DACA renewals keep CSS immigration attorney busy

By Kenneth J. Souza
Anchor Staff

FALL RIVER, Mass. — When he first graduated from law school and passed the bar exam, Timothy Paicopolos didn’t anticipate he’d be spending the bulk of his time as an immigration attorney with Catholic Social Services filing renewals for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals — better known as DACA — for many of the immigrants living within the Fall River Diocese.

“It’s been a real challenge,” Paicopolos recently told The Anchor. “I’ve personally represented maybe 60 or 65 individuals with DACA and this office has probably represented another 20 before I started here. I’ve gotten a chance to know these human beings as individuals; especially when they come in for renewal because every two years you have to renew.”

An initiative that began under the Obama Administration, DACA allows individuals who entered the United States as minors to obtain a renewable two-year period of deferred action from deportation and qualify for a work permit while residing and working here. To be eligible for DACA, the individual must have come to the U.S. before age 16 and arrived prior to June 2007.

In September 2017, the Trump Administration announced plans to phase out the program, yet agreed to allow DACA recipients whose status was set to expire by March 5, 2018 to renew for another two years. That created a flurry of paperwork for Paicopolos in his CSS office.

“On September 5, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the DACA program was ending, but the president was allowing people to renew their application if it expired before March 5,” Paicopolos said. “So the people who were expiring after that were out of luck in terms of having work authorization and DACA protection. For the first month we renewed as many as we could — whether it was current clients, former clients, or people who came in off the street who heard about our program. We sent the last renewal applications out on October 3 by express mail and just crossed our fingers. They all were approved.”

Since then, two federal court injunction orders and a pending Supreme Court appeal have changed the rules and extended the DACA renewal period to continue until further notice.

“There was a decision in California in the ninth circuit court that essentially said you have to keep renewing these applications until they’ve had a chance to decide the merits of the case,” Paicopolos said. “So the U.S. Citizen and Immigration Service complied in January. In the interim, the federal government said it was going to appeal directly to the Supreme Court, which essentially said they were going to let it play out on the appellate court level. So that was good news and the USCIS had to continue renewing applications until the injunctions are lifted by the lower courts or appealed at the next level.”

Paicopolos began filing a second wave of DACA renewals in January and said he submitted five applications in each of the first two weeks and has averaged about two per week since then.

“It was like, let’s get these people who are going to expire in March renewed because now they have this limited window,” Paicopolos said. “And it was scary because you heard the Supreme Court was going to weigh in and you didn’t know if they would overturn the injunction and then the door would have been shut on these individuals. I’ve renewed people who are expiring in March, April and May and we sort of widened the window out to June, July and August because we’re trying to cast the net as wide as we can. So if you’re approved on Jan. 31, 2018, you’re good until January 30, two years later.”

In an effort to assist his immigrant clients, Paicopolos often finds himself fighting an uphill battle against a combination of personal prejudice, misinformation and political agendas.

Having started as a volunteer working with Catholic Social Services five years ago, Paicopolos joined CSS as a full-time staff member specializing in immigration law in September 2013. Since coming onboard, he’s assisted members of the many ethnic communities that populate the Fall River Diocese with DACA applications and other immigration issues. He’s helped everyone from Guatemalans in Attleboro, to Cape Verdeans in New Bedford, to Jamaicans in Provincetown, to Brazilians in Hyannis.

His legal services are provided at no cost — he’s compensated by CSS, which receives the bulk of its funding through the annual diocesan Catholic Charities Appeal — but individuals are responsible for paying the $495 filing fee for DACA renewals.

“We don’t charge anything for legal services and, as the attorney, I represent the person on their application,” Paicopolos said. “Most of the time they pay their own fee. In rare circumstances I’ve been able to get the fee covered through different funders — in some cases Catholic Social Services has been able to fund the application, in other cases the Community Economic Development Center in New Bedford has been able to assist. I think the CEDC funded nine of our applications when we did the initial September push, but you truly have to have an economic need. I had a woman who came in — she’s in a shelter right now in the diocese — and we had to help her out with the application fee. The last thing I’d want is somebody to come in here and they’re eligible to renew and they just didn’t because they couldn’t afford it.”

