Immigrants in the Berkshires

Berkshire advocates talk impact of undoing Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program

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This story has been modified to correct the timeframe of the Unite the Right rally.

PITTSFIELD — "I was driving to work with a desire to throw up, with anxiety in my body."

That's how Eleanore Velez, coordinator the multicultural center at Berkshire Community College, described how she felt last week after fielding calls from anxious students about anticipated changes to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program by President Donald Trump.

DACA offers deferred removal action for some undocumented young adults who came to the United States as children.

Trump was expected to announce on Tuesday his decision to rescind DACA, with a six-month delay for Congress to formulate a replacement program. It was not immediately clear how the delay would work in practice.

Velez has been telling students coming to her for advice to not draw attention to themselves, to continue to be good citizens, go to work, take care of their mental health and talk about their worries — carefully — with people they trust.

"I'd say, lay low," she said. "Try to have some faith, right? Let's hope for the best."

DACA began in 2012 under President Barack Obama as a stopgap measure to protect some young immigrants from deportation. The program offers deferred removal action of two years for those selected, and enables recipients to work and drive legally, although it does not confer legal status. Recipients, as noncitizens, are not eligible to vote.

Several Republican attorneys general have threatened to sue the Trump Administration if it had not begun to dismantle DACA by Sept. 5.

DACA provided the promise of a reprieve for some immigrants, said Joseph Best, an attorney with the immigration law group Best & Associates, which has an office in Pittsfield.

If eligible immigrants provided their status and were selected, they would have work authorization and would not be an immigration enforcement priority.

"Now they're breaking that promise," Best said."Like everything else that is coming out of the White House, it's utterly inhumane, and it's going to divide families and effectively terrorize Americans."

About 9,000 people across the state are recipients of DACA, said Eva Millona, executive director of the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition, based in Boston.

Millona referred to Trump's decision as "pure political pandering."

"They've put their trust in the federal government," said Brooke Mead, director of the Berkshire Immigrant Center. 'To come back [at them] once they have exposed themselves and are integrated and working is cruel."

Although it was not clear how many DACA recipients live in Berkshire County, Mead said she estimates that the immigrant center handles about 20 to 29 DACA inquiries each year, including renewals.

"These are effectively young, productive people who have spent years and years living in the United States," Best said.

The personal information gathered in the process of applying for DACA — including things like names and addresses — could make recipients a target for enforcement, he said.

"You have 800,000 people who have made themselves vulnerable," he said.

The country needs comprehensive immigration reform to allow undocumented people in the United States a pathway to come out of the shadows, he said.

"We need ... to remind the president that his party controls the entire government," he said. "It would be a welcome change if the Republicans actually passed a statute."

Many people were afraid to apply for DACA when it was first announced, as it does not confer legal status, Velez said.

That fear started to dissolve when the first people granted DACA were not targeted.

But that fear has grown again, starting when Trump was a presidential candidate, she said.

And it's growing in response to Trump's expected decision on DACA, as the program gathers identifying information as part of the application process.

"[The government] knows who they are," she said. "It's very easy for them to be tracked. Being a worker, a parent and a student and then without documents — I don't know how they can do it."

Since Trump was elected, some of Velez's students have given her a measure of guardianship over their children, in case something were to happen to them.

Velez emphasized that many people have an incorrect understanding of DACA as an all-encompassing amnesty policy toward undocumented immigrants, when it is actually a very limited program.

At Berkshire Community College, many students who were recipients of DACA already have graduated.

"Most of them already got their master's degrees," Velez said. "And now they're afraid that somebody might come to the college and ask us to turn them in."

With high-profile incidents connected to ideologies against certain segments of the population — notably the Unite the Right rally of white nationalist groups in Charlottesville, Va., last month — fear in the immigrant community has spread.

"Who wants to raise their hand and say, 'I'm DACA,' after Charlottesville, after all these things?" Velez said.

Mead urged Berkshire County residents should contact legislators and urge them act on comprehensive immigration reform, keeping in mind the estimated 10 million other undocumented immigrants that aren't recipients of DACA.

"The fight has been picked, and I think we're ready for it," Mead said. "Hopefully the silver lining is that Congress will finally act. There's certainly will on both sides of the aisle for this."

Reach staff writer Patricia LeBoeuf at 413-496-6247 or @BE_pleboeuf.


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