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Community advocates highlight plight of undocumented immigrants in Hawaii

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Community advocates highlight plight of undocumented immigrants in Hawaii

Efforts to include immigration reform in the U.S. Senate's budget reconciliation package failed twice this week – potentially impacting thousands of people in Hawaii.

Human rights advocates here say creating a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants in Hawaii is vital for the economy. 

For years, Stephanie Haro-Sevilla lived in fear that she would be deported. She was three years old when she moved to Maui from Mexico with her parents. When her visa expired, she wasn't able to renew it.

"My status was something that I hid for a long time," she said. "There is sort of a scare that you realize what are people going to think of you when they find out."

She found relief under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals or DACA program -- a policy that allows individuals who were brought to the United States as children to remain and work without the risk of deportation. Haro-Sevilla is now a second-year law student at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.

"DACA recipients are your friends, your family, your coworkers, health care providers, you know, everyone on the front line right now during this pandemic, and a lot of them may have fear expressing that publicly. But I think that the community knows a lot more DACA recipients and mixed status families than they are aware of," she said.

A 2021 New American Economy report shows about 41,000 undocumented individuals live in Hawaii and 4,200 who are eligible for DACA. The American Immigration Council reports 30,000 U.S. citizens in Hawai'i live with at least one undocumented family member.

Attorneys with nonprofits The Legal Clinic, Medical Legal Partnership Clinic, and Hawaii Coalition for Immigrant Rights help people navigate the legal red tape.

"Immigration law is extremely complicated and it is, it is frustratingly and surprisingly easy to run afoul of it, you know, little little things can get you on the wrong side of immigration law very, very quickly," said Catherine Chen, immigration attorney with the Medical Legal Partnership Clinic and co-chair of the Hawaii Coalition for Immigrant Rights.

Advocates argue Hawaii benefits greatly if a defined pathway to citizenship is included in legislation being debated on Capitol Hill. Immigrants make up about 21% of essential workers and 23% of healthcare workers in the state.

Hawaii's Congressional delegation have said they support some form of reform.

“I support a reasonable pathway to citizenship for qualified undocumented individuals living in our Hawai’i and country,” said Congressman Ed Case of the First District of Hawaii. “I cosponsored and voted for the American Dream and Promise Act of 2021, which passed the House but has stalled in the Senate. The Senate Parliamentarian has now twice ruled that this proposal cannot be included in the current reconciliation bill. The current reality is that either some Senators need to change their minds or the Senate needs to change for this proposal to pass.“

Should reform fail at the federal level, advocates say counties and the state can help by providing more resources to a population vital to the local economy.

"When they go through the immigration court system or just basic everyday services," said Danicole Ramos, a second-year law student and intern with The Legal Clinic. "Sometimes they don't get the right, the best translation or interpretive services that they need to be able to understand, you know, how to fill out a certain kind of paperwork, or how to navigate the legal process."

And that kind of support, he says, would make a world of difference.