Local residents, immigrant advocates and community leaders traveled to Washington D.C. last week to join thousands of others rallying Congress to pass a “clean DREAM Act” and keep the Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for thousands of immigrants before Congress breaks for the holidays.
SEPA Mujer, a non-profit organization that empowers Latina women on Long Island, in conjunction with the New York Immigration Coalition, organized several buses that took local residents to the nation’s capital.
“This is a humanitarian crisis and people don’t realize it,” said Edgar Samudeo, member of the Long Island Immigrant Student Advocates.
Several immigrant allies, including Long Island Jobs with Justice, SEPA Mujer and various church congregations, also delivered 1,000 signed letters to the office of Congressman Lee Zeldin from his constituents yesterday in support of the DREAM Act. If approved, the legislation would provide a path to citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children.
“So far, Long Island congressional representatives Gregory Meeks, Kathleen Rice, Tom Suozzi and Peter King are all supporting the Dream Act,” Richard Koubek, community outreach coordinator for Long Island Jobs with Justice, said in a statement. “While Congressman Lee Zeldin has written that he prefers people to enter the country ‘legally,’ he has not made clear what his stance is on the Dream Act.
“We made several attempts to meet with him but got no response,” Koubek added. “His receptionist personally intervened yesterday and told us that she will make sure we get a meeting with him. Meanwhile, one of our team was told by an aide that Congressman Zeldin wants to do something for the DACA recipients. We hope to learn soon what that is.”
Zeldin did not respond to requests for comment in time for the publication of this article.
“There are thousands of people that are waiting to be full members of society and give back and help this country grow,” Samudeo said. “Right now, there isn’t a legislative solution, and we need that.”
Samudeo, an undocumented Riverhead resident who immigrated with his parents to the United States when he was 13 years old, graduated from Riverhead High School and received a full merit-based scholarship due to high academic grades. Last May he graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in Computer Science from Stony Brook University.
Since then, Samudeo, who considers himself fully American, advocates and helps young local students pursue their dreams of a higher education.
“I am American. I have fully embraced this country. I speak English more than Spanish, know the traditions and culture of America, and to be honest, I don’t know or remember much about Costa Rica, where I was born,” Samudeo said.
Samudeo said that he wasn’t eligible to apply to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA) — a 2012 executive order by former president Barack Obama to formally defer deportation of undocumented young people who met specific criteria relating to age, age of arrival, education or military service and a clean criminal record — because he arrived in 2008, and DACA had a 2007 cut-off requirement.
“It makes no sense to expel talented young people, who, for all intents and purposes, are Americans,” Obama said in his Rose Garden announcement of the program. “They’ve been raised as Americans, understand themselves to be part of this country.” He also said then that the program was meant as a temporary measure and was put into place to provide relief for Dreamers while Congress acted.
However, immigrant advocates and allies say that DACA has always been a temporary solution. The executive order, which was a game-changer for many, will end on Mar. 5, 2018 and leave thousands of recipients out of status and vulnerable to deportation once their work authorizations expire.
“I have friends right now with DACA – one in law school, another working for an assemblyman – that might lose their jobs,” said Dulce Rojas, SEPA Mujer community organizer. “Basically they will have to put a stop to everything if things don’t change.
“We are advocating for Congress to pass a Clean Dream Act,” Rojas said. “A law, not tied to any other bill, that is comprehensive and is not encumbered by age limit or other conditions, but also that is not connected to other enforcement provisions such as having more border enforcement for example.”
The Dream Act was first introduced in 2001, but Congress has failed to pass any of the dozen different versions that have been presented over the years. The latest iteration, introduced earlier this year by Republican Senator Lindsey Graham and Democratic Senator Dick Durbin, is a bipartisan push to what Graham called “an almost moral decision” to solve the situation of thousands, if not millions, of Dreamers that have been waiting for years in an unclear immigration status.
Rojas said that it is now an immigration limbo that now includes TPS holders as well.
“Lots of people are in jeopardy, not only DACA folks,” she said.
Last month, the Trump administration ended TPS for thousands of Haitians and Nicaraguans — a humanitarian program where immigrants were exempt from deportation because they were fleeing from natural disasters, war and other conditions and couldn’t return to their countries safely. As a requirement, TPS holders have to renew their permits every 18 months and cannot have criminal records.
“TPS holders have been living legally in the U.S. for a long time,” said Rojas. “Can you imagine living here for 15, 20 years and then suddenly – ‘Give me back your license, give me back your house, give me back your job and leave.’ That is not realistic.
“People with TPS married here, had kids — many already in college — opened businesses… they have fully formed lives here,” Rojas said.
An analysis by the Suffolk County Department of Economic Development and Planning estimates Suffolk County could lose up to $373 million in annual spending by residents if TPS is not renewed, according to a Newsday report.
Carlos Reyes, a TPS holder and native of El Salvador, first came to the U.S. 23 years ago when he was just 16 years old. Now a Suffolk County bus driver, Reyes recalls the dire situation when he escaped his country and immigrated to the U.S.
“My country was at war. There was no hope,” he said. “As a teenager, I looked up to America as the land of dreams and opportunity, and that dream came true when I was able to come here and buy my house, have a license, and become an American in all but status.”
Local immigrant advocates also argue that the situation in many of these countries has not ameliorated, and that poverty, lack of infrastructure, gang violence and other issues still affect these countries in significant ways.
“I understand TPS has always been a temporary protection,” Reyes said. “But how can I go back to El Salvador? I don’t know that country anymore – my life is here. It is a matter of life and death for people like me that don’t know how to function in a country that is dominated by violence and gangs.”
With the ramping up of arrests and deportations of undocumented immigrants by the Trump administration, many that were previously documented and have no criminal records, like Reyes, will now face the same potential risk when they lose their status.
According to a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement report published last week, ICE officers made 143,470 arrests this year, including people with no criminal convictions, which is an increase of 30 percent more compared to the previous fiscal year, when 114,434 arrests were made.
An additional 200,000 TPS holders from El Salvador may also be at risk of losing their protected status as soon as January if the Department of Homeland Security decides to end the program for them as well.
“Conservatives are lacking information about us, confusing us with gang-related criminals,” Reyes said. “Conservatives are always talking about being responsible citizens that love America and have high moral standards. Well, there is no higher standard than those set by Dreamers and TPS holders.”
Reyes and others believe that TPS holders, like DACA recipients, should have a path towards legal permanent residency, arguing that they already have met many of the requirements set by immigration hard-liners.
“We have been here for over 20 years, with no criminal records — have to be fingerprinted almost every two years for that — we have been paying taxes for decades, we contribute to the economy, we have established jobs and professions and are deep-rooted, we own homes, we have families and children that love this country, we are responsible and hard-working… what else do we have to prove?”