Oak Park deals with DACA anxiety

President Trump's decision to end program has residents, schools on edge

September 12th, 2017 3:31 PM

Attendees listen on Friday, Sept. 8, during a West Suburban Action Project's DACA informational meeting in Melrose Park. | ALEXA ROGALS/Staff Photographer

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By Michael Romain

Staff Reporter

President Donald Trump's recent decision to end Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), a policy implemented in 2012 by President Barack Obama, has prompted a range of responses from Oak Park residents. 

Allison Baxter, an Oak Park ESL teacher, said many of the students and teachers she works with are anxious, with some reduced to tears when contemplating what the law, or lack thereof, might mean for their futures in, or out, of the United States. 

DACA offers a two-year period of relief from deportation that can be renewed, in addition to the opportunity to obtain a work permit, to people who immigrated to the United States illegally as minors. 

Last Friday, Baxter attended an informational meeting hosted by PASO-West Suburban Action Project, an immigrant rights group based in Melrose Park. Since Trump's decision, officials with PASO have been busy planning protests, holding informational meetings, recruiting new members and helping anxious immigrants file applications. 

The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) will continue to process renewal applications until Oct. 5 from recipients whose DACA status expires between Sept. 5 and March 5, 2018. Recipients whose status has already expired won't be eligible for renewal. 

Oak Park resident Mony Ruiz-Velasco, PASO's executive director, said the organization helps immigrants from all over the western suburbs, including Oak Park. PASO was influential in the passage of welcoming ordinances in suburbs like Berwyn, Forest Park and Oak Park. 

The organization was also part of the negotiations that led to the passage of the Illinois Trust Act, which limits the extent to which local law enforcement can cooperate with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. 

Ruiz-Velasco said she and her fellow PASO members are working on creating rapid response teams to deal with ICE's draconian deportation measures. ICE agents have been trying to ramp up the number of deportations, she said, in order to justify receiving additional federal funding to build more deportation centers. 

Ruiz-Velasco added that many members of PASO are also undocumented immigrants. Janeth Vazquez, a 23-year-old graduate student, is on PASO's board. Vazquez said her work permit expires in 2019 and with Trump ending DACA, she won't be able to renew it. After that point, she said, "we don't know what will happen."

The newfound uncertainty around DACA even prompted Oak Park Elementary Schools District 97 to release a statement on Sept. 7: 

"We realize that members of our community may be frightened or concerned following the recent decision regarding the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. Please know that District 97 will continue to preserve and protect the rights of our families, faculty and staff, including the right that all of our students have to a positive learning environment that is equitable, inclusive and focused on the whole child."