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Dallas Immigration Caseworkers Seek Answers For Refugees, Immigrants In Uncertain Times

Stella M. Chavez
Mariam Yasin and her mother who was detained for several hours on Jan. 28, 2017 at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport after President Trump's initial travel ban took effect.

It’s been a year since the Trump administration issued an executive order restricting entry into the U.S. from several Muslim-majority countries. The travel ban has faced several legal challenges and immigrant advocates say it’s had a chilling effect on refugees and other immigrants.

Olga Casaretti, an immigration caseworker, is trying to work through these uncertain times. She helps with family reunifications and asylum seekers at the International Rescue Committee in Dallas. Before last year, she could tell her clients how long the process would take.

Lately, she’s not sure.

“It may be one year, it may be two years of administrative processing, and although it’s always difficult to tell someone that they’re going to be separated with their families…it gave them some peace of mind to know that it will take this [certain amount of time],” she said. “At this time, we no longer know how long it will take.”

Credit Stella M. Chavez / KERA News
Olga Casaretti is an immigration caseworker with the International Rescue Committee in Dallas.

An evolving ban

In January 2017, everything was thrown up in the air when President Trump issued the initial executive order banning travelers from Iraq, Syria, Iran, Sudan, Libya, Somalia and Yemen. At airports in Dallas and across the country, protests erupted when passengers who had just arrived weren’t allowed to reunite with their loved ones.

The travel ban has been in and out of the courts, causing confusion and uncertainty for many. On Monday, the Trump administration said it would allow refugees from what it considers high-risk countries into the U.S. But applicants from these 11 countries will face stricter security measures.

Administration officials haven’t named the countries. But immigrant advocates say the list includes Syria, Iran, Iraq and Somalia.

Casaretti says her clients are struggling. They’re separated from their loved ones who are still in their home countries. One couple she knows is in counseling.

“So at this time, these families, these parents are asking me, ‘When am I going to see my child?' Or the spouses are asking me, ‘When am I going to see my wife? My husband?’ And we cannot provide an answer for them,” she said.

Credit Linah Mohammad / KERA News contributor
KERA News contributor
North Texas Resistance group set up station to write post cards to Congress at DFW Airport on Jan. 29, 2017.

Future of DACA

International Rescue Committee is known for helping resettle refugees who come to the U.S. It projects 21,292 refugees will be admitted to the U.S. in the current fiscal year – that’s well below the annual average of 95,000.

The group also works with other immigrants. Like those here through the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA. They were kids when their parents brought them to country illegally. President Trump says he supports a path to citizenship for DACA recipients while also boosting border security and adding other restrictions on immigration.

The president wants lawmakers to strike a deal by early March when protections for so-called Dreamers expire.

Credit Stella M. Chavez / KERA News
Enrique Polavieja (left) and Carlos Manuel Pena Reyes (right) work with immigrants and refugees at the International Rescue Committee.

“With DACA…it’s been heartbreaking because these people are more American than me and they know nothing about their country of origin,” said Enrique Polavieja, an immigration specialist with IRC. “They are teenagers. They are like my daughters.”

Despite the constant ups and downs, Polavieja says he still has hope that Congress will come up with a solution for DACA recipients.

“And we are never going to lose the hope. We are going to continue to fight every day for our families. It doesn’t matter if our client has DACA, if they are a refugee, an asylee, a legal permanent resident. They all have Mom and they have Dad and they have their kids and we are going to continue to try to reunite these families,” he said.

Immigration caseworker Carlos Manuel Peña Reyes shares stories of some of the families he’s been helping.

One woman came from Honduras as a refugee. She has a green card and will be able to apply for citizenship. But her dad’s future is up in the air. He has temporary protected status, or TPS, which allows him to stay in the country legally. But TPS renewal isn’t automatic. The Trump administration wants to end TPS for several countries.

"We are going to continue to fight every day for our families."

Peña Reyes says that uncertainty looms over another client – this one from El Salvador.

“It was very sad. Yesterday I was renewing TPS for one lady," he said. "She was crying. She was saying she prays to God every day. And basically, she’s hoping for a miracle because she’s really afraid."

The woman told Reyes if she goes back to El Salvador, she won’t be able to find a job. And she’s scared of the violence there. Plus, her children are here. And she doesn’t want to leave them behind.

UPDATE: Earlier this week, the Department of Homeland Security said it was extending temporary protected status for Syrians through September 30, 2019. That means an estimated 7,000 Syrians with TPS and who've been in the U.S. since August 1, 2016 are eligible to re-register to extend their status for an additional 18 months. TPS for Syrians was originally scheduled to expired March 31.

Stella M. Chávez is KERA’s immigration/demographics reporter/blogger. Her journalism roots run deep: She spent a decade and a half in newspapers – including seven years at The Dallas Morning News, where she covered education and won the Livingston Award for National Reporting, which is given annually to the best journalists across the country under age 35.