For some immigrants in Berkeley and beyond: What now?

As the dust starts to settle after the presidential election, millions of immigrants all over the country are left wondering: what happens now?

No big surprise there. Listening to President-elect Trump’s campaign speeches, along with his recent appointment as attorney general of Senator Jeff Sessions, a staunch opposer of amnesty, one can’t help but feel a sense of foreboding and trepidation about what changes might be in store for the immigrant community after Trump takes office in January.

In the days after the election, my Berkeley-based immigration law firm has received what feels like non-stop calls from clients and their families wanting to know what they can do to protect themselves now against the wide, sweeping immigration reform that may take place under a Trump administration.

While still too early to predict exactly what changes will happen, there are things immigrants living and working in and around the Berkeley area can do now to protect themselves against potential changes in immigration laws and policies in the coming months.

1. Renew Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA)

In June 2012, the Obama administration announced the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals progam, commonly known as DACA. This initiative allows certain undocumented immigrants, who came to the United States as children, to be protected from deportation for a period of two years. During that time, they are able to obtain work permits and can apply for renewal in the program indefinitely.

First-time applicants must meet the following requirements to apply for DACA:

  • You were less that 31 years old on June 15, 2012.
  • You came to the U.S. before you turned 16 years old.
  • You have continuously resided in the U.S. since June 15, 2007 to the present time.
  • You were physically present in the U.S. on June 15, 2015.
  • You were undocumented, or had no lawful status, on June 15, 2012.
  • You must be physically present in the U.S. when you apply.
  • You are currently enrolled in school, have graduated or obtained a certificate of completion (or GED), from a U.S high school, or are an honorably discharged veteran of the U.S. Coast Guard or Armed Forces
  • You have not been convicted of a felony, significant misdemeanor, or three or more other misdemeanors, or do not otherwise pose a threat to national security or public safety.

To renew your DACA you must show the following:

  • You did not leave the U.S. on or after August 15, 2012.
  • You have continuously resided in the U.S. since your most recent DACA request was approved.
  • You have not been convicted of a felony, significant misdemeanor, or three or more other misdemeanors, or do not otherwise pose a threat to national security or public safety.

Unfortunately, the undocumented parents or children of DACA recipients cannot enroll in the program, unless they independently meet all the requirements. Also, DACA recipients do not have Permanent Resident Status, meaning that, under the current laws, they do not have a way to become a U.S. citizen in the future and cannot petition to bring other family members to the U.S.

Due to the fact that this initiative is only a policy change put into effect by the Obama administration, and not a law enacted by Congress, some immigration advocates fear that the program may not survive under a Trump administration. Individuals who have already received DACA and are up for renewal, should file to renew as soon as possible. Those who are applying for the first time should bear in mind that once you apply, the government will have your information. If you are concerned about whether applying for the DACA program is the best option for your particular situation, contact an immigration attorney to discuss.

2. Apply for U.S. citizenship

Immigrants who have been Lawful Permanent Residents for the past five years, or three years if married to a U.S. citizen, should go ahead and apply for naturalization. Becoming a U.S citizen not only means that you will have the right to vote in the next elections, but also means that you will no longer be under the dominion of U.S. immigration laws, and therefore not subject to any future changes that may take place under the new administration.

Additionally, many immigrants do not realize that all minor Lawful Permanent Resident children under age 18 automatically become U.S. citizens once one parent gets his or her U.S. citizenship. This is very important, since convictions for certain crimes, even a small amount of marijuana, can put their children in jeopardy of losing their permanent resident status and being subject to deportation. The government filing fees to apply increase from $680 to $725 on Dec. 23, so protect your children and apply as soon as possible.

Visit the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) for more information on applying for U.S. citizenship.

3. Apply for H1-B Highly Skilled Worker Program

Berkeley-based employers who are looking to recruit non-immigrant workers in the technology sector should be aware that the program could face renewed scrutiny and changes under a Trump administration. In fact, Trump’s proposed attorney general appointment, Senator Jeff Sessions, has long been a vocal critic of the program.

Although it is not clear at the moment exactly what changes will occur, many fear that changes to the program could result in fewer available visas or more strict requirements for both companies and employees.

The vast majority of applicants for one of the 85,000 (including secondary advanced degree program) available visas under the H1-B program submit their applications on the earliest possible date: April 1, 2017. This is a multi-step and lengthy process and all employers and new H1-B applicants must have all their paperwork in order as soon as possible.

For any questions about the requirements or process, contact an employment-based immigration attorney.

4. Speak to an immigration attorney

There are other, lesser known, programs that allow certain immigrants to apply for protection against deportation and Permanent Residence. Some of these programs, such as the VAWA or U-visa program, even offer protection from deportation to victims of domestic abuse or other violent crimes.

Immigrants who want more information on other potential options should speak to an immigration attorney directly. Many non-profit organizations in Berkeley and the East Bay offer help to immigrants, at little to no charge. Check out the database of immigration nonprofits in California. Remember, that many of these organizations often have limited resources and capacity, so be sure to schedule an appointment quickly.

For those seeking private immigration law firms, you can contact the American Immigration Lawyer Association (AILA) to find attorneys in your area. Most immigration attorneys offer consultations free of charge or at a low cost.

Most of us can empathize with the fear and anxiety that immigrants face at the dawn of this new era in U.S. immigration and policy. Arming yourself with knowledge is the best thing you can do for yourself and your family. And, as Martin Luther King, Jr. said: “We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.”