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UW-Madison's new Center for DREAMers builds a unified space for DACA recipients

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Erika Rosales
Erika Rosales

Navigating college can be confusing. But being undocumented or a DACA recipient while in college can make things even more complicated.

The Deferred Action on Childhood Arrivals, known as DACA, is a program that prevents qualifying undocumented immigrants from being deported. Recipients are people who arrived in the U.S. in circumstances beyond their control, often as very young children or as babies.

These young people are often known as DREAMERS. This is a term in reference to the DREAM Act, a piece of legislation that would have provided a pathway to citizenship for them. However, the act has never passed. DACA came into effect in 2012 under the Obama administration, which doesn’t provide a pathway to citizenship, but provides temporary protection from removal proceedings subject to renewal every two years. DACA recipients are also eligible for work authorization.

The total interpretation of DACA in recent history has been complex. In September 2017 the Trump administration blocked U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services from accepting new DACA requests, preventing any new qualifying candidates from applying and receiving protection under DACA. But, undocumented immigrants who had received DACA previously could renew.

On December 4, 2020, a federal judge ordered the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to restore DACA to its original state as implemented by the Obama administration. Individuals who meet the eligibility requirements may submit an initial application for DACA.

Hundreds of people gather outside the U.S. Supreme Court to rally in support of DACA.
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Hundreds of people gather outside the U.S. Supreme Court to rally in support of DACA.

A federal judge in the Southern District of Texas ruled on July 16, 2021 that DACA is unlawful under its current terms. Therefore, DHS is unable from granting DACA to new applicants as of July 16, 2021. United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) may still accept first-time DACA applications but is prohibited from approving any initial applications and accompanying applications for employment authorization, including those that were pending on July 16, 2021.

>> Consideration of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA)

There can be a lot of uncertainty and loneliness associated with this status. But, a new center is hoping to alleviate some of that stress. The Center for DREAMers at UW-Madison recently opened to support the roughly 11,000 undocumented immigrants living in Wisconsin impacted by DACA. The program is a statewide initiative that’ll provide legal help, social services, and professional counseling to any undocumented or DACA recipient.

Erika Rosales, the director of The Center for DREAMers, explains that she and Dr. Barbato recognized the great unique needs that DACA recipients have navigating college in Wisconsin.

"This was essentially a need for services. We provide legal, social services, as well as education and career [services]. And for us to be able to do this statewide, we're mainly focused on that recipients, although we will not turn any undocumented students away," says Rosales.

As a DACA recipient herself, Rosales shares first hand the challenges she faced navigating the educational system. Challenges can include school admins not understanding what DACA means, recipients having to pay out of state tuition, and more complications once a recipient gets to a graduate level.

"When it comes to certain certifications, for example, nursing school, or any law school students that want to become attorneys, you know that they wonder, 'Am I able to even graduate? Or apply for the bar in the state of Wisconsin?' That's something that we want to help students navigate," says Rosales.

An immigrant reads a guide of the conditions needed to apply for DACA protection.
File Photo
An immigrant reads a guide of the conditions needed to apply for DACA protection.

Melissa, is a DACA recipient and law student in Wisconsin; she asked that we not include her last name. Melissa adds her experience of being a DACA recipient. Because of her status, she is unable to apply for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), so she and her family have paid out-of-state tuition, out of pocket. It's depleted a lot of her parents retirement savings, which she says she'll return the support in the future, but it is a stressor for her.

"I don't even know after spending all this time and money, whether it'll really be worth it in the end. I feel like it's really easy for people to avoid the topic or kind of give like a very superficial answer when it's not their lives at stake. It's definitely something that weighs on my mind every day," says Melissa.

Melissa says she wished more resources were available for DACA recipients. For example, like how to fill out certain tax documents and apply for school and jobs. She says it can be stressful because making a simple mistake can be really damaging.

"At the end of the day, it's difficult to have this huge part of your life that could control everything. Absolutely everything that I've done right now could just be taken away because of this one ... uncertain part of my life," says Melissa.

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Chip Somodevilla
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Advocates for immigrants with Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, rally in front of the U.S. Supreme Court June 15, 2020 in Washington, DC. The court did not hand down a ruling on DACA recipients, also called "Dreamers."

The Center for DREAMers, works with the Immigrant Justice Clinic at the UW-Madison Law School where DACA recipients can attain consultations from legal students. Attorneys at the center help with a myriad of services, including renewal and adjustment of DACA recipients status. Rosales says all these services are free and open to any DACA recipient or undocumented person in Wisconsin.

Unfortunately, the new applications for DACA are not being processed right now, Rosales says. Still, the program has received a grant of $110K to support DACA recipients over the next two years. She hopes that the center will build a community within Wisconsin so more students do not feel as isolated as she felt, she says.

"Knowing that DACA is very uncertain, it's not permanent. It's not a pathway to citizenship, we want to be that place where people can, come to ask for those for those services that are needed,"says Rosales.

Mallory Cheng joined WUWM as a producer for Lake Effect in 2021.
Kobe Brown is WUWM's Eric Von fellow.
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