Community Politics

Sofia Calleja is sitting in U of L’s Ekstrom Library on a Thursday afternoon. She’s reading a book on torts.

Calleja (pictured above) is from Lexington via Mexico City. She’s a first-year law student and working on a master’s degree in social work at the University of Louisville.

She’s also a recipient of DACA — or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, the federal policy put in place by the Obama administration that allowed some undocumented immigrants who had entered the country as minors to remain for renewable two-year periods. 

The rescinding of the program, which the Trump administration has promised, has real consequences for her.

“It’s just bad timing because I’m in the process of becoming an attorney and a social worker, and I don’t know if I can sit for the bar,” she says.

DACA isn’t a legal immigration status, nor does it offer a pathway to citizenship. What it does offer is the opportunity to get a driver’s license, enroll in college and legally work in the country.

Grantees were given these protections for two years and could apply for renewal. Recipients are not eligible for certain federal benefits, such as premium subsidies under the Affordable Care Act and nutrition assistance programs. They’re not eligible for federal financial aid to pay for school, though some grantees can apply for scholarships and other types of aid.

The roughly 6,000 DACA-eligible Kentuckians contribute approximately $9 million in state and local taxes.

Calleja considers herself luckier than others: Not only did she qualify for DACA, but she could afford the $495 fee. She’s worked at immigration clinics and seen the financial burdens firsthand.

“I remember one (case) distinctively was twins,” she says. “And mom had to come and do one. And a few months later she got the other one. But there was that time her child wasn’t protected because they couldn’t afford to apply.”

This fee often poses a significant financial burden, which is why one Kentucky organization is offering to help pay.

“I know that when I was a college student, coming up with $500 in a month or less would’ve been pretty impossible,” says Angela Baldridge, executive director of The Plantory, a Lexington-based nonprofit that is currently accepting applications from those who need help paying the renewal fees.

Requests are based on the honor system; applicants only ask for the money they need. And checks made to those granted the funds will be made to the Department of Homeland Security and not the applicant.

The Plantory isn’t the only place helping their state’s DREAMers, or DACA recipients. California, the state with the largest population of DREAMers, announced a plan to set aside $30 million to help DACA recipients with fees. Rhode Island also announced they would help recipients.

The country of origin with the largest DACA-eligible population is Mexico. Some DACA recipients from Mexico are getting financial help for the fees from their consulates.

That’s what Noemi Lara-Rojo did. She’s a medical assistant at a pediatric office. She lives in Lexington and recently drove three hours to the Mexican consulate in Indianapolis with her mom and young son. The consulate gave her $300 to help her renew DACA.

“It’s very hard to save up, you know, when you’re living paycheck to paycheck,” she says. “I would’ve probably, you know, had borrowed money from someone. From my mother. From anyone really.”

For Lara-Rojo and others, such as Calleja, DACA is about opportunity.

“We are already behind regardless of immigration status. The Latinos in higher education is a very low percentage,” says Calleja. “I sit in my law classes and I’m the only one who looks like me. That says something not about or ability but how attainable it is.”

Roxanne Scott covers the economy for WFPL News.