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Congress’ DACA Amnesia Is Helping Trump Ruin Lives

Six months after the Supreme Court ruled same-sex couples had the right to marry, Marco Villada married the love of his life, Israel Serrato. The couple was blissful. They had many reasons to celebrate, including the fact that Villada was finally eligible to apply to adjust his immigration status through marriage. But for this couple, getting in the proverbial immigration line and doing it “the right way,” has turned their dreams into a terrible nightmare. They are being separated and Trump’s decision to end DACA, paired with Congress’ inability to secure a permanent solution for Dreamers, is to blame.

Villada is currently stuck in Mexico, the country of his birth, which he left when he was six years old. For years the couple has tried to adjust Villada’s immigration status. They thought they were close after the U.S. government issued Villada a waiver that should have allowed him to return to the U.S after traveling to Mexico for his consular interview.

Villada has been undocumented for decades, and in 2013 he applied for DACA. The program allowed him to stay in the U.S. and work legally, but it did not offer a path to citizenship. Many people might wonder why he didn’t apply sooner, why did he stay undocumented for so long? Why didn’t he get in the line?

I’ve explained in detail why “the line” doesn’t exist, but it is worth revisiting the bans that make it nearly impossible for people to apply.  Under current immigration law, most undocumented people are prohibited from adjusting their immigration status. Only those who have parents who are U.S Citizens or very specific advance degrees, marry a U.S. citizen, or meet other limited criteria are eligible to apply.  But, if they ever become eligible to apply, people who entered the country illegally, and remain in the U.S. unlawfully for more than a year, face the possibility of being banned for 10 years .

Villada became eligible after the Supreme Court decision made it possible for him to marry as a gay man. But his case was not straight forward since he entered illegally when he was six-years old. Traditionally adjustment of status through marriage requires the immigrant spouse to apply for a visa in his or her home country, but that was a perilous requirement for Villada because leaving the U.S. triggers the 10-year ban for people who have been in the U.S. unlawfully for more than a year. Couples can apply for a waiver if they can show their spouse would suffer significantly by their absence. Villada and Serrato were able to secure a “provisional unlawful presence waiver,” since the couple relied heavily on Villada’s income. The waiver should have made it possible for Villada to receive a spouse visa and return to the U.S. Instead Villada’s visa was denied. His DACA permit became null once he left the U.S., since the program does not allow recipients to travel outside the country. Without the spouse visa, the waiver does not allow him to travel back to the U.S. Back in Los Angeles, Serrato has been forced to sell their possessions and move out of their home. Their case has been taken up by the National Immigration Law Center (where I serve as a board member) in a lawsuit against the Trump administration.

All of this could have been avoided had Congress secured a solution for Dreamers.  Instead, after a few weeks of legislative efforts, both Democrats and Republicans have become seemingly indifferent to the issue. Thanks to the courts, DACA is still partially alive. Current DACA recipients can still submit renewal applications. But DACA continues to be a temporary solution, and is no help to Villada and Serrato, or to the other 800,000 dreamers who do not qualify to adjust their immigration status.

While Congress idles, the Trump administration has continued to implement its anti-immigrant agenda. Donald Trump’s supporters tell immigrants to do it the “right way,” which is code for “get out of the country and try again.” They say “go to the back of the line” when there is no line. Meanwhile President Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions are hard at work making the few “right ways” available to immigrants disappear. In New York state, a significant number of Special Immigrant Juvenile Status applications have been denied due to a new and more restrictive interpretation of a law that allows young people who were neglected, abandoned, or abused by their parents to apply for green cards. Over the last decade applications of those who were over 18 but younger than 21 when they applied were approved, but under this administration those applications are being denied. Sessions is looking to roll back or totally eliminate rules that allow women to apply for asylum if they were victims of domestic violence or victims of sex-trafficking.

The Trump administration has made it clear that immigrants, legal and undocumented alike, are not safe. As Villada and Serrato’s plight demonstrates, doing things “the right way,” means very little under Trump’s regime. Congress’ latest push led by Republican Reps. Jeff Denham (R-CA) and Will Hurd (R-TX) to force Paul Ryan to bring immigration bills to a vote is a step in the right direction.  The question remains though, how far is Congress willing to go to protect dreamers? Can these member of Congress usher a bill to the floor and finally protect Dreamers from Trump’s deportation regime? I hope so because Dreamers deserve much better than to be kicked out of their home country. They deserve to live and thrive here.