By Jacqueline García | La Opinión
Betzabeth Salinas, 30, is a single mother who’s about to obtain her master’s degree in social work at Cal State Long Beach. She works 15 hours a week as a counselor in a nonprofit organization in East Los Angeles and participates in an internship 20 hours a week.
“It’s very difficult because my daughter’s dad helps me, but only sometimes and it’s not enough,” said Salinas, who shares an apartment with her mother and two sisters in south Los Angeles.
“Sometimes I feel guilty for not being able to spend more time with my daughter because I am very busy studying and working, but I think she understands the sacrifice I’m making is for both of us,” she added.
Salinas, who is a recipient of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, has maintained her legal status in the United States for the past eight years. Although it is not a permanent solution, DACA provides about 678,000 undocumented youth a work permit and protection from deportation.
Now the Trump administration is planning to add to the burden of young DACA recipients like Salinas by raising the renewal fees they pay every two years.
Currently the cost of the biennial renewals is $495. But the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) has proposed increasing the fee to $765, a 55 percent hike. In addition, under the proposal, the fee for naturalization would increase 83%, from $640 to $1,170.
The higher DACA fees worry young recipients, like Salinas, who often are low-income and already live with anxiety and uncertainty every time their renewal date approaches.
Last month, a group of six U.S. Senators, led by Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-CA), opposed the fee increases, calling it part of the Trump administration’s “unabashed and poorly-disguised anti-immigrant agenda.”
“USCIS’s efforts to limit the availability of fee waivers while increasing fees to, among other things, naturalize, seek asylum, or remain in the only country they know to be home, are a clear and concerted effort to harm low-income individuals, vulnerable populations, and communities of color,” they wrote in a letter sent to the immigration department.
Trump administration officials say that they conducted a comprehensive review of the fees and determined that they must be increased because “the current fees do not recover the full costs of providing adjudication and naturalization services.”
Feb. 10 was the last day for the public to participate in the rulemaking related to DACA by submitting comments, said Leslie Quiroz, spokesperson with the agency.
“After the public comment period closes, USCIS will conduct a review and analysis of comments and will then issue a final rule,” she said. “The date of the final rule has not been determined.”
Salinas already has renewed her DACA three times, at a cost of $1,485. She said she has been fortunate to find non-profit groups that paid the fees.
“The first two times CHIRLA [the Coalition for Immigrant Human Rights in Los Angeles] paid for my renewal,” said the native of Puebla, Mexico. “And this last time the Dream Center from Cal State Long Beach provided the funds, and I went to USC to get help to fill out my renewal a legal clinic.”
Salinas’ two younger sisters also are DACA recipients and college students.
In California alone, almost half a million people live in households with 188,000 DACA recipients, according to the Center for American Progress. Also, DACA recipients in California are parents of 73,000 children born in the United States.
Research has shown that DACA recipients contribute to the US economy. They own almost 11,000 homes and pay $184.4 million in mortgage payments and $901.9 million in rental payments each year, according to the Center for American Progress report. Nationwide, DACA recipients pay $613.8 million in mortgage payments and $2.3 billion in annual rental payments. Their households pay $5.7 billion in federal taxes and $3.1 billion in state and local taxes.
Jairo Barba, a San Francisco State graduate student, has been in the DACA program for 8 years. He needed help paying the renewal fees, and is struggling to pay tuition for his last semester. (Photo courtesy of Barba)
Future in limbo
Jairo Barba, 25, is another young immigrant who has been in the DACA program since 2012. Earlier this year, Barba managed to send in his DACA renewal and like Salinas, he was able to obtain help from his university paying the fee. His DACA expires in October.
But he is struggling financially. He is seeking his master’s degree in Spanish at San Francisco State University and although he’s expected to graduate in the spring, his last semester is in jeopardy. Tuition costs $4,370 and he has no job and did not qualify for financial aid.
“If I don’t pay my tuition fees before Feb. 14, I will not be able to attend school and I will lose this semester,” said Barba, who was born in Jalisco, Mexico and arrived in the U.S. at the age of 12.
After losing his job at the end of last year, Barba ran out of savings, and his last resource, under his precarious situation, has been to create a GoFundMe page to fundraise for his tuition.
Barba refuses to give up. He said he wants to prove to other young undocumented students that no matter how difficult the situation may seem, they always should fight for higher education.
Barba said he has been fortunate in the past and had good jobs that allowed him to pay for his housing, transportation and education. However, this disqualified him from obtaining financial assistance from the California Dream Act.
“My taxes from the previous two years did not consider me as a low-income person, although now I am,” said Barba.
Audrey Dow, senior vice president of Campaign for College Opportunity and co-author of the recent report “In their Voices; Undocumented in California Public Colleges and Universities,” said it is common to see undocumented students begin their university studies but not finish them because of lack of money. Many do not qualify for college financial aid and are forced to leave school to get a job.
“After the cost of registration, the number one challenge for students is the fear of the unknown. They think of what their future will be in this country. Many live with fear of deportation,” said Dow. “They have to deal with that trauma and many schools don’t offer the mental health assistance they need.”
University expenses that accrue, including tuition, transportation, housing, textbooks and other school supplies, also cause stress to young students, he added.
“We must ensure that the financial aid that comes to California students is also for students without documents,” Dow said. “As for the legislature, we must expand legal services for undocumented students. They want to feel safe going to trusted locations for their legal assistance.”
Barba graduated from Cal State University, East Bay and is now enrolled in a master’s program at San Francisco State. He was born in Mexico and arrived in the US when he was 12. (Photo courtesy of Barba)
Waiting for court ruling on DACA
Salinas and Barba not only worry about the higher fees but also fear that the DACA program, initiated by President Barack Obama, will disappear under Trump.
“I woke up and watched a video that said President Trump is going to cancel DACA and that all of those protected under the program are at risk of being deported,” Barba said. “And of course, I was very worried.”
Barba is referring to the announcement by the Trump administration in 2017. Before it took effect, the proposal was halted in the courts and the Supreme Court is now expected to make a decision.
On Nov. 12, 2019, before the Supreme Court was about to hear arguments on whether or not to rescind DACA, Trump stated in a tweet that many DACA recipients are “no longer very young and far from ‘angels’.”
He added that if the Supreme Court overturns DACA, his administration will make a deal with the Democrats to have these Dreamers stay in the United States. However, DACA recipients remain skeptical.
Immigration lawyer Alma Rosa Nieto said a decision is expected by June but it is very difficult to know how the justices will vote. “Two were appointed by President Trump and although we already know how they may vote, they may change [their vote]. Anything can happen,” she said.
Jacqueline García is a reporter with La Opinión. This article is part of The California Divide, a collaboration among newsrooms examining income inequity and economic survival in California.
The author wrote this for CalMatters, a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s Capitol works and why it matters.
Header Photo: Betzabeth Salinas