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Sonoma County DACA youth face renewal deadline with a sense of resignation

Students and other demonstrators hold a march and rally on the campus of Sonoma State University in protest to the Trump administration rescinding the Delayed Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, in Rohnert Park, California on Tuesday, September 5, 2017. Montes (Alvin Jornada / The Press Democrat)

CHRISTI WARREN AND MARTIN ESPINOZA,

For Sonoma County immigrants participating in the federal Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, Thursday’s final renewal deadline came and went with a sense of uncertainty, but also hope.

Across the country, 77 percent, or 118,000, of the 154,000 DACA recipients eligible for a two-year renewal applied for the Obama-era program, which shielded from deportation undocumented immigrants who were brought into the United States as children. That’s a fraction of the country’s 800,000 DACA youth.

In Sonoma County, that renewal period ending Thursday benefited only an estimated 430 of the county’s roughly 3,000 DACA youth.

The program, which President Trump ended Sept. 5, allowed participants to legally work, obtain driver’s licenses, serve in the military and more easily pursue a higher education.

Unless Congress steps in to resurrect DACA, the vast majority of DACA youth in Sonoma County are facing a return to their prior status. Among those not eligible to apply for an extension is Omar Santiago, the 22-year-old president of Sonoma State University’s UndocuScholars Coalition, who first applied for protected status on his 18th birthday, March 9, 2013. After two renewals, his DACA protections end March 2019.

“I am feeling determined,” he said. “I’m always hopeful, for sure, as long as I can breathe, I can do something for my community.”

He feels uncertain about the future, too, and like other DACA recipients, hopeful that with the program’s discontinuation, Congress could create a better path to citizenship for people like him.

“A lot of people are actually going and emailing their congressmen, their representatives,” he said. “That’s the idea going on right now, so people are really, you know, pushing for (a path).”

Santiago came to the United States from Mexico at the age of 5, sitting alongside his younger brothers in the backseat of a car driven by people pretending to be his parents. His real parents, meanwhile, made the long, dangerous crossing through the desert.

But that’s all he knows. They don’t like to talk about it, he said.

For now, Santiago is focused on the future. A history major, he hopes to attend graduate school after leaving Sonoma State.

“I’m going to keep on fighting,” he said. “And I know that I have allies with me, people that recognize my struggles and the struggles of other undocumented people ... If you stick together, anything is possible.”

Bay Area immigration attorney Christopher Kerosky pointed out that President Trump’s 2-year renewal period for DACA youth only applied to a small number of DACA recipients.

When Trump announced on Sept. 5 he was eliminating the program, he gave those whose DACA expired by March 5, 2018 the opportunity to renew. However, those eligible had to renew by Thursday, Oct. 5.

All other DACA participants — about 2,500 youth in Sonoma County, according to rough estimates — could not extend their protections. Trump challenged Congress to craft a legislative solution for DACA youth.

“I think there’s a lot of desperation,” said Kerosky.

“You’re talking about people who have been integrated in our society for the last several years, which means that many of them have jobs in back offices, in high tech, in other office jobs that have relatively high salaries.”

Some of them work for the government, he said. “And all of them will lose their position unless there’s a Congressional solution within the next few months,” Kerosky said.

Since Sept. 5, the county has hosted four separate clinics for people seeking answers following Trump’s decision to phase out DACA as part of an initiative intended to alleviate fears among the undocumented community.

In all, about 100 people attended the clinics, where immigration attorneys were on hand to provide assistance and information, said Alegria De La Cruz, chief deputy county counsel and coordinator for the county’s immigration initiative.

“More than anything, now is the time to continue to have a conversation with each other and share stories so that people really understand some of the complicated issues that we face, that we need to solve together, and that people (understand they) are not alone in this time,” she said.

One key concern is what will happen to all the DACA recipients who are now legally employed.

At Petaluma Health Center, some 10 percent of the roughly 40 employees are DACA youth. Pedro Toledo, chief administrative officer of the Petaluma Health Center, said if Congress does not come up with a solution, the health center will have to let go of its DACA employees.

“If nothing changes and they lose their work authorization, then they wouldn’t be eligible to work for us, unfortunately, because we are a federally qualified health center,” Toledo said.

Toledo said the health center has assisted its DACA employees by offering them low- or no-cost loans to cover the cost of both the DACA renewal fee and immigration attorney fees. He said the health center is also assisting employees who are legal, permanent residents in applying for citizenship status.

“Some are married to U.S. citizens and applying for status that way,” he said. “We have a whole bunch of employees who are permanent residents and are helping them apply for citizenship because they feel vulnerable.”

For Teresa Baltazar, now 30, getting DACA in 2013 meant her life changed.

“I was excited,” she said. “I thought it was going to change my life, like new and better opportunities. I went back to school, and got eventually a better job. I was able to get a driver’s license, and not be living in fear.”

Baltazar works as a coordinator with Catholic Charities’ immigration program, helping other undocumented people navigate their own paths.

With her protection expiring in April 2019, though, she now finds herself in the same position as many of her clients. She doesn’t qualify to apply for the Oct. 5 extension and is living with uncertainty about what the future holds.

Richard Coshnear, a local immigration attorney who heads Comité VIDA, a volunteer immigrant rights organization, said the general mood among some DACA youth he’s worked with has been that of worry and anxiety, even among those who were “fighters” these past few years.

Some DACA employees and their employers are trying to come up with ways to continue their working relationship, he said. In some cases, both parties are considering eliminating direct employment and keeping DACA workers on as independent contractors.

The end of DACA “really puts a kink in the employment relationship,” he said. “But people are trying to find ways of continuing to work and maintaining their careers and keeping their families going.”

For Baltazar, her mood changes often these days.

“Well some days are good, but then when I see things on the news or I remember about the current situation, for example today’s deadline, it just makes me sad that a lot of people are going to be losing their DACA if it expires after March 5, which is really soon,” she said. “I can’t imagine if that was me what would be going through my mind.”

For more information or help with immigration resources, email immigration@sonoma-county.org or go to sonomacounty.ca.gov/CAO/Immigration-Initiative.

You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 707-521-5213 or martin.espinoza@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @renofish.