Manuel Vega hopes a recent visit to a sparse office tucked in the back of Lake Street’s Mercado Central grocery will change the course of his life.
There, the Minneapolis construction worker got reassurance he could apply for an Obama administration program that grants work permits and deportation stays to people who came to this country illegally as children.
The center that Vega visited, funded by the city of Minneapolis, has seen a trickle of traffic since it opened in April to assist deportation reprieve applicants and others. In part, that’s because the Obama administration’s immigration initiatives have been mired in a court challenge since February. A joint effort by nonprofits Pillsbury United Communities and the Advocates for Human Rights, the center has served about 90 people in the past five months, likely putting an early goal of reaching 4,000 residents this year out of reach.
In a bid to stay relevant amid the legal uncertainty, the center launched an information campaign this week to encourage people like Vega to apply for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, a 2012 program unaffected by the court challenge. In Minnesota, about half of the 12,000 people believed eligible have applied since Obama launched that program.
“The majority of people have not applied out of fear of bringing the attention of the government to themselves or their families,” said Felipe Illescas, the head of the Center for Economic Development and Legal Assistance.
Back in the spring, organizers decided to proceed with plans to open the center despite a legal standoff between the Obama administration and 26 Republican-led states. The states’ lawsuit challenged an expanded version of DACA and a new program to grant deportation stays and three-year work permits to parents of U.S.-born children.
Illescas says another reason for the center’s slow start was that it took time for the city to release $50,000 earmarked for the effort in this year’s budget. Now that the funds are available, the center plans to market its services rather than rely on word of mouth.
A plan to open two additional centers in Minneapolis this year is on hold. But Illescas says he and others are not second-guessing the decision to open the Mercado Central office. The center has helped people looking to have their applications ready to go if the legal stay is lifted.
City Council Member Alondra Cano, who championed funding for the center, did not return calls seeking comment, but she had previously said she would push for renewing funding in next year’s budget.
The center is helping Vega, 24, round up affidavits from relatives and others vouching that he has lived in the U.S. since 2005. Vega, who set out to get his GED to meet the program’s requirements, hopes the affidavits will make up for a shortage of documents proving residence.
“I realized applying is not a lost cause,” he said.
The new campaign, called “Sin Miedo” or “Without Fear,” will reach out to people eligible for DACA under the 2012 guidelines. Some might be holding back because they lack needed paperwork. Others are nervous about disclosing personal information to a temporary program that’s under fire from Republican presidential contenders.
The campaign will stress the benefits of DACA and a government commitment not to use applicants’ information for immigration enforcement. The goal is to steer at least 1,000 new DACA applicants to the south Minneapolis center.
Tim Counts, a spokesman for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, said the agency has done its own outreach to potential applicants in the Twin Cities area. In Minnesota, about 6,100 have applied; 5,400 have been approved.
“If somebody believes they qualify for an immigration benefit,” Counts said, “we encourage them to get all the information that’s available and apply.”