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Latino Immigration Advocates In Kansas City Bid Trump Goodbye, But Remain Wary Of Biden's Return

FILE - In this Nov. 12, 2019, file photo people rally outside the Supreme Court as oral arguments are heard in the case of President Trump's decision to end the Obama-era, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA), at the Supreme Court in Washington. DACA recipients are assuming a prominent role in the presidential campaign, working to get others to vote, even though they cannot cast ballots themselves, and becoming leaders in the Democratic campaigns of Bernie Sanders and Tom Steyer as well as get-out-the-vote organizations.
Jacquelyn Martin
People rally outside the Supreme Court in Washington in November 2019 as oral arguments are heard in the case of President Trump's decision to end the Obama-era, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program

Immigrants and Latino community members are breathing a sigh of relief as an administration many considered hostile heads for the exits, but the president-elect hasn't eased all fears.

When the coronavirus pandemic first forced businesses to shut down or cut back on operations, Lisandra Garcia's hours at a law office in Olathe were reduced. So she did what a lot of Americans did at the time: She looked for a second job.

Without the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, Garcia wouldn't have been able to do that legally.

That's because the 23-year-old was born in Mexico, and her parents brought her to the U.S. without documentation in 2004 when she was a child.

"Everything I have right now is basing off of DACA," Garcia said. "I have a job because of DACA, I'm able to have money because of DACA, I'm able to pay my tuition because I have this permit that lets me work, and work towards my degree."

Garcia, who is studying law and society at the University of Kansas, did find a second job. But the pressures of the pandemic brought her privileges under the Obama-era program into stark relief as have repeated attacks on the program from President Trump and Republican officials across the country, who say it rewards people for breaking the law and encourages illegal immigration.

But while the last four years have brought instability and unpredictability into the lives of DACA recipients and immigration advocates in Kansas City, the incoming president isn't putting them completely at ease either.

"Not to romanticize uncertainty, but like, that's what we've lived with since we got here," said Alex Martinez, an organizer and DACA recipient who lived in Kansas City, Kansas, until August. "We're used to not knowing what's going to happen next."

The Trump administration has been particularly unpredictable, according to Martinez — "truly a nightmare," he said.

Advocates for Immigrant Rights and Reconciliation Kansas City
Advocates for Immigrant Rights and Reconciliation Kansas City
Volunteers marched in protest of Trump immigration policies in Kansas City's Brookside neighborhood in 2018.

In 2017, the administration announced they were ending the program altogether and Martinez was gutted. He was working at the time with the Kansas/Missouri Dream Alliance, an immigrant rights advocacy group.

"That was a huge, like a huge moment for our community, where we felt defeated and we felt like our time was up," Martinez said.

In June the Supreme Court put a stop to those plans.

As recently as last week, a federal judge in Texas heard arguments in a court case challenging DACA’s legality. Judge Andrew Hanen has not said when he might make a ruling.

For now, DACA applications are being accepted by the federal government, but the constant back-and-forth takes a toll on those who depend on the program.

“You hold your breath, and you just hope the next day you wake up to good news,” Garcia said. “It's like, is this time going to be the actual time that it gets challenged and someone doesn't block it?”

It’s not just DACA recipients who are unsettled.

Immigration attorney Ron Nguyen said the Trump administration has made it significantly harder for all immigrants to gain legal status or citizenship, doing everything from raising fees and reducing fee waivers on certain applications to increasing wait times and giving immigration officers the discretion to deny applications based on the fact that someone probably can't speak English.

“I do think that a lot of these individuals are just becoming — I don't want to say hopeless, but they are losing a lot of hope,” Nguyen said.

In a recent webinar hosted by Latino advocacy group VozKC, immigration attorney Jessica Piedra put it another way.

“I've actually honestly learned a lot about our government in the last few years because of the many ways that the Trump administration has broken the rules,” she said.

For young immigrants and advocates in Kansas City, the new Biden administration could bring some semblance of stability to the situation, but not everyone is convinced a real change is inevitable.

Part of that hesitation arises from the role Joe Biden played in President Barack Obama’s deportation policies. During Obama’s eight years in office, more than 2.8 million people were deported from the country. According to the Migration Policy Institute, the Trump administration deported less than half as many people during its first three fiscal years than did the Obama administration during the same time.

Alex Martinez, shown on the right in 2018 with Miguel Morales, came to the U.S. at the age of 14.

“So like, it looks like we're going to have a repeat of that again,” said organizer Alex Martinez. “The Biden administration will continue to target (immigrant communities) because we're still undocumented and we're still here without authorization ... But I do feel like this administration that he's bringing in more than likely will be more humane than the last administration.”

Others are more hopeful.

“No single person is the person who's going to solve everything for everyone,” Manny Abarca said. "And, so the idea that the Biden administration is going to be that is just a falsity that we need to get over.”

Abarca is a member of the Kansas City Public Schools Board of Directors and is on the VozKC executive team.

“The reality is we picked someone who is more likely to help our community, and it is dependent upon ourselves to be actively engaged to hold them accountable to what they agreed to,” he said.

In his capacity as school board member, Abarca said he’s heard a lot of excitement from Latino parents and community members about the incoming White House occupant, but there have been questions about what they should be doing to prepare for what’s to come.

That’s why VozKC hosted the webinar with attorney Jessica Piedra in the first place.

What's the plan?

Her advice for immigrants seeking legal status and DACA recipients and hopefuls boiled down to three basic points.

First, pull together any and all documents that prove residency or that deal with prior immigration interactions. That could include marriage licenses, school transcripts, immigration court documentation, birth certificates and more.

Second, make sure passports and other identification are valid and up to date.

Last but not least, start saving money.

Nguyen agreed those are all good places to start and added one more: Get an attorney.

“DACA is great but, you know, there are potential other forms of relief available,” he said. “Each case will vary, you know, so you want to get a specialized viewpoint of it, and the attorney should be able to spot the issues for their case.”

As culture editor, I oversee KCUR’s coverage of race, culture, the arts, food and sports. I work with reporters to make sure our stories reflect the fullest view of the place we call home, so listeners and readers feel primed to explore the places, projects and people who make up a vibrant Kansas City. Email me at luke@kcur.org.
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