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American Dream and Promise Act of 2021 offers DACA recipients opportunity to obtain residency

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A graphic depicting Sara Juarez and Mitzi Valazquez's journeys to Oklahoma. 

Some OU students protected by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program said the introduction of the American Dream and Promise Act of 2021 has offered them a chance of obtaining lawful permanent residence in the U.S. and a “sense of hope.” 

DACA was introduced in June 2012 by the Obama administration and intends to protect undocumented immigrants who arrived in the U.S. as children, called Dreamers, from deportation and provide them work authorization with possible renewal every two years. 

On March 3, U.S. Representative Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-California) introduced the American Dream and Promise Act of 2021. The bill would create a “conditional permanent resident” status for up to 10 years, protecting Dreamers from deportation and allowing them to work legally in the U.S. and travel outside the country. 

On March 18, the American Dream and Promise Act of 2021 passed the House by a vote of 228-197 and is now in the Senate. 

DACA recipient and early childhood education junior Sara Juarez migrated to Shawnee, Oklahoma from Chihuahua, Mexico when she was two years old. She said although DACA is “a blessing,” it doesn’t offer as much protection as she’d hoped. Juarez said paying the renewal fee, which is around $500, every two years can be a struggle. 

“It's like an expiration date that you know is there, but you don't want to accept (it),” Juarez said. 

Mitzi Velazquez, a DACA recipient and biomedical engineering junior, migrated from Mexico City, Mexico to Tulsa at two years old. Velazquez shared Juarez’s feelings regarding the DACA renewal status, calling it “overwhelming.”

“I have a lawyer that does that for me for the reason that we’re really nervous that anything could ever go wrong,” Velazquez said. “The fact that I have to pay a lawyer to do that and having to pay money for the application is very overwhelming.” 

Velazquez said being a DACA recipient is like an “anxiety that you have to carry with you every day.” 

“You are granted permission to work here, (but) you’re still considered illegal, and you’re still considered an immigrant,” Velazquez said. “Things aren’t exactly the same for DACA students compared to students that are residents or citizens that have the same opportunity.” 

Although she is grateful for the Dream and Promise Act, Juarez said she feels like many lawmakers use DACA recipients as “bargaining chips” to get votes. 

“I hope this time they’re serious with the proposition that they’re trying to pass and that they don’t use this as a bargaining chip,” Juarez said. “That’s not what we are. We’re people and we deserve to be heard.” 

When Velazquez heard of the American Dream and Promise Act of 2021, she said it gave her a “sense of faith.” She said as an immigrant student, she’s constantly waiting for the opportunity to obtain citizenship or residency.

“It might be years until it actually comes through, but it gives you a sense of (how) things might change for people (and) for future immigrant students,” Velazquez said. “It might not change for me, but it might change for people that are looking into school.” 

Juarez said receiving conditional permanent residency would mean she could travel outside the country and go back to Mexico to visit family she hasn’t seen in years. She said she’d also be able to study abroad and apply for government aid. 

“There are a lot of opportunities that would open up,” Juarez said. “I would be able to apply for healthcare and be able to see a doctor without having to worry about the bills that would pile up.” 

Like Juarez, Velazquez said she hasn’t visited her extended family since she migrated to the U.S. With the American Dream and Promise Act, Velazquez could legally visit them in Mexico. 

“People don’t realize how important that is,” Velazquez said. “The only family I’ve ever met are my mom, dad, my brother, and my sister. I have many cousins, aunts and uncles I’ve never been able to meet.” 

Velazquez said the restrictions posed from being undocumented are “dehumanizing.” She said it adds to the feeling of “not being worth it.” 

“It makes you feel like you're not valid — that you're not enough to be considered for these opportunities, especially when you've done nothing wrong,” Velazquez said. 

Juarez said she felt the “emotional toll” of being a DACA recipient in high school by not being able to apply to certain scholarships and financial aid. Although she’s sometimes reminded of her status, she has realized it does not define her.

“I’m so much more than being undocumented,” Juarez said. “I’m a daughter, a sister (and) a friend.” 

In general, to obtain lawful permanent resident status, OU law professor Kit Johnson said a U.S. citizen must file an application on behalf of the immigrant. Sponsors may include family-based relationships, an employer or the Diversity Visa — a lottery that gives out roughly 50,000 lawful permanent resident visas a year, Johnson said. In 2019, the U.S. granted about one million LPR visas — a 5.9 percent decrease from 2018 and an 8.5 percent decrease from 2017, according to the United States Department of Homeland Security’s Annual Flow Report

Johnson said immigrants may wait up to 25 years to obtain LPR status due to complications such as quota restrictions and the number of visas available each year. She said increasing the number of visas granted each year is a simple solution to reduce the wait time for them. 

Under the American Dream and Promise Act of 2021, Dreamers and DACA recipients who obtain conditional permanent resident status could apply to become a LPR as soon as they complete one of three tracks: graduating from college or completing at least two years of a bachelor’s or higher degree program; completing at least two years of honorable military service or working for a period of at least three years; or while having valid employment authorization, working 75 percent of the time that they had such authorization, according to the bill. 

As Juarez’s graduation date approaches next year, she said if the American Dream and Promise Act of 2021 goes into effect in time, she would apply for LPR as time permits. She said becoming an LPR means she would “finally feel seen.” 

“For so long, a lot of us have lived in the shadows,” Juarez said. “Even though we’ve been able to come out from those shadows, we’ve been pushed back in many ways. I feel like (with LPR) I would be able to escape and finally be seen by the world around me and the country that I’ve tried so hard to be a part of.” 

Velazquez said becoming an LPR is the “ultimate goal.” She said she wants to feel safe and at home. 

“I feel like this is my home, but at the same time, it's not because they don't give us the opportunities that we deserve,” Velazquez said. “It’s not my fault that I migrated with my family to the United States when I was two.” 

As a DACA recipient, Velazquez said she wishes people knew the difficulties of paying for school out-of-pocket as an undocumented immigrant receiving no federal aid. She said being able to apply for financial aid with the passage of the American Dream and Promise Act of 2021 would alleviate the struggle of trying to find money to pay for her tuition. 

“It’s so hard,” Velazquez said. “I wish they’d give us more credibility and more support.” 

Like Velazquez, Juarez said she wants to be accepted, heard and understood.

“We have probably worked 10 times harder than anybody else to be in the place that we are today,” Juarez said. “We just want people to accept that we want to be a part of this country the same way that other people want to be a part of this country.” 

Despite her daily struggles as being a DACA recipient, Velazquez said she’d never go back in time to stay in Mexico. 

“These situations have built character in me,” Velazquez said. “Even though they’re really sad, they’ve definitely played a significant role in my life, and they've made me the person I am.”

Alexia Aston joined The Daily in the fall of 2020 as a news reporter. Alexia is a journalism major from Clinton, Oklahoma.

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