Daniela Sigala was initially afraid to provide the government with her information to apply for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program because it could have exposed her family.
After her brother went through the process, Sigala decided to apply for the program that gives immigrants brought to the country as children the ability to legally work and provides deferred action for deportation.
But then, in 2017 President Donald Trump’s administration stopped accepting first-time applications. At the time, Sigala was a high school student and remembers teachers holding a meeting to explain the changes.
“I thought I would only be able to make it to high school graduation,” Sigala said. “It would be a roadblock in everything I wanted to do in my life. I remember thinking college wasn’t an option for me anymore.”
But a federal court order Friday reopened the door for first-time applicants to get DACA protections, and Sigala, 20, of Back of the Yards, is among an estimated 28,860 people in Illinois who could be eligible for the program, according to an analysis from the Migration Policy Institute, a D.C.-based think tank.
The federal program has faced hurdles for years, leaving young immigrants with uncertainty about their future. Sigala plans to resubmit her application, but she is wary of getting her hopes up again. Earlier this year, she and others thought a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that upheld the program would have meant new applications would be accepted, but the Trump administration later announced it wasn’t.
“I remember it being a really emotional time,” Sigala said. “It felt like a big hit to not just myself but my community and the many undocumented that I know didn’t get a chance to put in an application as well.”
Vanessa Esparza-López, a managing attorney at the National Immigrant Justice Center, said it’s been an exhausting process keeping up with the changes.
“The government keeps playing pingpong with individuals’ lives,” Esparza-López said. “As a practitioner, it’s hard going back and forth with the advice. It’s exhausting for our clients.”
While the Department of Homeland Security in a statement Monday said it would comply with the court order, the agency is also working on an appeal with the U.S. Department of Justice.
“DHS wholly disagrees with this decision by yet another activist judge acting from his own policy preferences,” said Chase Jennings, a spokesman for the agency, in an email.
As of June 30, there were 34,140 DACA recipients in Illinois, with most living in the Chicago area, according to statistics from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. The Migration Policy Institute estimates that in total, there could be 63,000 DACA recipients in Illinois if those who were eligible would apply.
The court order issued Friday by U.S. District Judge Nicholas Garaufis also lets DACA recipients renew their status every two years instead of annually, as Trump administration rules had required.
In suburban Bolingbrook, the Southwest Suburban Immigrant Project moved quickly to create a social media toolkit and organize free virtual and contactless workshops that were set to start Wednesday in hopes of helping people submit DACA applications as soon as Friday, said José Eduardo Vera, the executive director of the organization.
“We know that while Trump is still in office, there is always a risk of additional hurdles for the immigrant community nonstop,” said Vera, adding that they are watching another pending court case involving the program that could once again bring changes to DACA.
He recommends those submitting applications make copies of their documents and take inventory of all the places the person has lived. People could inquire about assistance to pay for the application through their home country’s consulate or immigration organizations.
Those seeking DACA must be at least 15 years old but had to be under the age of 31 on June 15, 2012, according to USCIS. To apply, the person had to have been brought to the U.S. before their 16th birthday, and the person has to be either enrolled in school, completed high school or gotten a general education development certificate.
It costs $495 to apply for DACA, according to USCIS. Among the documentation needed to apply — which could range from school records to tax records — it must prove a person was brought to the U.S. before turning 16 and that the person was living in the country on June 15, 2012, according to USCIS.
Sigala said her family never got their money back when she first applied for the program. Sigala, who is studying health sciences at Malcolm X College, said she has all her documentation ready to apply soon.
As a teen, Kathia Perez didn’t have a job so she figured she couldn’t pay the DACA application fee. She grew up being told not to talk about her immigration status so it wasn’t until around age 18 that she started to learn of resources for undocumented students.
But by then, the Trump administration had stopped accepting first-time DACA applications.
“That year, I shut down,” Perez said about her senior year in high school. “I ended up not applying anywhere. I was a top student in my high school. I’m sure people wondered why I didn’t apply for college.”
Perez, now 21, has spent the past couple of months in Waukegan completing her first semester at a community college. She wants to one day work as a high school English teacher.
After news of Friday’s court order, she’s looking through documents she’s held onto since 2017 and plans to apply soon.
“It’s been the good news at the end of the semester knowing that this semester was worth it,” Perez said. “Now I can apply for the first time. I’m old enough to do something about it and take my own action even if my parents aren’t able to support me.”
Having DACA protections will set Perez on a different path by opening up job opportunities and the possibility of transferring to a four-year institution, she said.
Like Perez, Luis Rodriguez is thinking of the educational opportunities DACA could open for him. Rodriguez, 20, plans to apply for DACA for the first time. He could also apply with more ease for an architecture program that requires a study abroad component.
“Maybe I can do it,” he said.
The court order also called for the program to reinstate advance parole, which allowed those with DACA to travel outside of the country. But Esparza-López said those who want to travel outside of the country should still consult with an attorney or a nonprofit organization before doing so.
While immigration advocates call the action a win, many were pushing for more to be done. In a statement, the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights said it was calling on President-elect Joe Biden to open eligibility for DACA to more immigrant youths, include the parents of recipients and remove other restrictions.
Esparza-López said lawmakers should look at creating legislation to address those living in the country without authorization and those who are eligible for DACA — “so that their livelihood isn’t subject to [the] political whims of whoever is in charge of the Executive Branch,” she said.
Elvia Malagón’s reporting on social justice and income inequality is made possible by a grant from the Chicago Community Trust.