The U.S. government's reopening the agreement on the legal status of recipients of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program has a significant impact on the Fort Smith region, a local activist and program recipient says.
Humberto Marquez, an organizer for the Arkansas United Community Coalition, citizenship application specialist at the Fort Smith Adult Education Center and DACA recipient, said the U.S. government's reopening preserves an uncertain fate for him and fellow recipients longer than he had hoped. The program, which stopped accepting new applicants on Sept. 5, 2017, protects the children of undocumented immigrants from deportation.
The U.S. government shut down from Saturday to Monday after Republican and Democratic legislators failed to reach an agreement on federal immigration and spending. U.S. Senate Democrats accepted a bill that will keep the government open for three more weeks on the condition that they and Republicans hold a debate on the status of DACA recipients.
Marquez said Democratic senators "caved in" at the wrong time.
"They had complete leverage in this opportunity," Marquez said of the Democratic lawmakers.
'It happened all too quickly'
DACA, which was put into law through an executive order by former President Barack Obama in 2012, protects around 700,000 children of undocumented immigrants in the United States from deportation, according to U.S. Immigration and Citizenship and Immigration Services. The protected children do not currently have a pathway to U.S. citizenship.
Some of the requirements for DACA applicants include living in the United States before one's 16th birthday, being either enrolled in or have graduated from high school and no felony or serious misdemeanor convictions, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration services.
Obama said DACA was "not a path to citizenship," but rather "a temporary stopgap measure that lets us focus our resources wisely while giving a degree of relief and hope to talented, driven, patriotic young people" when he signed the order.
President Donald Trump called the program "unilateral executive amnesty" when he announced the program's end on Sept. 5. He said the program "yielded terrible humanitarian consequences" and "denied jobs to hundreds of thousands of Americans by allowing those same jobs to go to illegal aliens."
U.S. Rep. Steve Womack, R-Ark., agreed with Trump's notions.
"The issue of DACA-eligible young people is a manifestation of a broken immigration enforcement system," Womack said in a Sept. 5 news release. "I have a heart for their plight. At the same time, I believe that part of the genius of America is that we are a nation of laws."
Womack said that U.S. citizens can obtain jobs, lawful immigration and proper relief for children of undocumented immigrants "with thoughtful debate."
When asked for a statement on the program's situation, Womack's communication specialist Heather Neilson referred to the September 2017 news release.
Members of Congress have stated that Immigration Services will not renew current recipients' permits after March 5, Marquez said. Congress' agreement to keep the government open for three more weeks ends Feb. 12.
Marquez said President Trump has given program recipients "just a few months" to submit their program renewals. He said 122 DACA recipients have lost their work permits every day since the Sept. 5 decision.
“There were a lot of DACA recipients who were not able to renew on time, and they were not aware of the situation," he said. "It happened all too quickly.”
A concentrated region
Marquez said the concentration of DACA recipients in the Fort Smith area makes Congress' decision about the program crucial to the region.
Arkansas was home to 4,982 DACA recipients in the first quarter of 2016, the latest time period with available statistics, according to Immigration Services. The state had received 5,622 initial applications and 4,293 renewals by the end of that quarter.
Marquez estimated that there are 6,000 recipients currently in Arkansas.
Marquez said "the majority" of recipients live in the Fort Smith region or in northwest Arkansas, followed by central Arkansas. He said recipients who have lost their work permits since the decision include those in the Fort Smith area.
"(Some) might be losing it this very year," Marquez said. "For them, that’s something that gives them anxiety.”
Marquez also said several local undocumented immigrants reached out to him after the September decision.
"There were several mothers who reached out to me and said, 'My child is 15, my child is 14. This means that he or she cannot apply for DACA?'" he said. "There are a lot of youths and teenagers who are ready to apply, but because they got cut off, they’re not going to get these benefits."
'A political game'
In light of his and others' journey to the U.S., Marquez said he is often frustrated with how DACA is discussed among politicians.
Marquez, who relocated from Mexico with his parents and sister, described the program as a way forward. He said the program helps real people, and that legislators often lose sight of that.
“Sometimes I feel like it’s all a political game," he said.
Marquez said he moved from his home country to the Los Angeles area with his family when he was 6. He said his family spent three months trying to get across the southern U.S. border, and that his father applied for green card citizenship three times.
"People think that you get in this line, you sign some papers, and in a few months, you get a green card, or you’ll get an adjustment of status," he said. "We get clients (at the Adult Education Center) who wait up to 25 or 30 years to get their green card."
Marquez and his family eventually moved to Waldron. He said he attended the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith and got his driver's license because of DACA.
Marquez said that with the government shutdown and subsequent three-week extension, immigrants are "being thrown under the bus."
"We’re being treated as political footballs once again," he said.
Nonetheless, Marquez said he is unsure of what the coming weeks will hold for him and other program recipients.
"We’re still unsure about what those negotiations might be," he said.