Latinos protected by federal program fear deportation under Trump's rule
Erika Martinez has been volunteering since she was 8 years old at her church, homeless shelters and senior homes. She made the National Honor Society and won admission to the University of Illinois in Springfield. She worked closely on the re-election campaign of Republican U.S. Rep. Bob Dold, who was defeated by Democrat Brad Schneider Tuesday in Illinois' 10th Congressional District.
Yet, everything Martinez has worked hard for over the years is under threat. She and other young Latinos brought into this country illegally as children fear deportation if President-elect Donald Trump shuts down the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program.
"Everything that I believe in, everything that I want and I'm doing right now, it can go away as easily as DACA can go away," said Martinez, 19, of Round Lake, who is studying political science at the Springfield campus.
Martinez moved to the United States from Mexico at age 6 and it wasn't until her freshman year at Round Lake Senior High School that she learned she was brought here illegally.
"I love my community and this country," she said. "I have started to put my footprint on the world. It's not in Mexico, it's in America."
An estimated 11.2 million immigrants live in the United States illegally. Six states, including Illinois, are home to more than half of those, according to a study by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center.
The DACA program, established in 2012 by President Barack Obama's executive order, gives temporary legal status, permission to work and protection from deportation to people ages 15 to 30 who were brought illegally into the U.S. as children. It does not provide a path to citizenship.
Opponents call the act an inappropriate use of executive powers. Some say people who came here illegally, even not by their own volition, should have no protection from deportation.
Since 2012, 844,931 people have applied for the legal protections, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. Illinois is the third, after California and Texas, in number of people enrolled.
Ana Mencini, an Itasca-based attorney who specializes in immigration law, has some 300 clients, many of whom have been able to get federal work permits under Obama's executive order.
Most of her clients are concerned about what could happen to personal information they submitted on forms to the federal government detailing every place they have lived and worked since coming to the United States, Mencini said.
"It's a treasure trove of information they had to give out," Mencini said. "Trump has said a lot of things. Until he's there, we don't know what he's going to do."
The day after the election, Mencini's office was swamped with calls and emails from clients, many fearing mass deportations.
Mencini believes that scenario is unlikely and has been trying to calm people's nerves. "They're really scared."
Not everyone qualifies for DACA. Its criteria are stringent, barring anyone involved in criminal activities or having immigration-related violations, said Megan McKenna, executive director of Mano A Mano Family Resource Center, a Round Lake Park nonprofit providing services for immigrants. Recipients must reapply every two years and renewal of the status is not guaranteed.
"You still have to maintain good moral character and good standing in the community. Otherwise you will not be protected," McKenna said.
Martinez, a DACA recipient since March 2015, is "the perfect example of one of the many assets in our community ... a really dedicated and hardworking individual who has big dreams personally, and professionally," McKenna said.
Martinez was part of the National Junior Honor Society, the National Hispanic Institute and National Honor Society at Round Lake Senior High School. She has led English conversational circles for Mano A Mano and was involved in teen court for Nicasa, a nonprofit behavioral health services program for at-risk people in northern Illinois.
"I've always been involved in trying to help my community and also trying to reach my own goals," she said.