could give tours to bilingual students.

She’s paying for her MSU Denver education through scholarships and can’t wait until she’s able to earn wages with her own work authorization.

“Don’t lose hope,” Aviles-Zamora said. “The legal system and justice system, in general, can be very very stressful and disheartening. You can apply to multiple things at the same time and see what sticks first and keep going.”

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