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Denver Student Renews DACA Status, Pursues 'Big Goals' After Supreme Court Decision

Jose Morales-Noriega
Stephanie Daniel
Jose Morales-Noriega has been a DACA recipient for six years. He works as a medical assistant and is a freshman at Metropolitan State University of Denver studying exercise science.

Jose Morales-Noriega remembers the day his life changed. Two years ago, he was having fun riding an ATV driven by a friend. They were going downhill pretty fast when the four-wheeler lost traction.

They were thrown off and the ATV landed on him.

"I had a big knee injury where I blew out my knee, all three ligaments," he said.

Morales-Noriega, 23, was working as a roofer at the time but after months of physical therapy, he decided to switch careers. He went back to school and got a certificate to be a medical assistant.

"I really like it," he said. "Sometimes I get to put on a cast or take off stitches, sutures, or staples."

Morales-Noriega is originally from Mexico. When he was around 10, he immigrated to Aurora with his family. He's been working for the past six years, ever since he got his DACA status which gives him a work permit and protection from being deported.

The Supreme Court recently blocked the Trump administration from ending the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA. The program allows recipients to work and offers them temporary protection from deportation.

Morales-Noriega is one of 15,500 DACA recipients living in Colorado, according to 2017 federal data. Two-thirds of them live in the Denver metro.

"(DACA) was great help because I was able to get my driver's license, get a job, now continue to go to school," he said.

Morales-Noriega is happy with the Supreme Court decision. He gets to keep working and continuing his education at Metropolitan State University of Denver, where he's a freshman.

MSU Denver serves the largest number of DACA and undocumented students in the state, but does not count DACA recipients separately from undocumented students.

The Colorado Department of Higher Education tracks students covered by Colorado's Advancing Students for a Stronger Economy Tomorrow law, or ASSET, which allows eligible undocumented students to pay in-state tuition. Not all undocumented students are eligible for ASSET. According to state data, 386 students who qualify for ASSET were enrolled at MSU Denver in the fall 2019.

Both DACA, a federal policy, and ASSET, a state law, were created for undocumented youth. Students may qualify for one but not the other, qualify for both or neither.

MSU Denver was the first to offer undocumented students a special tuition rate back in 2012, a few weeks before the Obama administration announced the DACA program.

"Most of the students that are on campus, that have DACA, use DACA to both pay for their education. But very often times they're also breadwinners in the family," Gregor Mieder, director of MSU Denver's Immigrant Services Program, said. The Immigrant Services Program has worked with students for 30 years.

MSU Denver is helping DACA recipients renew their status, including providing free immigration lawyers.

"We refer students to them for just general questions so that they can be informed about what their options are," Mieder said. "If they have questions about the DACA renewal process, about forms as well."

The university is also working with donors who pay for students' renewals. It costs $495.

"That is a huge burden that comes up every two years for individuals for renewing their DACA," he said.

Morales-Noriega's DACA status expired this month and he was scrambling to submit his application before the deadline. So, he reached out to the university for help. They gave him money for his renewal and connected him to Immigrants Like Us, a legal non-profit created at Harvard University last July.

"Immigrants Like Us was created because immigration attorneys can cost up to thousands of dollars and so we want to help families bypass these high costs," said Fernando Urbina, the partnerships director and a junior at Harvard.

The nonprofit provides free legal services for naturalization, green card and DACA renewals. More than 150 people have gone to their website for renewal assistance since June 1.

Jose Morales-Noriega
Credit Stephanie Daniel / KUNC
Jose Morales-Noriega has been a DACA recipient for six years. The Supreme Court recently blocked the Trump administration from ending the program, which allows recipients to work and offers temporary protection from deportation.

The online process was easy, said Morales-Noriega. It took about a week and a half and he worked with the lawyer virtually.

"I filled out my application best I could. I sent it in, he gave me feedback and with all the corrections that I needed to do," he said. "I did them and then everything was ready."

Morales-Noriega is still waiting to find out if his application was accepted. But even with the Supreme Court decision, the Trump administration can still challenge its legality in the future.

Recently President Trump hinted at an executive order to address immigration that includes a pathway to citizenship for DACA recipients.

It's a tenuous victory, said Mieder.

"DACA was always meant to be a short-term, band-aid solution," he said. "The fact that it's still around eight years after shows that the federal government has not taken its duties seriously to provide a permanent, safe, humane way to live for the roughly 800,000 recipients."

Morales-Noriega is not stressing over DACA's future — he's too focused on his own.

This includes the start of his second semester at MSU Denver in the fall. Morales-Noriega received a full-ride scholarship for Dreamers from a national organization and plans to major in exercise science. He then hopes to continue his education and become a physician assistant or physical therapist.

"I'm proud of where I'm at right now," he said. "I hope to continue growing with my girlfriend, you know, expanding my dreams and reaching my goals for sure, which I have big goals in life."

The “American Dream” was coined in 1931 and since then the phrase has inspired people to work hard and dream big. But is it achievable today? Graduating from college is challenging, jobs are changing, and health care and basic rights can be a luxury. I report on the barriers people face and overcome to succeed and create a better life for themselves and their families.
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