Uncertainty remains for DACA program despite judge's ruling

Uncertainty remains for DACA program despite judge's ruling

Lissette Contreras can't do much planning for her future. The prospect of having to move back to Mexico City, which she left at age 3, is always in the back of her mind.

The 21-year-old Champaign resident is protected under the DACA, or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, immigration program, which was launched in 2012 as a way to allow those brought to the U.S. illegally as children to become eligible for work permits here.

She's one of an estimated 822,000 undocumented young people across the U.S. who are shielded from deportation due to the Obama-era policy.

On Friday, a federal judge in Texas declined to order that the U.S. government halt the program, marking a blow to President Donald Trump. But U.S. District Judge Andrew Hanen's ruling wasn't a clear win for DACA proponents: In it, he also reiterated that he believes the policy is unconstitutional, adding: "If the nation truly wants to have a DACA program, it is up to Congress to say so."

For Contreras, the uncertainty and waiting game had her scared at first.

Now, she's just impatient.

"We all were scared," she said about her family. "Now at this point, we're trying to prepare as much as we can. If I do move, it's definitely going to be drastic. But it's always hard to fully have a plan, because you always have hope that things will follow through, and you'll be able to stay here."

Up until now, Contreras has done nothing but plan. While in high school, she saved up the $465 necessary to apply for DACA in 2015, and filed the paperwork herself.

Being able to work gave some needed financial relief for her family and let her save enough money to enroll in the surgical technology program at Parkland College in 2016. She doesn't qualify for financial aid because of her status, despite coming from a low-income family.

She just completed a year off of school, having saved up enough money working two jobs day and night to afford the tuition bill due this fall. "It was a lot of leaving one job, getting something to eat, and going to another job. Sometimes, I just go home to go to sleep and wake up again for work," Contreras said. "Just running around kind of holding off talking to my friends and having the 'real college life experience.' But it's got me where I am now."

She also took advantage of early renewal application dates for DACA, and paid the $495 fee. Matt Kuenning, of the Champaign law firm of Erwin, Martinkus and Cole, said many of his clients did the same. Even if the Texas judge had voted in favor of the government and the DACA issue was taken up by the Supreme Court, the rights of immigrants like Contreras couldn't be taken away retroactively, argues Champaign attorney Jack Wilkie.

"Even in these crazy times, I can't conceive how the administration would see fit to pick on this class of people and deport them," he said.

Wilkie added that after DACA runs its two-year course, getting legal status is more complicated. His law office deals mainly with hardship waivers, those cases where petitioners present evidence of extreme hardship — such as a family separation or economic detriment — in an effort to stay, even if they didn't cross the border legally.

Other paths to legal status include a marriage to a U.S. citizen and the issuance of an H1B visa, awarded only to those with degrees from four-year colleges and job offers in the U.S.

Limbo is not a comfortable status to have, Contreras says.

"It's heartbreaking to see so many kids working hard and trying to accomplish those goals while knowing that life can just be ripped away from us at any moment," she said.