By Katrina Ruiz
Photo by Katrina Ruiz
MERCED, Calif. — Over 100 Merced County residents gathered recently at Sacred Heart Church for a community forum on current immigration and criminal justice legislation. Many were there to learn about how they or their families could benefit under the current legal landscape.
“We should be able to at least keep our families together,” said Guadalupe Garcia, 31, of Merced. “I’m here to learn how to do that and learn what is available for my family and me.”
Garcia is one of a large number of Merced residents who come from mixed status homes, where one or more family members is undocumented.
“I just want to be able to get ahead in life just like everyone else here. Without people like us to do the hard work, it wouldn’t get done. We deserve to be able to get ahead,” Garcia said.
The forum, held last Saturday, focused on two key pieces of legislation. The first, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), allows certain undocumented immigrants who entered the country before their 16th birthday and before June 2007 to receive a renewable two-year work permit and temporary relief from deportation. The second, Prop. 47, reclassifies certain low level, non-violent felony convictions to misdemeanors.
Organizers of the event stressed the importance of making residents aware of the resources available to them under these laws.
Jose Gonzalez is a leader with the Merced Organizing Project (MOP), the organizer of the event. “Amnesty for undocumented immigrants has not been a priority for the U.S. for over 30 years,” said Gonzalez, noting events like the one held Saturday provide lifelines of support to those who otherwise are left to fare for themselves.
To date only 60 percent of people eligible for DACA in California have applied, compared to close to 80 percent in Texas, another state with a sizable undocumented population. Immigrant rights advocates agree more needs to be done to encourage those eligible to apply.
Johany Barragan is a 20-year-old Spanish major from UC Merced and a DACA recipient. He said he attended the event to share his own first hand experience with others. “I wanted to be here today because as an undocumented student I can give advice and highlight the benefits of DACA as a recipient,” said Barragan. “ I can give a firsthand account of what it is like to be DACAmented.’’
Barragan was also there to learn about Deferred Action for Parents of Americans (DAPA), an expansion of DACA announced last year by President Obama that would allow eligible parents of U.S. citizens and permanent residents to remain in the U.S. and work without fear of deportation.
Barragan said that without DAPA he worries his mom could be deported.
In February of 2015, a federal judge in Texas blocked DACA and DAPA on the grounds that they are unconstitutional. The Supreme Court agreed last month to take the case and a final decision could be made in June 2016.
The forum was organized in collaboration with the Immigrant Legal Resource Center (ILRC), and was also supported by local Immigration Attorney Carolina Castaneda, Chief Deputy Public Defender Vincent Andrade, Public Defender Armando Lope, and ILRC Attorney Allison Davenport.
Speaking on Prop. 47, Andrade noted the law “gives people a chance to reclassify their felony and become more employable. That’s a good thing for our community.”
Research shows that one million Californians could benefit from Prop. 47, which passed in November 2014. Californians only have three years from that date to petition for reclassification or resentencing, which makes legal forums like MOP’s crucial.
“When it passed … individuals were given the opportunity to petition within three years,” continued Andrade. “I can definitely see someone being given a hearing even after the deadline, but it is better to petition sooner rather than later.”
MOP plans to host monthly legal forums throughout 2016 in order to reach community members who are most impacted.
For more information regarding future Legal Forums in Merced County or how you can get involved, please contact Crissy Gallardo at [email protected] or (209) 626-0631.
For information regarding Prop 47, you can contact Claudia Gonzalez at [email protected] or Victoria Castillo at (209) 947-5700. You can also visit the Public Defender’s office on Mondays from 10am-12pm. Their office is located at 2150 M St, Merced, CA 95340.