A Tri-City college student about to earn her mechanical engineering degree found herself lobbying Congress last week.
The 22-year-old wanted to show Washington state lawmakers a real face for the estimated 800,000 students brought illegally to the U.S. as children.
Maria Torres was 5 when her single mother hauled her and two older sons to the U.S. from Mexico.
She lived and attended schools throughout the Mid-Columbia and started working when she was 12. Torres did everything from delivering newspapers to working in a Mexican restaurant.
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Now, the Washington State University Tri-Cities senior is an intern at ATI Metals, a Richland specialty parts manufacturer.
She wants to work for the federal government someday, but without a path out of her immigration limbo she’s not sure what her future holds.
Torres filed two years ago for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, and this year had to pay $495 more to continue her application.
“We grew up here and this is all we know,” she told the Herald. “If we were to go to Mexico ... I don’t know what we would do. Sure, we speak Spanish, but a lot of us don’t speak Spanish as well as we speak English.”
Maria spoke Monday at a WSU Tri-Cities forum about the DACA program and her efforts sway members of Congress to give her and others like her a path to citizenship.
I think what we did is putting pressure on them to do something. We have to educate people, and tell them this is what our real story is. We’re not robbing anybody. We’re here working.
Maria Torres, WSU Tri-Cities student
She was one 150 DACA recipients, including two other WSU Tri-Cities graduates, who spent two days talking to lawmakers.
“We wanted to let them know these are the things you should focus on because the system is broken,” Torres said. “It’s not only inhumane to take everything away from us but the employers are going to feel a big financial loss.”
Washington state Attorney General Bob Ferguson also spoke at Monday’s forum about the state’s lawsuit with Massachusetts and New York to keep the DACA program from ending.
“It’s easy to say, ‘DACA is illegal,’ but no court has ever said that,” he said. “In fact, up until that announcement by the attorney general, the Department of Justice had been defending the legality of DACA. So what changed?”
The DACA program was established through an executive order in 2012. It allowed undocumented immigrants who arrived in the country before they turned 16 to live, work and serve in the military.
After first promising to eliminate the program during his campaign, President Donald Trump appeared to waffle on it. Then, in early September, it was announced that the program would end. Friday was the deadline for qualified immigrants to apply to renew their applications.
Since the announcement, Congress has bandied around replacements for the program ranging from resurrecting the Dream Act to developing a new pathway to citizenship.
We grew up here and this is all we know and if we were to go to Mexico. I don’t know what we would do.
Maria Torres, WSU Tri-Cities student
In his latest move, Trump released a list of demands including funding a southern border wall and a crackdown on sanctuary cities to be tied to a solution for Dreamers.
After the September announcement, Torres, the president of the Dreamers Club, and FWD.us started working to bring Dreamers to meet members of congress who now hold their future in their hands.
FWD.us is a bipartisan group formed by technology and business leaders lobbying for immigration and criminal justice reforms.
Washington is home to about 17,000 of the estimated 800,000 people in the program.
The organization’s president Todd Schulte urged congress to move forward with the Dream Act, or be responsible for forcing Dreamers out of their jobs, and subjecting them to immediate deportation.
“Congress must hear the voices of these incredible individuals and urgently take action to ensure they can continue to live, work and contribute to the only country most have ever known,” he said.
Lawyers care about that kind of thing. It’s easy to say, ‘DACA is illegal,’ but no court has ever said that.
Bob Ferguson, Washington state Attorney General
The Washington contingent met staff and some congress members from the offices of Reps. Dan Newhouse, Cathy McMorris Rodgers, Pramila Jayapal and Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell.
While everyone was gracious, the message was mixed with some hopeful about having a solution hammered out by early December and others less encouraging.
While people have claimed the DACA students get preferential treatment, Torres said it’s the opposite. The doors to federal financial aid are closed to them, and any aid either comes through private scholarships or, in Washington, through state loans.
And it’s just as difficult for them to get full scholarships, as a naturalized citizen.
“This is something that’s been going on for years, and they still haven’t been able to come up with a solution,” she said.