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DACA recipients launch legal battle to clear hurdles from the ultimate goal: citizenship

At home, DACA recipient Miriam Delgado holds her daughter Aleha Esquivel, 7, in her lap. Both are smiling.
DACA recipient Miriam Delgado and her daughter Aleha Esquivel, 7, at their home in Whittier.
(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

The first time Miriam Delgado looked into visiting her family in Mexico, her grandmother was in her late 80s and getting weaker by the day.

It was 2013, shortly after Delgado, now 34, had been spared from deportation under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which temporarily shields so-called Dreamers who came to the United States as children and lived here without legal immigration status. Delgado had learned about a provision under DACA that would allow immigrants like her to travel legally for school, work or humanitarian reasons.

But a lawyer told her it still was too risky to travel outside the country. What if she wasn’t allowed back in? Her grandmother died soon after.

Now Delgado, a Cal State Long Beach graduate, and 83 other Dreamers who in August applied for permits to study abroad through a Long Beach organization are suing the Biden administration. On its face, their complaint simply seeks a response from immigration authorities to the applications they submitted nine months ago.

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But if the Dreamers win, and their applications are approved, it could remove some of the hurdles that have kept DACA recipients from gaining citizenship. That pathway had been blocked when President Trump moved to end DACA entirely in 2017. It has remained closed off for many Dreamers, despite a 2020 Supreme Court ruling that DACA must be restored because the Trump administration had failed to give sufficient justification for scrapping the Obama-era program, which protected some 700,000 Dreamers.

“I just can’t dwell on the past. I can only think about what’s immediate and what I can do now moving forward,” Delgado said. “We’ve been waiting. If DACA is in full effect, why is it taking so long?”

A U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services spokeswoman said that the agency does not comment on pending litigation.

Before Trump moved to end the program, nearly 46,000 DACA recipients nationwide were approved for international travel under the provision, called advance parole.

Delgado’s trip had been scheduled for Dec. 15, but because of the delay by USCIS, it was rescheduled for May 15. Under the petition filed April 26 in Los Angeles federal court, she and the other applicants are asking the court to compel the agency to issue decisions by this week.

The Biden administration has disappointed some immigrant advocates, who say the president has been slow to act on campaign promises, which included reuniting separated migrant families, closing private immigration detention centers and ending the Trump-era use of Title 42, an emergency declaration that effectively seals off the border because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

But President Biden also issued a memorandum preserving and fortifying DACA and has prioritized DACA recipients for citizenship under his proposed comprehensive immigration reform bill.

The California-Mexico Studies Center, a named plaintiff in the lawsuit, had led more than 160 DACA recipients on study-abroad trips until 2017, said Chief Executive Armando Vazquez-Ramos, who also is a professor of Chicano and Latino studies at Cal State Long Beach. He said his students feel like anxious novias de rancho — “brides left at the altar.” Although he supports the Biden administration, he said that “sometimes you have to bite the hand that feeds you.”

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“I thought the applications would get through within a month or two after Biden came in,” Vazquez-Ramos said. “More than three months is enough. This is not undermining the administration; it’s asking them to do what they should do anyway.”

Vazquez-Ramos is hopeful that the lawsuit could have broad implications for other Dreamers seeking travel permits.

Shoba Sivaprasad Wadhia, a law professor and director of the Center for Immigrants’ Rights Clinic at the Penn State law school, said it’s worth monitoring whether there’s widespread delay or inaction by USCIS in processing advance parole applications. Though advance parole is discretionary, the regulations are clear that USCIS should make decisions on the applications it receives, she said.

Timeliness is particularly essential in processing the travel permits because they are available to DACA recipients only for time-specific situations, Sivaprasad Wadhia said.

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“There are some real missed opportunities when the government delays adjudication of advance parole,” she said. “If you’re dealing with an emergency situation where you want to be present at the funeral of a loved one, you may not have months.”

Still, Sivaprasad Wadhia cautioned that it could be too early to tell whether the delay is a broader cause for concern.

“It feels like a lifetime for an individual who wants to attend a program before they graduate,” she said. “But it’s actually a relatively short period of time for identifying real trends.”

The California-Mexico Studies Center program offers DACA recipients a chance to study the relationship between Mexico and the U.S. They research their own families and then publish academic papers on themes of migration and border security.

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It’s not for academic credit — some of the participants are still in college, but others have graduated already. They’re from 28 states across the country. Many were born in Mexico, but some are from other countries, including Ecuador and South Korea.

Beyond reconnecting with family, there’s a deeper reason that receiving advance parole is so significant: Returning to the U.S. through an established port of entry erases the black mark of unlawful entry that many DACA recipients live with. Immigrants who leave the U.S. after having entered without authorization are penalized. Someone who was here for six months to a year is banned from returning for three years. And someone who was here longer than a year is banned for 10 years.

Advance parole isn’t specific to DACA. People with pending immigration applications, other types of deferred action and temporary protected status also are eligible.

With unlawful entry penalties wiped away, a DACA recipient who has someone, such as a parent or spouse, to sponsor them for legal residency is cleared to begin their path to citizenship.

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Some Dreamers, such as Sandra Brandt, went on to marry U.S. citizens and attain legal residency. Brandt took her first trip back to Mexico in 2015. The experience of seeing her father and grandmother after 13 years apart was emotional.

“You have guilt, you have happiness, you have sadness, you have the fear of ‘What if I cannot come back?’” she said. “But knowing you have that benefit in at the end — you’re going to have a legal entry. Coming back, it was a relief.”

Brandt married in 2018 and now has a green card.

When the Trump administration ordered the termination of DACA, federal lawsuits kept hundreds of thousands of people from losing their work permits.

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The U.S. District Court in San Francisco ruled in 2018 that the federal government had the discretion to approve advance parole applications for “deserving cases.” USCIS issued guidance stating the agency would grant advance parole applications “in rare instances.”

In response, Vazquez-Ramos launched a campaign to fully restore advance parole. He took DACA recipients to meet with legislators. They traveled to Washington on multiple occasions.

Then-California Sen. Kamala Harris sent a Feb. 12, 2019, congressional letter to top immigration officials in which she wrote that USCIS’ failure to consider advance parole requests had prevented DACA recipients from seeking specialized medical treatment, visiting dying family members and attending funeral services of loved ones.

“Denying DACA recipients an opportunity to travel internationally for study and work is detrimental not only to their personal and professional wellbeing but also undermines the strength of the American economy to which they are contributing their knowledge and skills,” wrote Harris and 35 other lawmakers who signed the letter.

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In December, in compliance with a federal court order, USCIS issued an update about DACA, stating in part that it would accept applications for advance parole “based on the terms of the DACA policy prior to September 5, 2017.”

Delgado and the other applicants say that hasn’t happened.

The Whittier resident was brought to the U.S. at age 6 from the western Mexico state of Colima. She met Vazquez-Ramos while getting her master’s degree in education at Cal State Long Beach, where she wrote her thesis on the experiences of DACA students studying abroad. But for years, she remained too afraid to go herself.

Delgado thinks that Biden, cautious of expending his limited political capital, is wary of making too many changes too quickly. But, just as she got past her own fear, she said, he should too.

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“For so much of our lifetime, many of us couldn’t even dream of going abroad,” she said. “The one thing you’re fearing most, which is being in contact with immigration, is the one thing you have to do.”


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