Marissa Vichayapai of 21 Progress speaks to members of Seattle’s Tongan community about DACA and other immigration policies on July 11, 2015. • Photo by Shawn Porter
Marissa Vichayapai of 21 Progress speaks to members of Seattle’s Tongan community about DACA and other immigration policies on July 11, 2015. • Photo by Shawn Porter

While dialogue on immigration policy in the United States often centers around the Latino community, an effort is being led in Seattle to reach out to undocumented Asian and Pacific Islanders.

There are 1.3 million members of the AAPI community nationwide who are undocumented, with the demographic in Washington state alone representing over 25 percent of those who are undocumented.

Seattle’s Tongan community gathered for an informational forum conducted at the 9th Avenue SW United Methodist Church in Seattle on Saturday July 11. Tonga is a Polynesian sovereign state made up of more than 170 islands in the South Pacific.
Hosted by 21 Progress and its program Fearless Asians for Immigration Reform (FAIR!), the forum covered the basic qualifications needed and steps to take when applying for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) as well as other programs not yet implemented.

“We need to support our communities, strengthen our communities, we’re going to be really strong,” said Marissa Vichayapai during the presentation. Vichayapai is the Asian and Pacific Islander DACA Coordinator of 21 Progress and FAIR! Campaign Director.

Meant for individuals who came into the country as children, the DACA program has so far allowed 700,000 individuals, who met a specific set of guidelines, to request consideration of deferred action from the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).

For millions of undocumented youth, DACA offers a pathway to receive higher education, a social security card, a driver’s license, protection from deportation, and a work permit. Those who receive the deferred action will not be placed into removal proceedings or removed from the United States for a specified period of time unless under special circumstances that warrant the termination of an individual’s eligibility. DACA applicants must meet requirements such as having come to the U.S. before reaching their 16th birthday, having lived continuously in the U.S. since June 15, 2007 up to the present, and more.

Vichayapai assured those who attended the forum that unless an applicant’s case involves a criminal offense, fraud, or a threat to public safety, the U.S. government will not refer applicants to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) for the purpose of deportation.

An important part of the FAIR! program is the availability for free legal counseling provided by Northwest Immigrant Rights Project (NWIRP) for any member of the community with questions or concerns about their eligibility and, if DACA eligible, review of an application before submitting.

“We recommend that before you submit your application, you see a professional attorney or legal service program,” said Vichayapai, “and then the attorney will be able to advise whether or not you should submit your application.”

A special speaker at the forum was Amy Kele, an 18 year old who applied for and was granted DACA status. Through her success she has already received her social security number, worker’s permit, and is starting school at the University of Washington Bothell this fall.

“Of course, the biggest relief is not having the fear of being deported, so I can pursue my dreams and contribute back to this country,” Kele said.

The strict guidelines in place for DACA leave many undocumented individuals in the community ineligible and looking for answers as to how they might be able to become legal citizens in the future.

Another program put forward by President Barack Obama, Deferred Action for Parent Accountability (DAPA), would grant deferred action status to undocumented immigrants who have lived in the United States since 2010 and have children who are American citizens or lawful permanent residents. However, an injunction issued by the Federal District Court for the Southern District of Texas in February 2015 blocked the executive order. A decision on DAPA is expected later this year.

“It’s good to understand the DACA program because pieces of this program were used as a model for DAPA. Meaning, it provides some context for DAPA, a program that has yet to be implemented,” said Vichayapai.

Another proposed program affected by the injunction from the Texas judge is expanded DACA, which would simply eliminate the upper age cap requirement for DACA. Expanded DACA applicants would not have to be under 31 in order to apply.
There are many prerequisites required in order for an individual to qualify for the currently implemented version of DACA, and the same goes for any future DAPA or expanded DACA applicants.

Vichayapai said that even if programs aren’t taking applications yet, there are things one can do to make sure they’re as ready as can be for when the time comes, including collecting evidence needed to prove eligibility, saving money, and seeing an immigration attorney for a free screening.

“Don’t lose hope. DACA was once a dream for so many people, and it took a lot of years for it to get to ths place it is today,” Vichayapai said. “There are so many people who are fighting and will continue to fight.”

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