By any measure, Eastern Kentucky University senior Omar Salinas Chacon is a model student.
With a double major in political science and Spanish, a longtime member of student government and a captain of the mock trial team, Salinas Chacon recently was named “Student of the Year” by the National Collegiate Honors Council, the top prize in the nation for honors students. After graduation, he plans to go to law school to help those less fortunate than himself.
But right now, Salinas Chacon, 22, can’t see a future beyond October 2019. That’s when his status as a legal resident ends under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which gives legal status to children brought to this country by their parents. The program is at the center of a protracted political argument in Washington. Unless Congress reaches a compromise, Salinas Chacon and hundreds of thousands of others who were born elsewhere but grew up in the United States could be targeted for deportation in coming months and years.
“We work hard for this country, and this is our home. We don’t know any other,” said Salinas Chacon, who came from El Salvador at age 5 after his father and grandfather were kidnapped by gangs. He and his brother grew up in Nashville and Louisville. “But now the rug is being pulled out from under us and we’re being played as chess pieces in a bigger political game.”
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DACA, created in 2012 under former President Barack Obama, grants legal status to recipients who are enrolled in high school, college or GED classes, or the military. They must be free of felony or misdemeanor convictions and have to re-apply every two years.
Last October, President Donald Trump announced he would fulfill a campaign promise to end the program by March 5, although a federal judge has since filed an order requiring the government to continue accepting DACA renewal applications.
By January, the issue had become tangled with short-term measures to fund the government; Democrats insisted the spending bill include language to protect DACA recipients, but backed down after the federal government closed for three days. The issue also was complicated by other proposed changes in immigration policy, including Trump’s wish for a new border wall.
The U.S. Supreme Court could decide Friday if it will review the lower court’s ban on DACA deportations.
Despite the turmoil and uncertainty, Salinas Chacon has stayed busy. He’s a peer mentor to other Latino students and works as the student assistant to the director of the EKU Latino Retention program. (Because of his immigration status, he cannot receive federal financial aid to help pay for college.)
“Omar stands as a paragon example of exactly what is at stake in this policy debate,” said Dr. David Coleman, director of EKU’s Honors Program. “Although always a stellar student, he has because of his immigration status been ineligible to apply for many of the nationally competitive fellowships for which he otherwise would have been extremely competitive.”
He also spends every Wednesday in Frankfort with other advocates, including the ACLU, trying to meet legislators so they can see that “Dreamers,” as DACA recipients call themselves, are worth keeping in this country. Specifically, he’s been lobbying against House Bill 240, which would prevent Kentucky cities from establishing sanctuary policies and prevent state universities from enrolling undocumented students, as well as requiring them to keep records of student immigration status.
Currently, most universities do not require students to disclose their immigration status when enrolling. HB 240 has been assigned to the House Judiciary Committee, but no hearing has been held.
“I think what is missing is that we are people,” Salinas Chacon said about his work in the General Assembly. “The debate has become such broad strokes; we’re either Jesus figures walking on water, or we’re gang members. The human element has been taken out.”
Abbey Poffenberger, chairwoman of EKU’s Department of Languages, Cultures and Humanities, first met Salinas Chacon when he was 15 at the Latino Leadership and College Experience Camp.
“We were very impressed and recruited him to come to EKU, and he’s fulfilled all the expectations we’ve had of him,” she said. “He is a mentor, not just to Latino students but to campus in general.”
Poffenberger said she would love for opponents of the DACA program to sit down and talk to Salinas Chacon or other Dreamers.
“Once they hear their stories that may change their perspective,” she said. These students “are Americans and Kentuckians.”
Dreamers feel a variety of betrayals, Salinas Chacon said, but chief among them is the fact that when the program started, officials promised that if applicants turned over personal information, such as addresses, the information would not be used against them. Now, he feels, if DACA ends, there’s no guarantee that his parents won’t be targeted, along with his younger brother, a Martin Luther King Scholar at the University of Louisville.
“Now the government knows where they live, even though they promised they wouldn’t use that information against us,” he said.
For now, Salinas Chacon will continue working on his honors thesis, “The History of Citizenship in the U.S.,” a subject that’s hard to pin down amid current events, he said.
“I have to keep stopping to rewrite,” he joked.
He hopes he will be given the opportunity to finish his degree and go to law school.
“For Dreamers, this is our home, we’ve lived here our entire lives,” he said. “Just like President Obama said when he announced DACA in 2012, we are American in everything but paper. To me this is home, I’m a Southerner, I’m a proud Kentuckian and I would like to stay here and contribute to my home.”