Since September, Paicopolos said he’s filed more than 25 DACA renewals and it’s essentially forced his other legal cases to take a backseat.

What’s made the whole DACA ordeal even more challenging, Paicopolos admitted, is that the rules and mandates imposed by the Trump Administration seem to change from day-to-day.

As recently as Easter Sunday, President Trump tweeted that there would be “No more DACA deal” for so-called “Dreamer” immigrants. The president claimed that “a lot of people are coming in (to the U.S.) because they want to take advantage of DACA.”

But Paicopolos said many immigrants who are eligible for DACA “weren’t brought here illegally.” Some arrived illegally, while others arrived on a visa.

“That’s a gross mischaracterization of these individuals,” he said. “They came here on visa waivers. I have clients from Portugal, from Cape Verde, from Jamaica. I have clients from the Bahamas. I have a client from Angola. They didn’t cross the U.S.-Mexico border. They came here legally on a visa. So they are people who are here now without legal status — but there was a time when many of them did (have legal status). About 40 percent of my clients did.”

In reality, Paicopolos said DACA helps to “keep people who are immigrants from getting involved with anything questionable.”

“If you commit a felony, your DACA will be terminated,” he said. “If you have a DUI, your DACA will be terminated. Domestic violence? Your DACA will be terminated. You lose that opportunity. I have a client who came to our Hyannis office and she said, ‘I’m afraid of getting a speeding ticket.’ And I said to her, well a speeding ticket is not a criminal or a civil issue. But she’s so paranoid of any kind of trouble whatsoever with the police that she is afraid to even get a speeding ticket.”

In an effort to assist his immigrant clients, Paicopolos often finds himself fighting an uphill battle against a combination of personal prejudice, misinformation and political agendas.

“You have a group of people who can’t stand immigrants and are anti-immigration under any circumstances, and you’re not going to change them,” he said. “They like to say: ‘well why don’t they just get legal? They had all this time to get legal and now they’re complaining.’ That’s a fundamental misunderstanding of what this process is.

“You know, having a dollar and a dream and coming here on the boat and going to Ellis Island with some paperwork — that process doesn’t exist anymore. There is no process that takes you from having no legal status or temporary legal status to citizenship. You have to have a green card first and the idea of lawful permanent residency is a tough standard (to meet). The application process runs around $2,000 — and there’s a rigorous process with interviews. It’s a real challenge for some people.”

Paicopolos also bristles at the notion of simply deporting all the immigrants who haven’t obtained legal status.

“Right now you have about 800,000 people with DACA in the U.S., and you’re saying send them back?” he said. “Does that really make a lot of sense? People who have DACA came here before they were 16 — the vast majority of my clients came here before they were 10. They have been educated in our schools and have been part of the fabric of our life here from 1981 to 2007. We have this group of people we’ve invested in through the education system and other systems, so they’re well-integrated.”

Many of Paicopolos’ clients also “bring vibrancy to the Church and vibrancy to the workplace,” he said.

“There’s this idea that immigrants come here and don’t work, but if you talk to people who work with immigrants or have immigrants working under them, they say otherwise,” he said. “Business owners can tell you. I had a pizza place owner tell me once: he had a Guatemalan individual working for him and he was telling me about how refreshing it was to have somebody who just comes in and does the work. That’s the kind of people you’d want in society, right? We have enough people complaining about the laziness of the millennials and all that stuff.”

Given the fluidity of the DACA situation at present, Paicopolos urged anyone who thinks they might be eligible to renew to contact him as soon as possible.

“We don’t know how long this is going to go on,” he said. “Moving forward, things may change. We’re getting approvals every week and we’re getting cards in every week. But I mean they could shut this down two weeks from now and people would lose their money. But I think it’s important to contact us — even if you don’t want to have representation through Catholic Social Services. And make sure you go to somebody who is licensed to practice law.”

For more information about immigration and legal services, contact Catholic Social Services at 508-674-4681, or visit www.cssdioc.org.

© 2019 The Anchor and Anchor Publishing    †    Fall River, Massachusetts