Panel: DACA decision has caused anxiety among families, communities

In honor of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy, Erikson hosted a discussion around issues related to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals immigration policy.

Since its inception in 2012, the federal Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy has profoundly shaped the lives of millions of families in the United States, providing an avenue for certain undocumented immigrants to achieve the American dream.

However, President Donald J. Trump’s executive order last year rescinding the policy poses new risks for families who have benefitted from DACA, issues that a panel of community leaders who work with immigrant populations discussed during an event at Erikson Institute in January.

Billed as a “teach-in” about DACA and organized by Erikson’s Social Justice Coalition, Student Committee, Doctoral Student Association, and DACA Committee, the panel discussion marked Erikson’s annual recognition of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy. Each year, faculty, staff, students, and alumni come together for an event that addresses issues of social justice, particularly ones affecting children and families.

“If everything went as Trump had planned, people would start to be at risk for deportation March 6,” said panelist Katya Nuques, executive director of Enlace Chicago, referencing a recent court ruling forcing the Trump administration to accept DACA renewal applications. “At my organization, we are trying to use this temporary window. We’re desperate to get people in our door to help process their applications.”

Since former President Barack Obama issued his own executive order establishing DACA, many undocumented immigrants who were brought to the United States as children have been able to apply for “deferred action,” temporary protection from deportation that can be renewed every two years. The policy has enabled many young immigrants to attend college, find jobs, and start families in America, said Erikson Professor Cassandra McKay Jackson, PhD.

Firsthand experience

One of those individuals, Idalia Gutierrez, was part of the panel. Gutierrez talked about how her family came to the United States when she was a child and ended up overstaying their visa. After college, she struggled to find work because of her immigration status. But when DACA was established, she applied and received her work permit. Today, she is a dual-language teacher in Highland Park, Illinois.

“I remember where I was when President Obama announced the executive order,” she said. “I was on my way home from St. Louis from watching a baseball game. My high school French teacher was the first one who called me. She said, ‘You have to apply for this.’

“As soon as I was able to, I did. I completed my own application. I remember feeling very strongly about doing it on my own. I had been here since I was 11. I knew how to read; I had done my own taxes.”

Even for people like Gutierrez whose DACA applications were approved, the process is not without anxiety — for themselves and other members of their families. The application requires information about other household members, and often, these people are undocumented and ineligible for DACA protections.

Relationships matter

Giving information to the government can generate fears of future deportation and the possibility that the family could be separated, said panelist Rosa Julia Garcia Rivera, director of programs at Gads Hill Center.

Even when community organizations and civic groups arrange informational sessions on applying for DACA and understanding immigrant rights, Garcia Rivera explained, they can struggle to attract families due to fear and suspicion that they are being tricked into exposing themselves to the government for deportation.

Now, she said, Trump’s executive order has prompted even greater anxiety.

“We’ve had some very scary conversations with families,” she said. “The first thing we do is focus on our relationships with them. We let them know we are a safe place — a sanctuary agency — and that we stand by them no matter what.

“We don’t just have one person trained in these issues — we train everyone from teachers to receptionists to kitchen aids. It’s not just one person who has to build a relationship — its 110 people on our staff who know how to serve our families.”

‘Individualized Approach’

Throughout the discussion, audience members submitted questions via note cards. One attendee asked how clinicians can help children and families they work with regarding DACA and immigration issues.

Every person deals with these issues differently, Nuques said, and it’s important to be ready to point people to the appropriate resources, such as lawyers, therapists, or community organizers.

“Be aware of how fear and uncertainty manifest themselves,” added Garcia Rivera. “Imagine what that does to your intrinsic motivation: ‘How do I pay for my education? Why even keep going if I cant find a job?’ It can look different in every family depending on the number of children they have and their ages. Never stop taking that individualized approach with your families. Ask questions; know their background.”

Panelists also discussed resources that professionals can reference to support their work with children and families who might face issues related to immigration. For instance, understanding facts about immigration raids and how to respond in the event of one, and knowing how to build ties with a community that includes undocumented immigrants can go a long way to helping serve families. Additional resources are available here.

Our support for DACA

Erikson President and Chief Executive Officer Geoffrey A. Nagle, PhD, shares a message about Erikson’s position on the DACA policy and the potential impact on children and families if it ends. Read more