Published in Economic Development

Q&A: Rebeca Ontiveros-Chavez Staff Attorney, Michigan Immigrant Rights Center

BY Sunday, July 05, 2020 10:17am

The U.S. Supreme Court issued a major and — to some immigration rights advocates, surprising — ruling on June 18 blocking the Trump administration’s effort to eliminate a program that offers young adults work permits and protections from deportation. The program — Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA — allows qualified individuals who were brought to the U.S. as children to gain temporary legal status in various circumstances. 

Created during the Obama administration as a negotiation after sweeping immigration reform failed to pass Congress, the program has benefitted hundreds of thousands of young adults in recent years. According to the Migration Policy Institute, Michigan has 5,250 DACA recipients.

Rebeca Ontiveros-Chavez Staff Attorney, Michigan Immigrant Rights Center COURTESY PHOTO

Since September 2017, the program has been in legal limbo after the Trump administration first announced it would phase out the program and stopped accepting new applications. Immigration advocates say the Supreme Court’s ruling is temporary and limited to the Trump administration’s procedure for eliminating the program, while concerns remain about DACA’s future.

Rebeca Ontiveros-Chavez, staff attorney for the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center, spoke with MiBiz about the SCOTUS ruling and the need for permanent, comprehensive immigration reform. 

What was your reaction to the Supreme Court’s June 18 decision on DACA?

I was surprised the court held the administration had improperly rescinded DACA. It was a 5-4 decision and the court primarily focused on the procedure the agency followed in rescinding DACA.  It didn’t necessarily rule on the legality of the program. 

What’s next? 

Our interpretation of the case is that the program should be reinstated as it was before it was rescinded, such that it includes new applications and advance parole and allows people to travel for humanitarian purposes. Right now, we have to wait for the administration to respond and put out guidance.

It’s been nearly three years since the Trump administration announced it would rescind DACA. What has happened in that time?

On Sept. 5, 2017, the Trump administration announced DACA would be rescinded. Cases were filed across the country to protect the DACA program, all challenging the DHS decision to rescind it. During that period of litigation for the past three years or so, U.S. Citizens and Immigration Services — the agency that adjudicates applications for immigration relief, including DACA — said they were no longer accepting first-time DACA applications and no longer accepting applications for advance parole. That meant only the people that had DACA were able to stay in but no new applications.

That’s one of the major implications of the SCOTUS decision. Our understanding is it potentially reinstates the program back to 2012 allowing first applications, yet U.S. CIS has not issued any information or guidance. A few immigrant legal service providers and advocates have filed first-time DACA applications for people sort of as test cases to see what the government does. The best case scenario is it’s adjudicated. Worst case is they deny and reject and people lose their money. That’s what’s happened the last three years.

Who are DACA recipients and what is their status in the U.S.?

There’s very specific requirements to apply for the DACA program. It’s mostly students or young professionals at this point because of the eligibility requirements. There are very narrow program guidelines. There’s literature out there that talks about people who were DACA eligible and accepted into the program because it provided the benefit for work authorization and a Social Security card — it’s not a pathway to becoming a permanent resident. But that opens the door for so many opportunities for people that they would not otherwise have. In Michigan, they would be able to get a driver’s license and able to have that work permit. Studies have shown  DACA recipients bought homes and maybe had extra income. In Michigan, institutions of higher education have different eligibility for tuition and financial assistance based on status — in some cases having DACA could get them financial aid or lower the amount of tuition.

Those who are enrolled in this program are no different than anyone else who wishes to function in society, but this deferral against deportation or immigration enforcement coupled with the benefit of a work permit has really profound implications on the daily lived realities of people.

Since this was a procedural ruling by the Supreme Court, are you still concerned about the future of DACA?

One really important thing to know about the opinion is that it does not rule on the legality of the DACA program, meaning the Trump administration may try again to end the program but this time with different reasoning. The court made clear DHS could rescind it, they just had to follow the proper procedure. The court’s opinion laid out in great detail what would be sufficient or insufficient, and provided a roadmap to do so. That’s certainly a concern for people who already have DACA and are just wanting to renew it. 

The second thing that’s on my mind is the Supreme Court’s decision could also put the issue before Congress to offer a solution for DACA recipients and other undocumented people in the country, but currently lawmakers are yet to pass any legislative reforms for such a measure. 

Bottom line: What is your takeaway from the ruling? 

While this is certainly a victory and something to celebrate, I think it’s really important for people to remember it’s only temporary, and the DACA program is temporary. There needs to be a solution that provides protection that’s permanent to not just DACA recipients but the undocumented community as a whole.

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