Yadel Alvarez-Chio is an illegal immigrant, but she was one of the lucky ones — a “Dreamer” who was able to take advantage of the Obama-era DACA deportation amnesty, which gave her a reprieve to stay in the U.S., a work permit to hold a job and access to a full legal driver’s license.
She used the opportunity to become an immigrant smuggler, authorities say.
Ms. Alvarez was nabbed by Border Patrol agents this month in Woodsboro, Texas, where she was found driving two illegal immigrant Mexicans in a black Cadillac. She admitted she was earning $4,000 to smuggle the men and said $3,500 of that would go to pay off a debt she had incurred to the smuggling organizers.
DACA, or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, crossed the seven-year mark of operations last week. The anniversary sparked a new round of introspection, with immigrant rights advocates saying the program has proved its worth by helping give opportunity to a generation of young people who have become doctors, soldiers, lawyers and teachers.
But the program does have a darker side: those who use their reprieve for criminal activities.
Take Jose Yepez-Vega, who pleaded guilty this year to smuggling three illegal immigrants from Mexico, leading Border Patrol agents on a high-speed pursuit along more than 40 miles of Texas highways, at speeds up to 130 miles per hour.
His case was so stark that he told the court he would plead insanity. He ended up accepting a guilty plea and lost his DACA status.
Border Patrol agents arrested Rafael Martinez-Alvarez in June as he and a buddy cruised near the U.S.-Mexico line in southern Texas. His case is still pending.
Guadalupe Perez-Avila was nabbed by agents as he sat in his car waiting to make a pickup of illegal immigrants in Calexico, California. Agents said he told them he would get $2,000 to pick up six Mexicans, who themselves were paying up to $7,000 to be smuggled.
Those details emerged from records in court cases that The Washington Times has tracked over the past year, revealing more than a dozen cases of young adults with DACA status who have been charged with smuggling other illegal immigrants.
Some of them, including Mr. Yepez, have been convicted and face deportation. Others, such as Mr. Perez, pleaded their cases down from felony smuggling to misdemeanor accessory charges that, on their face, appear to have saved them from deportation. DACA recipients are allowed some level of criminal history as long as it’s not too serious.
In fact, nearly 8% of those approved for DACA have arrests of some kind on their records, according to Homeland Security data from last year. That included nearly 21,000 with drunken-driving arrests, 4,600 with other drug charges, and more than 6,600 with theft or larceny charges.
Some 22 DACA recipients were approved despite having dogfighting or other animal cruelty charges, as were 31 accused rapists, 425 people with hit-and-run arrests and 10 people charged with murder, according to data from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
Just as striking was the number of arrests some DACA recipients had. More than four dozen people with 10 or more arrests were approved for the amnesty.
USCIS said it doesn’t specifically track DACA recipients and immigrant smuggling cases. Neither does U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement or the Justice Department. Privacy rules make it difficult to find out status updates on those in the program.
The smuggling cases are particularly noteworthy because they usually involve cars — and getting a full legal driver’s license was one of the big attractions of DACA status, along with the work permit, access to some taxpayer benefits and, of course, the stay of deportation.
“It was a great opportunity, and lots of people used it constructively. Unfortunately, others exploited it and are using it against our country as a way to help other people break our immigration laws,” said Jessica Vaughan, policy studies director at the Center for Immigration Studies.
“There are plenty of politicians who support DACA and other legalization programs, believe this somehow makes more loyal Americans out of illegal immigrants. It’s naive to think that’s always the case,” she said.
Alexis Castaneda-Meza, a DACA recipient, was able to produce a valid Arizona driver’s license when he was pulled over by a federal ranger who thought he spotted suspicious behavior. He told agents he was getting $300 per person to drive four Mexican migrants from the pickup location on Interstate 8 to a taco joint in Phoenix.
But some DACA recipients didn’t bother to get a license.
Israel Rubio-Rodriguez, accused in June of smuggling five illegal immigrants, had his federal DACA work permit but was charged by local police with driving without a license.
Requests for comment to the White House for this article went unanswered, and specific questions sent to Homeland Security agencies did not receive detailed responses.
The overwhelming majority of DACA recipients do avoid criminal entanglements, and most used their reprieve as an opportunity to get better jobs or finish school.
Indeed, 96% were in school or had a job, according to a survey released at the six-year mark last August.
Tom K. Wong, the researcher who compiled the numbers, said the earning power for those who held jobs surged an average of 78%, and 6% of those enrolled in DACA started their own businesses.
The DACA anniversary last week spurred another round of praise for the program, begun in the run-up to the 2012 election by President Obama at a time he was worried about lagging support among Hispanic voters.
Under the program, Dreamers who arrived in the U.S. by 2007, were younger than 31 at the time the program was announced and had pursued a high school diploma and met other qualifications were able to earn a two-year stay of deportation, renewable in perpetuity.
Initial estimates said as many as 1.3 million Dreamers might qualify, but so far only about 800,000 have been processed and awarded the status over the past seven years. Of those, 674,000 are currently enrolled. Some others have managed to win full legal status, through marriage or other avenues, while still others failed to reapply or — like Yepez — had their status revoked.
Activists see the program as a test for an eventual broader legalization for most of the rest of the illegal immigrant population.
But President Trump, while saying he supported Dreamers, announced a phaseout of DACA in September 2017 after concluding the program was illegal.
Several courts have blocked that move, ruling he cut too many corners. The Supreme Court takes up that case later this year.
“Since the program was established in 2012, DACA recipients have been able to pursue higher education, participate more fully in the labor force, purchase homes and cars, and support their families — but now their lives are at risk of being uprooted,” the Center for American Progress wrote in a memo last week warning Dreamers to send in their renewals now, while the program is still protected by courts.
DACA recipients have become the most powerful symbol in the immigration debate. Granting them full citizenship rights is a near-universal position among Democrats on Capitol Hill and is popular among a number of Republicans.
Mr. Trump last year even put forward his own proposal for a pathway to citizenship for DACA-eligible migrants.
Ms. Vaughan cautioned lawmakers to take a measured approach. She said the low bar set by the Obama administration meant people who wouldn’t have qualified for any other immigration benefit were granted DACA.
“There does seem to be some political support for a legalization program for DACA, but it’s important this program re-vet all of the people who received it, because the standards were very lax,” she said.