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As deadline looms, legal service providers ramp up DACA renewal efforts

In the basement of the Cal State Northridge library on a recent weekend, attorney Julia Vazquez was giving one student a speech she has practiced a lot lately.

“This goes over your rights to remain silent and to ask for a warrant before anyone comes inside,” she said, gesturing at a red card she instructed the student to put into his wallet. “The No. 1 thing I tell people is do not speak without an attorney.”

Vazquez, an immigration law professor at Southwestern Law School, and several other volunteer attorneys were holding a legal clinic for beneficiaries of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA.

The program, created by President Obama in 2012, enables young immigrants who entered the U.S. illegally as children to obtain work authorization and receive a temporary reprieve from deportation.

The Trump administration announced last month it would end DACA in March and called on Congress to pass a more permanent fix. It said it would continue to process initial applications that were already pending and renewal applications received by Thursday.

With that deadline looming, legal clinics on college campuses and elsewhere have boosted efforts to help the so-called Dreamers, even as attorneys battle conflicting messages from the administration and urge clients to prepare for worst-case scenarios.

Angelica Salas, executive director of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights, said clients have been showing up as early as 3 a.m. to be first in line at legal clinics. Staff have asked some clients with issues unrelated to DACA to reschedule — and they have willingly obliged.

“We basically are in emergency mode,” she said.

California is home to more than one-fourth of the nation’s nearly 800,000 DACA recipients. Many attend community colleges, California State University or the University of California.

Those systems do not track students’ immigration status, but Assembly Bill 540, a state law that enables some students who are in the U.S. illegally to qualify for in-state college tuition, provides a rough proxy. In 2015 about 61,000 students at community colleges, 10,000 at Cal State and 3,700 at UC received in-state tuition benefits under AB 540.

At the workshop in the library basement, Brenda Montes, a private immigration attorney, began walking a student through the renewal process. At one point, she asked him to call his mom so she could confirm the details of how he arrived in the U.S.

“There’s a huge red flag [to immigration officials] if there’s any discrepancy” between the initial application and the renewal, Montes said.

Flores, who asked to be identified only by last name for fear of outing himself to immigration authorities, submitted his previous DACA applications on his own, but he had come to the clinic this time because he needed help with the $495 fee.

Before receiving DACA, Flores said, he worked 12 hours a day at a cleaners and attended community college. Today he studies computer programming and works in university information technology. “The part that hurts the most is that I worked my ass off to get to where I’m at,” he said, tears welling in his eyes. “I’m not even there yet but I know I have so much potential.”

Attorneys serving students like Flores say the administration’s announcement has taken a toll on students’ mental health.

“The anxiety from having been undocumented, knowing what that feels like, having the opportunity to taste freedom, and now having to go back — that is the unseen piece,” Salas said.

Flores said he had always been hyper-vigilant of rules, never driving above the speed limit and even counting the seconds he waited at stop signs. “When I got DACA I felt like I could relax and I felt hopeful,” he said. “Now… I’m left in limbo.”

Maria Blanco, executive director of UC Immigrant Legal Services Center, said DACA had enabled students to envision professional careers for the first time. “The idea that that might not exist is causing tremendous anxiety, as much as the possibility of deportation,” she said. “They think, ‘What is this all about if I’m not going to get my degree?’ We hear this over and over.”

Mayra Perez, a freshman at Cal State Northridge, said she applied for DACA as soon as she became old enough to qualify. She studies full-time and works part-time at a Carl’s Jr. restaurant and hopes to become a lawyer herself. “That paper that says I can stay here, that’s what I revolve my whole life around,” she said. “If they take that away, what am I going to do?”

Blanco is encouraging students not to make any hasty decisions.

“We just say, ‘Let’s do this [renewal]. A lot can happen between now and March 5,’” she said.

In addition to helping students apply for DACA renewal, legal services providers are screening them for all other possible forms of relief.

“About 15 to 20% of people who have DACA or come in to get DACA, if they’re screened it turns out they have more permanent remedies,” Blanco said. Those could include, for example, asylum, special status for juveniles, visas for victims of trafficking or other crimes, or cancellation of removal.

Attorneys are encouraging anyone whose DACA expires before March 5 to complete their renewal by Tuesday and overnight it via FedEx to the appropriate U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services lockbox by Wednesday morning at the latest.

nina.agrawal@latimes.com

Twitter: @AgrawalNina

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