When the first cases of the coronavirus began appearing in Washington state, Julio Maldonado decided it was time to get out. He boarded a plane, feeling anxious around fellow passengers who were coughing, and flew to his family’s home in south Texas, not far from the border with Mexico.
Maldonado is a software engineer with Qualtrics, an “experience management company” — a job he enjoys and one that allows him to provide for himself and for his family. It’s a departure from the family construction business, which he assumed was his future until President Barack Obama created the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.
Maldonado’s parents brought him to the United States from Mexico when he was three or four years old. They wanted him and his brother to have more opportunity than they could hope for in their home state, which is in an impoverished area of the country.
But his undocumented status limited his options.
“Before I had DACA, I was mowing lawns with my dad on the weekend, and I probably would have joined him working construction,” Maldonado said. “With DACA, I was able to go to school.”
Maldonado put himself through university working three jobs and secured a job coding databases and back-end services on websites. Although he went back to Texas to flee the virus, the state became one of the hardest hit areas in the country. He used his skills to launch www.rgvcovid19cases.com to track the spread in south Texas counties.
Even with his financial and legal freedom, Maldonado’s life hangs by a thread that the Trump administration has made clear it desperately wants to cut. The U.S. Supreme Court preserved the DACA program in June, ruling that the administration had been “arbitrary and capricious” in its attempt to end it, potentially throwing the 700,000 participants’ lives into disarray.
That narrow ruling didn’t save the program, however. It merely forced the administration to follow proper procedure — something President Donald Trump committed to do.
“DACA is a Band-Aid on a bigger problem,” said Dulce Gutierrez Vasquez of El Centro de la Raza, a Seattle-based organization that supports people of all races striving for social justice. “It’s only a limited amount of people who qualify for it, and so many people in our community deserve that same security.”
There are many restrictions on the DACA program, including the applicant’s age at arrival, year they arrived and criminal history. They also have to renew their registration every two years, a process that includes an application fee of $495.
That much money was hard to come by on its own, Maldonado said, and any mistake could be a reason that the government would reject it. Rather than risk a rejection and possible deportation, Maldonado would pay roughly $300 for legal help to make sure the application was perfect.
This year was different, he said.
A nonprofit legal group called Immigrants Like Us helped Maldonado with his application for free. It’s staffed by attorneys as well as students from Harvard. Users log in to an online portal and fill out their forms for workers at Immigrants Like Us to review. The reviewers then record themselves going through the form and work with participants to make sure everything is correct.
“Renewing your DACA status can be complicated,” said Fernando Urbina, a Latinx student at Harvard who works with the organization. “What we’re trying to do is streamline the process to make sure there are no errors.”
Working with Immigrants Like Us was a comfort to Maldonado, who had never seen his previous renewal forms filled out by the law firm.
While Immigrants Like Us can help with paperwork, it doesn’t have the funding to cover the application form. El Centro de la Raza has been able to help some people on that front, although the available grant funding is not enough to meet the need of all local DACA recipients, Gutierrez Vasquez said.
“We helped about 141 people renew their DACA and that was through city funding and Facebook funding,” Gutierrez Vasquez said.
The renewals give people another two years of stability, but it is painful to live life in two-year increments, never knowing if this is the year that an administration bent on restricting immigration will be able to translate its intent into action.
People need immigration reform that includes a path to citizenship, Maldonado said.
“We pay our taxes and contribute to the economy. There is no reason not to give us a path to citizenship,” he said.
Ashley Archibald is a Staff Reporter covering local government, policy and equity. Have a story idea? She can be can reached at ashleya (at) realchangenews (dot) org. Follow Ashley on Twitter @AshleyA_RC.
Read more in the July 15-21, 2020 issue.