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On DACA anniversary, Las Vegas advocates urge White House to strengthen program

UNLV student Alma Perez’s American Dream is to one day work as an accountant, which she is studying for.

But as an undocumented immigrant who was brought to the U.S. at the age of 4, she’s not permitted to legally work, and has resorted to construction labor alongside her father, said the 20-year-old woman.

“I work there because I truly don’t know where else to look, because my options are limited,” said Perez at an east Las Vegas event marking the 12th anniversary of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.

Those who qualify for DACA are commonly known as “Dreamers.”

Advocates with Make the Road Nevada on Monday called on President Joe Biden’s administration to strengthen and expand the DACA program, which was intended for the undocumented population who immigrated to the U.S. as children. It allows them to legally live and work in the country without a path to citizenship.

On Tuesday, Biden announced a new set of immigration-related executive actions.

One would allow certain undocumented children and spouses of American citizens to apply for permanent residence — which they were already able to — while remaining in the country, a process known as “parole in place.”

Another addresses DACA recipients and other Dreamers who have a college degree and a job offer in their field of study, according to the White House. The order will allow them to “more quickly” receive work visas.

Just like the DACA program, the new orders are expected to be challenged in court.

Living in fear

Valdivias, who earned a degree in business administration, also works landscaping and construction with her father.

“I am a 110-pound girl (pushing) wheel barrels far heavier than my own weight,” she said Monday.

“You might think that the physical toll is the hardest part, but it’s not,” she added. “The hardest part is the emotional stress that comes from living in fear that one day my older siblings, parents and I can be deported from the country we call home.”

Then-President Barack Obama issued the DACA directive in 2012. It’s currently in limbo in the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals as opponents challenge its legality.

As of 2023, there were roughly 580,000 recipients who must renew their permits every two years, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services figures. About 11,200 live in Nevada.

Meanwhile, after former President Donald Trump moved to rescind the program in 2017, new applicants like Perez and Reyna Valdivias, a recent Nevada State University graduate, were “locked out.”

‘We deserve the opportunity’

Just like Valdivias, Bernardo Sanchez was brought to the U.S. as a baby.

He had dreamed of enlisting in the Navy and one day joining the Navy SEALs, but he, too, wasn’t able to apply to DACA before Trump’s order.

He is also studying business administration at Nevada State University.

“Despite my determination, I’m uncertain about my future,” he said. “We deserve the opportunity to contribute fully to the country we call home.”

Michael Kagan, UNLV law professor and director of the university’s Immigration Clinic, said that permanent immigration reform can only be achieved in Congress. He’s not hopeful it can be done amid such political division.

“That is extremely unfortunate,” Kegan said. “The bipartisan era on immigration seems to be over, (but) I’d love to be proven wrong about that.”

However, he said, presidents can “use discretion to smooth some of the harshest and cruelest edges of our immigration laws, and I hope President Biden will do that.”

Kagan said both major political parties have failed immigrants.

Mass deportation threats

Presumptive Republican nominee Trump has threatened mass deportations and Democrats, Kagan said, have not done enough.

“The Democratic party has often not messaged very clearly about what it wants to do,” he said. “They’ve allowed Donald Trump to control the narrative about the border. They have rested on their laurels with the DACA program, I think, too often.”

Kagan said immigrants enrich America.

“We’re an immigrant state. So many people in Nevada come from somewhere, and for some of us that means coming from New York and moving to Nevada, and for some of us that means coming from Mexico or Venezuela, but we all built this place and we all make it work,” he said.

Contact Ricardo Torres-Cortez at rtorres@reviewjournal.com.

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