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DACA faces ongoing challenge, AZ immigration advocates call for change

AZ Mirror: More than 30,000 DACA recipients call Arizona home, but a federal judge’s ruling earlier this week — which determined the policy that shields them from deportation is illegal — puts their future safety in jeopardy.

By Gloria Rebecca Gomez, AZ Mirror

On Wednesday, U.S. District Judge Andrew Hanen sided with nine Republican-led states in an ongoing dispute against DACA, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, a program first created by former President Barack Obama in 2012 via an executive order and now backed by President Joe Biden. The Biden administration attempted to resolve Hanen’s original complaint against the program — that it hadn’t undergone the legally mandated public comment period — by revamping it as an administrative rule with the required time for public input. But Hanen remained unimpressed, writing that immigration reform is under the purview of Congress, not the president.

“Congress, for any number of reasons, has decided not to pass DACA-like legislation,” Hanen wrote. “The Executive Branch cannot usurp the power bestowed on Congress by the Constitution — even to fill a void.”

While Arizona was among the first opponents to the DACA program, with former Attorney General Mark Brnovich joining a coalition of 11 states to challenge the Obama-era version during President Donald Trump’s presidency, current Attorney General Kris Mayes has taken a vastly different position. The Democrat, along with 22 other attorneys general, urged Hanen to preserve the program, arguing that DACA recipients are an invaluable asset for their states. And in a post on X, the site formerly known as Twitter, Mayes lamented Hanen’s decision.

“There are more than 30,700 Arizonans who have directly benefited from DACA,” she wrote, on Thursday. “These protections have allowed them to build their lives here, and our state is better because of it. Attempts to abruptly end this program are misguided and just plain wrong.”

For local immigrant advocacy organizations, Hanen’s ruling came as no surprise. This isn’t the first time Hanen has opposed DACA; the program has been unable to accept new applicants for two years, after an order from Hanen in 2021 effectively froze the program, allowing only renewals and new applicant submissions. Since then, as many as 44,000 more undocumented Arizonans have become eligible for the program but are unable to benefit from the work permit and safety from deportation that comes with it.

Cesar Fierros, spokesman for Living United for Change in Arizona, a progressive social advocacy and immigrant rights group, said it’s time for Congress to step up.

“There needs to be swift action and a unified front from the Biden administration to Democrats in Congress to deliver on the promises they’ve made on the campaign trail, and deliver immigration reform,” he said.

A legislative solution is the only certain way for both DACA recipients and other undocumented people to be protected. The case against the federal policy is expected to be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, and advocates are skeptical that the newly conservative-majority bench will rule in favor of the program.

But unless Democrats can recapture the U.S. House of Representatives, a solution from the halls of Congress is unlikely. As many as 11 attempts to pass immigration reform have failed to move forward in the past 20 years.

Fierros denounced the efforts from Republican politicians to demonize and stall immigration reform, saying the party’s position is completely at odds with public opinion.

“There’s a lot of politics at play here that’s been holding up comprehensive immigration reform,” he said. “Unfortunately the GOP has weaponized this issue to rile their base up and used our immigrant communities as a scapegoat. (Wednesday’s) decision is just one example of Republicans taking another calculated step to derail DACA and a future where immigration reform becomes a reality.”

As much as 74% of Americans agree that Congress should grant legal status to undocumented people brought to the country as children, and 75% support the idea of a legal pathway for all undocumented people to remain in the U.S. as long as they meet certain eligibility requirements.

Fierros said that Proposition 308, which leveled the playing field for undocumented students seeking higher education in the Grand Canyon State, is a good indicator of Arizonans’ support for their undocumented neighbors. The measure was approved by a narrow margin of 51% to 48%, allowing undocumented students who graduated from an Arizona high school to pay in-state tuition and access state-funded scholarships.

Immigration reform is urgently needed, Fierros said. The U.S. and Arizona reap economic benefits from an increased and stable workforce. In the Grand Canyon State, DACA recipients are an active part of the economy, contributing an estimated $93.3 million in state and local taxes and representing more than $763 million in spending power. In the end, it’s simply the right thing to do, Fierros said.

“The state is stronger when we keep communities intact and don’t see families being ripped apart by bad policies,” he said.

Pedro Gonzalez-Aboyte moved with his family to the U.S. when he was just 2 years old from Sinaloa, Mexico. Receiving DACA at 16 helped Gonzalez-Aboyte breathe a sigh of relief, mitigating the constant fear of deportation and allowing him to consider his future with more hope.

“DACA is everything to me,” he told the Mirror. “It’s opened up a lot of opportunities for me.”

“Just the fact that I was able to receive DACA gave me that confidence and energy to say ‘Hey, if I’m already here, I can do so much more,’” he added.

After graduating from high school in Arizona, Gonzalez-Aboyte went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in psychology. Now he connects undocumented families and youth, including other DACA recipients, to resources as a family and community liaison with Aliento, an immigrant advocacy organization.

The ongoing dispute over whether or not undocumented people deserve a place in the U.S. is frustrating, especially when DACA recipients have proven themselves several times over, Gonzalez-Aboyte said. Recipients are required to renew their applications every two years, at a $495 submission cost each time. And eligible applicants must either be enrolled in school or have obtained a diploma or GED. Any felony conviction or significant misdemeanor results in a rejected application.

“We’re all either going to school or working and we’re contributing to society, so why do we have to be separated?” Gonzalez-Aboyte asked.

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