Across Berkshires, a sigh of relief over DACA ruling

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PITTSFIELD — "You could hear cheers throughout the office."

That's how Ilana Steinhauer described the scene Wednesday when staff in the Volunteers in Medicine Berkshires learned that U.S. Supreme Court had rejected the Trump administration's attempts to dismantle the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, known as DACA.

Steinhauer is executive director of the organization, which serves an 80 percent immigrant population of uninsured and underinsured patients. She said the ruling, which keeps the program intact, ushered in a sense of hope among her team members.

Across Berkshire County, members and allies of the program expressed their relief on behalf of the approximately 700,000 immigrants it protects.

Michelle Lopez, executive director of the Berkshire Immigrant Center, which provides legal and cultural assistance for those transitioning into life in the U.S., said that she and her staff were "so thrilled" about the ruling.

"This is a huge win for immigrants and their loved ones," Lopez said. "This is very personal to us, and we're just so elated. Of course we were nervous, especially because of the current administration and their attempts to hurt immigrants continuously left and right since 2017."

"But, I think that Monday's LGBTQ worker's rights ruling by the Supreme Court gave us more hope," she said, referring to the Monday ruling that banned discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in the workplace.

The DACA program, established by President Barack Obama in 2012, granted a two-year shield from deportation to immigrant workers who were brought to American before the age of 16. The renewable "Dreamer" status is available to workers younger than 30 who spend at least five years in America and either are honorably discharged veterans, current students, high school graduates or GED recipients.

Eleanore Velez, coordinator of the Multicultural Center at Berkshire Community College, said that the DACA program, although welcome, created a frightening choice for the undocumented community: take the leap of faith and reveal their status, or risk never integrating into American society.

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"I think if we go back to 2012, when DACA was first introduced by President Obama, a lot of people were thinking, `Do I come out of the shadows? Do I put my name out there? Do I expose myself and my family?' " said Velez, who has worked with immigrant students and their families at the college since 2007. "We sat and talked about it, and we thought, `We live in the United States of America. It's a safe thing to put yourself out there.' "

In September 2017, President Donald Trump announced that he would end the program. Attorney General Jeff Sessions at the time called it "an unconstitutional exercise of authority by the executive branch."

Velez said that decision shook her community to its core.

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"There was this real sense of loss and fear and anxiety and persecution," she said.

On Thursday, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 against that viewpoint, saying that there was insufficient reason from the Trump administration to shut down the DACA program. Chief Justice John Roberts specifically wrote in the majority opinion: "We do not decide whether DACA or its rescission are sound policies."

The Trump administration will have the opportunity to provide more evidence in a lower court to support the shutdown.

Lopez expressed her disappointment that Roberts focused on the failed process rather than protecting the DACA program itself, although she thinks he might have done so in order to shield himself from political backlash.

"It's definitely a blow to hear that," Lopez said. "He's publicly expressing that it's done on a technicality."

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All three women stressed that one Supreme Court ruling does not mitigate underlying issues of hate and discrimination. Velez found out over Facebook Thursday morning that a parent of two Dreamers had their car vandalized.

"This is a great win for many human beings" she said. "And at the same time, it presents us with the challenges of a divided society."

Steinhauer said that DACA, which does not aid immigrants securing citizenship, is a short-term solution for many.

"The hope of most organizations that work with [Dreamers] is that they will be given a path to citizenship," she said. "That's what we're going to be looking at toward the future."

Lopez said that all discriminated communities need support from allies now more than ever, and that the month of June, which is both Pride Month and Immigrant Heritage Month, is the perfect opportunity.

"Some people don't even know what the acronym `DACA' stands for, so first, educate yourself," Lopez said.

"Second step would be action. Make sure that you're uplifting the voices and telling the stories of the people who are DACA holders. They're doctors. They're lawyers. They're agricultural workers. They're teachers. All of these people just contribute so much to our society economically, socially and culturally."

Christopher Parker can be reached at cparker@berkshireeagle.com.


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