Singing in Spanish accompanied by guitar music fills Berkeley United Methodist Church. Some people in the pews talk quietly. But it is not a peaceful quiet.
An immigration attorney enters the South Austin church, and the music stops. He speaks to about 12 people hoping for advice on how they or their children can legally remain in the U.S.
Some 121,000 Texas immigrants, brought to the U.S. illegally as children, are shielded from deportation by the Obama administration’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA. The Trump administration announced this month it is phasing out the program in March and those immigrants, most attending colleges and universities or in the work force, are now scrambling to see how they can stay in the U.S.
One of them is Luis Ortega, 23, who was born in Mexico and moved to the U.S. when he was a small child. He is studying public relations at Austin Community College and works at Lowe’s.
“It is hard,” Ortega said a day after the meeting at the church, which he organized with his Austin nonprofit Immigrants United. Losing DACA means losing his work permit and driver’s license. “I have been able to help my parents financially, help myself pay for my college. I have bought a car,” he said.
“What do you do when you don’t have a job and you have stuff to pay out?” he said. Some of his friends who are DACA recipients are the main breadwinners for their families, he said.
Ortega has applied to renew his DACA status for two years. DACA permits expiring before March 5 can be extended by two years at a cost of $495. Oct. 5 is the deadline to renew unless Congress makes the program permanent before March 5.
Congressional Republicans applauded President Donald Trump’s move, saying former President Barack Obama exceeded his authority by creating the DACA program.
Ortega’s parents were full of hope when they heard about DACA in 2012. When he was 3 years old his father decided to leave Mexico for the U.S. to find work. He started working as a dishwasher. Ortega’s mother followed him with their son a year later.
“They were looking for a better life for me,” Ortega said. His sister was born in the U.S. and holds U.S. citizenship. His parents still lack legal status. Initially, Ortega was concerned about applying for the program because he was afraid to let authorities know he didn’t have legal status. But his family persuaded him. “This was a big opportunity for me, and it was opening up a lot of doors,” he said.
While it is unclear if federal officials would initiate deportation proceedings against DACA recipients when the program ends, they will likely lose their jobs, driver’s licenses and probably have to give up higher education studies due to high costs.
“It is damaging our society as a whole, because 800,000 people who have dreams and are pursuing them and raising our society up, now they maybe have to let those dreams go,” Austin immigration attorney Kate Lincoln-Goldfinch said.
She urged those with DACA status to visit an immigration attorney or immigration clinic, many of which provide free advice, to explore options.
“Immigration law is like the tax code. It is incredibly complex, and there are all sorts of remedies available to people that they may not know about,” she said. For example, those who have a parent, spouse or child with U.S. citizenship or permanent resident status might have a chance to stay. Also, some jobs might afford the opportunity to stay, she said. People who have suffered some type of hardship could also qualify for immigration benefits, she said.
A significant percentage of DACA recipients will have no other option, she said. Still, they wouldn’t be removed from the country without court proceedings. “They have a right to defend themselves,” Lincoln-Goldfinch said.
Ortega said he can’t imagine moving to Mexico. “I have lived in the U.S. for 18 years. Really, there is no other place I can call home. Back in Mexico we don’t have any family left,” he said. “I don’t know anyone. Where would I go?”
As executive director of Immigrants United, Ortega wants to push Congress to adopt DACA legislation. He said he and the other people affected did not push hard enough for legislation while Obama was president.
“We learned from that experience and we cannot let that happen again. This is time to mobilize,” Ortega said.