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Still Dreaming

A DACA recipient, her employer and the local community brace for what's next with immigration reform

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When longtime Bend resident María Veliz was in high school, she was a 4.0 student. With her academic standing, she may have been planning for college—except that during that time she also began to fully understand her immigration status. Brought to the U.S. by her undocumented parents at age 9, without residency or citizenship status, receiving financial aid for college—or earning enough money to pay for college outright—was out of reach.

"I found out that it was just going to be harder for me, so I was just like, 'what's the point of even going to get a career if I'm not even going to be able to work in the country,'" Veliz says.

Facing an uncertain future, Veliz dropped out of high school, eventually earning her GED and working low-paying jobs in fast food and caregiving. That was before 2012 and President Obama's executive action, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). DACA gives undocumented people who came to the U.S. before their 16th birthday the option to apply for a work permit and Social Security card, so long as they've never been convicted of a serious crime, are currently in school or have graduated or earned a GED, and who were living in the U.S. as of June 2012.

While the program doesn't offer the same legal status that would be offered under the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act—a bill in Congress that has been continually shot down since its introduction in 2001—DACA does give people like Veliz a chance to work legally. She—along with more than 844,000 others—have applied since 2012. Of those, 78 percent are Mexican, more than 7 percent are from Central America, 10,000 are from South Korea, and thousands more are from India, the Philippines and Poland, according to U.S. News & World Report.

"It wasn't easy because I had to go back to when I was in elementary school to get transcript information and all that kind of stuff just to prove that I had actually been here for that amount of time," Veliz says. "As soon as I was approved and I got that (DACA) it was like, 'oh my god...I finally have a chance of focusing on something better other than working at a restaurant.'"

Veliz now works at a clinic, earning a wage that allows her to provide for her three daughters. But with a promise by President-elect Donald Trump to roll back DACA and to stop subsequent efforts to grant amnesty to some other undocumented workers, some people, including Veliz, are worried.

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During a speech in August, Trump said: "For those here illegally today who are seeking legal status, they will have one route and one route only. To return home and apply for re-entry like everybody else under the rules of the new legal immigration system that I have outlined today." In a later speech in August, Trump said he was open to a "softening" on some immigration policies—but it's not yet clear what that will mean.

The morning after the election, Veliz says she came to work crying and felt the need to come clean to co-workers—and eventually her boss. "To them it was just another president, so I don't think they fully understood why it had affected me," Veliz says. "The response that I got was like, 'wow, I had no idea that people live with this here, and you know I'm sorry for my ignorance around this subject and I didn't know,' and so I feel pretty supported at work."

The Employer Dilemma

On Nov. 15, the Los Angeles-based National Immigration Law Center issued new recommendations about what DACA recipients should do now. First, NILC reminds DACA recipients that their immigration status is private, but not without risk. "Since DACA was created in 2012, anyone deciding whether or not to apply for it has had to weigh the benefits and risks of applying. When you provide information about yourself to immigration authorities—by submitting the DACA application—you are taking a risk," NILC said on its website.

"DACA holders are very concerned that their parents might suffer consequences since their information was shared on the application. And in the event that a Trump administration cancels the DACA program, they are super concerned about their own well-being and that of their children—since without some other remedy, work will be difficult to come by," said Brad Porterfield, executive director of Central Oregon's Latino Community Association.

At Central Oregon's NeighborImpact, Executive Director Scott Cooper says his organization is aware of having several DACA recipients on its staff, playing a vital role in serving the organization's Hispanic population.

"We've gotten some great workers of various documented statuses because the hardest thing to find is a bilingual population," Cooper says. "There's a great deal of competition for bilingual speakers and so if you've got good folks and they've got papers, you're delighted to be able to hire them." Still, Cooper says he's talked extensively with his human resources department about what could come.

"We've very much talked about it and what we will do is follow the law, whatever the law is," Cooper says. "When you receive one-third of your funding, as we do, from the federal government, you don't try and take high stances in opposition to the federal government."

Still, it's not easy for Cooper. "It's all well and good to talk about this in theory, but when you meet one of these bright young people who has graduated from one of our local high schools, who has been friends with one of our kids, who we have cheered on at one of our sporting events, and you think that kid now doesn't have a place to go...it breaks your heart," Cooper says.

"The doctor that I work with was like, 'you don't deserve to be dealing with this fear right now,'" Veliz laments.

Bracing for Impact

For the moment, Veliz says she's attending meetings organized by local activist Greg Delgado, giving people information about what to do if U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents come to their door.

"A lot of people just go into panic mode and they don't realize that they also do have rights," Veliz says. She's also quick to point out that those rights don't include government handouts. "A lot of people feel that with this Social Security card I can claim welfare, I can claim food stamps, I can get free rent assistance, but I don't get any sort of benefits with that. This Social Security card is just for work purposes."

"Let's hope none of this comes to pass and keep our eyes on the prize which is comprehensive immigration reform that needs to happen BEFORE any changes to DACA are made and BEFORE any enforcement of non-criminal immigrants currently living and working in the U.S.," says Porterfield.

Meanwhile, Veliz says she's enjoying what could be the last couple months of gainful employment. When her girls ask what will happen to the family, Veliz says, "It's hard because I want to tell them it's going to be OK but I don't know if that's for sure. I don't know if we are going to be OK."

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