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What’s the future for local DACA recipients?

09/14/2017 9:45 AM |

He arrived in the United States in 2007 at age 15.

Jonnathan Pulla’s parents traveled with him and his two infant siblings from Ecuador in hopes of finding economic success and a better life for their children. Three years later, he graduated from Riverhead High School and then attended college for one semester. Tuition, though, became too high and he was unable to pay the cost out of pocket.

As an undocumented immigrant, he lacked a Social Security number and could not apply for loans or financial aid. He faced an uncertain future.

That changed in 2012, when he was 19, and former president Barack Obama passed an executive order for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, better known as DACA, which gave amnesty from deportation to those brought into the United States illegally as children, allowing them to get Social Security numbers, driver’s licenses and work permits.

“I didn’t know if I was going to graduate college or if I would have a career at all,” said Mr. Pulla. “So that helped me open up a lot of doors and motivated me to complete my education.”

Mr. Pulla, now 25, is pursuing a journalism major at Stony Brook University, but once again, his future is uncertain. President Donald Trump announced last week he would rescind the DACA program, allowing Congress six months to address the issue through legislation.

On Thursday, Mr. Trump initially denied he reached an agreement on DACA via Twitter after Democratic leaders announced a deal had been struck Wednesday night. He followed that up by making a statement saying that he would support legislation to protect the young undocumented immigrants from deportation, according to media reports.

“What am I going to do? Should I continue and get my degree?” Mr. Pulla said. “But as it is now, I’m just hoping for the best. I’m hoping Congress passes something that will solve this situation.”

Paola Zuniga-Tellez, who in April became the first Latina board member of the Flanders, Riverside and Northampton Community Association, said while many people are worried and scared, there’s also a feeling that they can fight to stay.

“This is their country,” she said. “I don’t think they want to go back to a country that they don’t know.”

Ms. Zuniga-Tellez, who was born in Mexico, works closely with DACA recipients in her activist work as well, she said. She hopes the community comes together to fight for DACA students and that Long Islanders get involved in more activism.

“It’s hard for a person to feel rejected from a country that they love,” she said. “It’s important to talk about DACA recipients because they contribute to the community and the economy.

“Going back to my country, I can’t imagine doing that. That would be very hard,” she added.

The Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act, known as the Dream Act, was first introduced in 2001. It would offer those who meet a very specific set of criteria a path to citizenship, however, it was never approved. The DACA program, signed by President Obama via executive order, addressed the issue similarly to the Dream Act.

A similar Dream Act was also proposed in New York to allow undocumented youths access to federal aid for college, but also never came to fruition.

The students who would benefit from a Dream Act are casually known as Dreamers, have grown up in this country — immigrating not by choice but by family — and are seeking higher education.

Congressman Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) said in a press release last week that he is a proponent of legal immigration, not illegal immigration, adding that he could not excuse criminal behavior.

“If the Obama administration wanted to implement the DACA program, it should have made the case to Congress and try to pass its proposal into law,” Mr. Zeldin said. “The administration absolutely did not have the authority to write its own ‘laws.’ If the proposal did not have the support to pass then it should not go into effect. That is how our process is designed and must be respected.”

New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman announced last week that a coalition of 16 attorneys general filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court arguing that the Trump administration “has violated the Equal Protection clause of the Constitution by discriminating against DREAMers of Mexican origin, who make up 78 percent of DACA recipients; violated due process rights; and harmed states’ residents, institutions and economies.”

Mr. Pulla added: “They say that people should try to do it the legal way but it’s very hard to do. Some people don’t have a choice for survival.”

Mayra Gonzalez, 21, came to the United States with her parents from El Salvador when she was 4 years old and has lived in Mattituck ever since. She is now a student at New York University.

“Prior to when DACA was passed, I thought about the reality that I might not be able to afford or get into college because of my status and it made me very upset,” Ms. Gonzalez said. “Primarily the reason my parents brought me over was to provide me with a good education and to not be able to continue that felt like a punch in the gut.”

She said she is fortunate that she is graduating from college this year and her DACA was just renewed, but she worries about future generations.

“I’m more concerned as to what younger generations who can apply for DACA but now won’t be protected under that provision, what will happen to them?” she said. “I don’t think that going through the process of having the opportunities taken away from you is the best way to grow up.”

Mr. Pulla said the DACA program has been great opportunity to improve his life and his family.

“If it wasn’t because of DACA I would have been employed doing construction for the rest of my life,” he said. “At least I can hope for something better, but I have to work hard for it.”

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Photo: Flanders, Riverside, Northampton Community Association board member Paola Zuniga-Tellez works closely with those benefiting from the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy. (Credit: Rachel Siford)

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