Toward the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, Florida International University students Noris Rivas and Ivan Vazquez applied for emergency aid from their school. Rivas wanted funding so she could pay for summer classes, and Vazquez needed financial help after losing his restaurant job.
But both were denied federal aid because they are not legal citizens of the U.S. — they're Dreamers.
Rivas and Vazquez are recipients of DACA, or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. The Obama-era provision allows for certain undocumented immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children to have a "quasi-legal" status. DACA recipients, sometimes called Dreamers, are not considered legal U.S. citizens, but they can work, go to school, and pay taxes as long as they keep their DACA status renewed.
FIU offered emergency aid from the federal CARES Act to students during the pandemic, but the university could not legally help out its Dreamer students.
"DACA students are among students with a non-eligible visa status, which means they are not eligible for any federal, state or FIU funds (since FIU is a state institution) because receiving dollars from us would constitute a public benefit and these students are not eligible for public benefits. This is not an FIU policy, but federal law," FIU spokesperson Madeline Baro told New Times in an email.
Rivas tweeted about not receiving aid back in May in a post that garnered more than 17,000 likes:
My school denied me of emergency aid I was going to use to pay for their summer classes,due to the fact I’m undocumented but have a social, job, pay taxes AND attend their school. I’m not one to post on twitter over my problems but I’m fed up with this system pic.twitter.com/a8iFEkPgkx— nori (@yamiixo) May 12, 2020
Rivas, who was brought to the U.S. from El Salvador when she was six months old, tells New Times that getting DACA allowed her to apply for a Dreamers scholarship that made it possible to pay for tuition at FIU.
"DACA is the only reason I'm able to go to FIU. I couldn't get financial aid, Bright Futures, anything," she says. "My plan was to get an ROTC scholarship because I was in military academy. I qualified for everything, but I was overturned because I didn't have eligible status."
Vazquez, who was brought to the States from Mexico at age 13, similarly attributes DACA as the reason for his personal success and his ability to further his education.
"It's allowed me to do so much. I was able to go back to school, I was also able to get a driver's license, establish credit, buy a car, get a better job," he says. "Before, I was working under the table, not very stable jobs."
In 2017, the Trump administration announced that it was ending DACA, leaving many immigrants in South Florida and around the nation in fear of deportation.
Since the 2017 announcement, lawsuits were filed in several states fighting the decision. Eventually, the U.S. Supreme Court picked up the case in November 2018 to determine if the administration's move to "wind down" DACA was unlawful. The court is expected to make a decision by the end of this month.
Until then, Dreamers like Rivas and Vazquez are left to wait and plan their next move in case the court finds DACA's repeal was lawful.
Rivas says she and her boyfriend, who is a U.S. citizen, recently married, and she had a scheduled interview for citizenship that was canceled owing to the pandemic. She's confident she'll be able to become a citizen and continue her studies.
Vazquez, on the other hand, is not so sure.
"Getting married to someone is about the only option, and even that's not guaranteed," he says. "I try not to be over-optimistic, and I honestly think they're gonna move to repeal DACA. We'll lose our protection from deportation."
Harry Tapias, a Brickell-based immigration attorney, tells New Times that DACA recipients, even before the repeal announcement, lived in a place between legal and illegal status, and they have almost no way of helping themselves.
"There is no path for them. Right now, they're in limbo," Tapias says.
DACA was meant as a Band-Aid, according to Tapias, and was never meant to become a permanent status. It only protects undocumented immigrants until a proper path to citizenship is determined by legislators. So far, no replacement for the policy has passed in Congress.
"The power is in the hands of Congress if they can agree on a path for residency, but there is no path right now," says Tapias.
In a time when the definition of "essential workers" has shifted dramatically, some groups have pointed out that immigrants make up a large part of the essential workforce in Florida and particularly in Miami-Dade County.
The Florida Policy Institute, a left-leaning research nonprofit, released a study last month that found that almost one-third of all essential workers in Florida are immigrants. Immigrants comprise a major part of the workforce in building cleaning services, trucking, warehouse work, postal work, and healthcare. In Miami, those numbers are even greater.
Alexis Davis, a policy analyst with the Florida Policy Institute, tells New Times that Latinx immigrants make up a much larger majority of the essential workforce in Miami-Dade than in the state overall. Countywide, 69 percent of essential workers are Latinx, compared to 26 percent in Florida, and 65 percent of essential workers are foreign-born versus 28 percent statewide, according to Davis.
"This data likely reflects what we already knew — that South Florida is home to the highest share of immigrants in the state and that the majority of Florida's immigrants identify as Latinx," says Davis, adding that the state also needs to dedicate more attention to non-Latinx immigrants from Haiti and Jamaica.
Davis says current and eligible DACA recipients in Florida contribute nearly $78 million in state and local taxes, and if DACA is rescinded, Florida could lose upwards of 23 percent of that revenue.
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Rivas and Vazquez say they hope the Supreme Court or the legislature finds some solution for Dreamers. They both want to finish their education and serve the U.S. in some capacity.
"I have my mind set on the Army," Rivas says. "Within the military, you can get into politics and make a change, and our country could use a big change right now."
Vazquez, who has also considered joining the military, wants to fight the misconception that immigrants come to the U.S. and take advantage of the system.
"I love this country and I've always wanted to give back to this country, but that option isn't even available," he says. "The important thing is that most of us DACA recipients are working. We're trying to be productive. We're not criminals or rapists or murderers like the president said."