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A Dreamer's Best Friend

Gwendolyn Wu | December 4, 2017 | Story News and Features

At the beginning
of September, Amzi was starting the final year of her pre-nursing program at Cal State East Bay, the first step on the road to becoming an RN. She planned to graduate in May with her bachelor’s degree, enter a two-year master’s program, and take the national exam to get her nursing license. When not in class, she was paying the bills by training staff in the restaurant industry.

And then disaster struck. Amzi was eating dinner with her cousin on September 5 when her mom called and told her to check the news: President Donald Trump had ordered an end to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. Amzi, who requested that her last name be withheld, is a Dreamer, one of 800,000 young undocumented immigrants in the United States who receive deportation immunity and work permits through DACA. Amzi and other Dreamers would have just one month to reapply for continued permission to work and live in the United States.

First came the shock. How could a program that had been so successful under former president Barack Obama be on such thin ice? Then came the fear and stress. Her parents had paid the $495 application fee the first time she’d applied for DACA, but she was now living independently—and on a strict budget. When she’d had to renew before, in 2014, she’d worked full-time to pay the bills and her renewal fee, knowing that the deadline was coming up again. But this time she hadn’t been planning for renewal and had no savings, no safety net in place.

“The news came in, and I was kind of just overwhelmed by it,” Amzi says. For two weeks, she scrambled to find a way to pay her renewal fee. Then, just as panic was really setting in, she found a Mission district nonprofi t called Mission Asset Fund (MAF). The brainchild of José Quiñonez, a Bay Area social justice advocate and MacArthur “Genius” grant winner in 2016, MAF provides low-to-zero-interest loans and other financial services for immigrants and low-income people.

Like Amzi, Quiñonez was preparing for something else on September 5. It was a MacArthur Foundation event at which he and two other fellows would be speaking about anti-immigrant rhetoric and the services available to help undocumented immigrants. He and his co-planners had thought the event would be timely, but they’d never expected that Trump would order DACA’s end that day. “I felt sad and outraged,” says Quiñonez, a formerly undocumented immigrant.

Quiñonez and his team mobilized. MAF already had $50,000 to loan to Dreamers reapplying for DACA. But he quickly realized loans wouldn’t be enough and opted to use the money as scholarships instead. He asked foundations to partner with him, and many—including the Weingart Foundation and the Marin Community Foundation—chipped in, as did San Francisco’s O ce of Civic Engagement & Immigrant A airs. The pot swelled to $4 million.

Doling out the money as scholarships was risky—first because the nonprofit expects nothing in return from the 5,078 Dreamers who received $495 checks to reapply for DACA, and second because there’s no guarantee that their renewal applications will be approved, meaning there might be no return (economic or social) on the fund’s investment.

However, Quiñonez knew that “doing nothing was not an option.” MAF worked to reach as many Dreamers as it could. At one point, a team of employees and volunteers processed applications 24-7. Amzi submitted hers at 10 p.m., and it was approved just 15 minutes later. All told, Mission Asset Fund paid out nearly $2.5 million for DACA renewal applications.

Now thousands of other Dreamers are waiting for the government’s final decision; Amzi just got word of her successful DACA reauthorization. She says that Quiñonez’s fund “gave me a feeling of relief.”

Quiñonez also recognizes that these scholarships were a fi rst step. “This onetime injection of money is not going to change their fi nancial lives forever,” he says. What would change Dreamers’ fi nancial lives would be the ability to permanently live and work in the United States. So the next barrier he hopes to remove for undocumented residents is citizenship fees: MAF is in the process of allocating its leftover DACA-renewal-fee funding to zero-interest loans for citizenship applications.

Originally published in the December issue of San Francisco

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