Students, advocates cautiously optimistic for Biden's immigration reform

Dreamers look toward Congress for approval on President Joe Biden's permanent plan for DACA

When Maria Garcia was growing up, she was not always aware of the obstacles young undocumented people faced. She thought her path to college would be simpler, much like her older brother's.

But her brother was a Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals recipient, and she wasn't. She quickly became aware that her status as undocumented meant that she wouldn't have in-state tuition, and there were no publicly funded scholarships.

"It was honestly the worst feeling, my heart sunk," Garcia said in an email. "I could not believe that I had no idea how my status was going to affect my education."

Garcia, now a freshman studying aerospace engineering, received a privately funded scholarship to attend school, but she still awaits DACA approval. 

The program was originally installed by the Obama administration in 2012 to provide temporary permits and protection against deportation for Dreamers, or children who were brought to the U.S. before getting documentation. But it faced legal battles after former President Donald Trump rescinded the program in 2017. It wasn't until December 2020, when a federal judge ordered the Department of Homeland Security to begin retaking applications, when Garcia could begin the application process for DACA. 

“Having DACA would give me peace of mind and not only in the financial aspect but also (with) my safety," Garcia said.

On his first day in office, President Joe Biden reinstated DACA, just the first step toward finding a permanent solution for undocumented people after rolling back some of the Trump administration's policies. 

On Feb. 18, Biden began unraveling the details of his plan for immigration, called the U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021, would create an eight-year path to citizenship for undocumented individuals nationwide, giving DACA recipients a more clear future in the U.S.

From the implementation of DACA to March 2017, the DHS and U.S. Citizenship & Immigration Services reported that just under 1.5 million students nationwide received approval or renewal of their application. In Arizona alone, there were over 50,000 students who were approved or had their approvals renewed.

“I’m the youngest of four in my family, and all of us were DACA recipients. It allowed us to work and buy homes. I was able to get my master’s degree, my siblings have advanced their careers and each have side businesses. So, DACA has made a huge amount of impact (on my life),” said Jose Patiño, director of education and external affairs at Aliento AZ, a Phoenix-based organization dedicated to the wellbeing of undocumented youth. 

Biden’s plan will, if passed, immediately provide legal permanent residency to Dreamers and immigrants with temporary protected status.

Biden is also facing criticism for his immigration policies from across the political spectrum. His use of detention centers frustrated some Democrats, while Republicans, including Gov. Doug Ducey, have been accusing Biden of leniency at the border even after Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said "the border is closed" on NBC's "Meet the Press" on Sunday.

But Biden’s plan faces an uphill battle in Congress, as many lawmakers are in favor of smaller, more targeted bills.

Ivan Quintana, a senior double majoring in criminology and criminal justice and public service and public policy, said the plan is “great on paper," but will require a lot of negotiating with those against accessible immigration.

Quintana, who immigrated to the U.S. from Mexico to pursue a better education, is worried that this will be another promised piece of legislation that never passes.

“Under the Obama administration, our communities were told that DACA and the DREAM Act would be the first step ... as you can see that’s been in limbo since 2008,” he said.

The DREAM Act is one of the pathways for individuals to be immediately eligible for legal permanent residency status. Requirements include a high school diploma/GED, entering the U.S. under 18 and working toward receiving a bachelor’s degree. 

However, Quintana believes the nation’s economic downturn post-COVID-19 may be the key to real change.

“Immigration policies are going to be one of the best ways we can stimulate the economy,” Quintana said.

By removing the barriers to accessible education, students will be able to obtain an education and enter the workforce with higher-paying jobs, resulting in a “big financial return," Quintana said.

According to a report by the Center for American Progress in 2017, Arizona DACA workers provided the state with an estimated 685,000 jobs and over $1.3 billion in Gross Domestic Product annually.

Quintana believes the pandemic “might be the incentive that finally allows something like this to happen.”

Challenges in Congress

Reyna Montoya, CEO and founder of Aliento and an ASU alumna, is cautiously optimistic about the legislation getting through Congress.

“I was really excited to see that he put a plan forward,” Montoya said. “But, for me, what’s more important is actions. As a DACA recipient, my future is uncertain and time is of the essence.”

Opponents of the bill argue the bill lacks border security measures and will "devastate opportunities for American workers," U.S. Rep. Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.) said in a press release.

Montoya said Congress can attempt to control illegal border crossings by addressing “the root causes" to make "a legal system that is actually functional." For instance, people emigrating from Mexico must wait at least 22 years to qualify for a green card, which Montoya feels is unfair and unrealistic. The Citizenship Act looks to change that by addressing visa backlogs and wait times.

Despite Biden's rushed attempt to find a solution for DACA students and a path to citizenship, he is still facing criticism across the spectrum for his immigration policies.

“No one wants to be undocumented," Montoya said. "That’s what we forget. People would do it the right way and people would get in line if there was a line that was fair."

Montoya, along with the Democratic leadership, believes it would be more realistic to first approve the DREAM Act, which has “overwhelming support with the American public and both Democrats and Republicans.” 

“It’s only fair to be able to find solutions for people who are already in the country,” Montoya said. “If both Republicans and Democrats say they support Dreamers, then let’s start there.”

On March 18, the U.S. House of Representatives passed two of the main platforms of the Citizenship Act as Democrats began their "piecemeal" approach. 

The American Dream and Promise Act, which would create a clear and permanent path to citizenship for DACA recipients and Dreamers, passed with all Democratic support and nine Republicans supporting the bill. The Farm Workforce Modernization Act, which would create a path to citizenship for farmers who are undocumented, passed with 30 Republicans supporting it. In order to pass the Senate, the bills need at least 60 votes each. 

“In an ideal world, I would love to see something comprehensive, but we have seen Congress has attempted that and has failed, so let's make sure we start where there’s consensus,” Montoya said. 


Reach the reporters at omccann1@asu.edu and jspange1@asu.edu and follow @ocmccann and @jspangenthal94 on Twitter. 

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