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Court’s DACA ruling welcome news, but immigration reform needed, advocates say

UMass Boston student Estefany Pineda, 22, of East Boston was the guest of US Representative Ayanna Pressley during the State of the Union address in 2019.

Local immigrants and advocates Saturday hailed a federal judge’s order for the Trump administration to restore a program designed to protect young undocumented people from deportation, but warned that legislative action was urgently needed to reform the nation’s outmoded immigration system.

While they deemed the court order a win for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, they also said Congress and the incoming Biden administration must create sweeping new measures for the millions of undocumented immigrants in the US who have lived with uncertainty and fear under President Trump’s toughened immigration enforcement.

Estefany Pineda, 22, an East Boston resident who came to the US from El Salvador as a 9-year-old and is enrolled in the DACA program, said the debate over immigration has been wrongly politicized — and immigrants are facing the consequences.

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“It’s unfair, and I think it’s very unjust, for them to think that they can play with people’s lives like that,” Pineda said. “So I’m just hoping that with this new administration [lawmakers will] try and do reform and provide a permanent solution.”

On Friday, US District Judge Nicholas Garaufis in New York told the Trump administration that it must accept new applications for the DACA program and publicize the openings on the websites of relevant government agencies. It also reversed a decision that had cut the length of time the recipients had to renew their status from two years to one year.

Garaufis’s order vacated a July decision by Chad Wolf, the acting Homeland Security secretary, to suspend new applications to the program. Friday’s court order also followed a June Supreme Court decision that found Trump had not followed proper procedures when he tried to end the program.

In November, Garaufis ruled that Wolf had been unlawfully appointed to the position and therefore his decision was invalid.

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Chase Jennings, a Homeland Security spokesman, said in a statement Saturday night that the agency will abide by Friday’s decision while it works with the Department of Justice on the next steps to appeal.

“DHS wholly disagrees with this decision by yet another activist judge acting from his own policy preferences,” Jennings said. “Judge Garaufis’s latest decision, similar to his earlier inaccurate ruling, is clearly not sound law or logic.”

In 2012, President Obama issued an executive order creating the DACA program after Congress failed to take action on the proposed DREAM Act. DACA allows some young undocumented immigrants who had been brought to the US as children to remain in the country legally. Participants must register with the government and renew their status on a regular basis. About 650,000 people are currently enrolled.


Eva Millona, executive director of the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition, called Friday’s court decision a huge victory for those now enrolled in DACA, and the roughly 300,000 immigrants who will now be able to apply for the program, including about 15,000 in Massachusetts.

President-elect Joe Biden has said he’d support DACA, but she said the nation needs a widespread reform of its immigration system. She said that there is broad bipartisan support for such an effort.

“It’s politically smart, it’s economically responsible, and it’s morally right that we as a country have an immigration policy that serves the interest of the [US],” Millona said. “It’s pro our values.”

Iván Espinoza-Madrigal, executive director of Lawyers for Civil Rights in Boston, called the ruling a critical step to ensuring the safety and well-being of DACA recipients, but also said more must be done.

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“We need a permanent solution for DACA recipients, but we also need this clarity and stability across all the other areas of immigration that under Trump became targets for dismantlement or cancellation,” he said.

Millona and Espinoza-Madrigal, in separate interviews, emphasized the increased importance of immigration reform in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The health crisis has disproportionately impacted immigrants, they said, many of whom work in hospitals and in other front-line jobs. Many who are not documented worry about facing immigration enforcement if they get tested and seek medical care.

“We will not be able to turn the corner on COVID in immigrant communities until immigrants feel safe that they can seek testing and treatment without triggering immigration consequences,” Espinoza-Madrigal said.

Elias Rosenfeld, 23, a Brandeis University student and DACA recipient who came from Venezuela as a 6-year-old with his sister and mother, also said advocates and lawmakers must work to preserve the program for young immigrants while pushing for broader reform.

Trump’s tightened immigration measures have taken their toll on Rosenfeld and others. When his grandfather died in 2018 in Venezuela, Rosenfeld he said he was not able to attend the funeral because of the president’s changes to immigration policy.

Many immigrants live today in uncertainty and with the fear of deportation, he said in a phone interview from his home in Miami.

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“It’s kind of a two-way battle: we have to keep the DACA program alive and strong while we fight for a permanent solution in Congress,” Rosenfeld said.

Following Friday’s court ruling, local leaders, including Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh, praised the decision. In a statement, the mayor called the ruling good for the city and the country, and “a sigh of relief.”

DACA recipients “are our neighbors, our friends and our coworkers,” Walsh said. “I am encouraged by this decision and looking forward for our federal immigration agenda to transition to a more humane, just, and reasonable one under a Biden-Harris administration.”

US Senator Ed Markey called the ruling a victory in a statement on Twitter Friday.

“We’re a nation of immigrants, built by those coming to our shores to create better lives. We welcome Dreamers,” he said. “Now we need to pass legislation to provide permanent protections for #DACA recipients and create a pathway to citizenship.”

In separate Twitter posts, US Representative Ayanna Pressley and US Senator Elizabeth Warren each praised the ruling.

“This victory belongs to the young people who organized, mobilized, and never backed down,” Pressley said.

Warren said: “Congratulations to everyone who fought their hearts out for this victory.”

Pineda was Pressley’s guest at Trump’s State of the Union address last year. At the time, the congresswoman praised Pineda on Twitter: “Your advocacy on behalf of your community and on behalf of Dreamers, TPS and Asylum seekers everywhere inspires us.”

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Pineda came to the US, where her parents were already living, with her grandmother, two older sisters and young cousin.

Her sisters — now aged 27 and 24 -- are also in the DACA program, while her now-16-year-old cousin hopes to enroll, Pineda said.

“We are hard-working people, a document does not make me less of a person or less of an individual,” Pineda said of immigrants. “Nothing was given to me, it was literally me trying to find and scrape [together] scholarships so I’m able to get an education.”

Pineda’s first day at UMass was Sept. 5, 2017 -- the same day Trump ordered an end to the DACA program and derided it as an “amnesty-first approach.” Since then, she can’t shake the fear about what’s going to happen next.

“I try not to think about it, and just do what I have to do,” Pineda said.

Pineda is studying international relations and expects to graduate in the spring. Her goal is to work for the immigrant community, and help young people who want to continue their education.

“I hope to, through my work, help at least some people get to college,” she said, “and just show that we can do great things.”

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.




John Hilliard can be reached at john.hilliard@globe.com.