Use this button to switch between dark and light mode.

Cornell Law Professors Receive $1.5 Million Grant for DACA Legal Assistance Initiative

May 22, 2024 (3 min read)

Christine Savino, Cornell Daily Sun, May 21, 2024

"Amid pressing calls for immigration justice from President Joe Bidenphilanthropies and beyond, a pioneering solution is taking place in Ithaca.  Prof. Jaclyn Kelley-Widmer, law, and Prof. Stephen Yale-Loehr, law, have secured a $1.5 million grant from Bay Area humanitarian foundation Crankstart to fund Path2Papers, an innovative non-profit designed to provide legal assistance to Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals recipients and DACA-eligible individuals. Based at Cornell Law School, Path2Papers offers legal consultations and guidance to DACA-eligible San Francisco Bay area residents and Cornell students.  Path2Papers’ ties to Cornell extend even further. The program’s legal team is composed of five lawyers, three of whom are Cornell alumni. It will also be the focus of Cornell Law’s 1L Immigration Law and Advocacy Clinic. The clinic provides select Cornell Law students with the opportunity to contribute to immigration cases and provide education on immigration law.  “We are incredibly grateful and excited for this opportunity [to have Path2Papers partner with the clinic], and we are excited for law students to be involved,” Kelley-Widmer said. “It is so meaningful for law students to represent these clients and work on behalf of this community.”  Notably, Path2Papers is one of the few programs in the country to facilitate access to employment-based visas and other avenues toward lawful permanent residency.  “Most immigration practitioners specialize in one subset of immigration law,” Kelley-Widmer said. “Many lawyers have expertise in family or humanitarian-based approaches [while] others do employment-based cases. … Very few know both DACA and employment-based pathways.”  DACA grants renewable two-year periods of deferred action from deportation and eligibility for work permits to certain undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. as children, often called “Dreamers.” Lawful permanent residency is thus significant for DACA recipients who otherwise do not have a direct route to permanent status.  Without this route, recipients face uncertain legal futures, such as potential deportation if they cannot afford their DACA renewal fees. U.S. Citizenship for Immigration Services raised the renewal fees to $555 per electronic filing and $605 per paper filing on April 1. Path2Papers also emphasizes financial accessibility in its design.  “The consults are free, … [and] the legal assistance for individual cases will be free or low-cost, depending on need,” Kelley-Widmer said. “For those whose employers have the resources to retain legal counsel, Path2Papers also assists in making the connection to law firm partners.”  Although Path2Papers is new, DACA — and the legal complexities stemming from it — are not.  DACA was established in 2012 by former President Barack Obama’s administration. To qualify, applicants must have entered the United States before turning 16, maintained continuous residency since 2007 and met additional criteria related to education, military service and criminal history.  Former President Donald Trump attempted to nullify DACA in 2017, although legal challenges ultimately blocked his efforts to repeal it entirely.  There have also been ongoing court battles surrounding DACA’s future since then. A ruling by a federal district court in Texas deemed DACA unlawful, blocking first-time applications since July 16, 2021.  Kelley-Widmer explained that this complex legal landscape underscores why Path2Papers prioritizes accessibility to DACA and otherwise DACA-eligible individuals.  “A lot of legal and educational programming since 2012 has been aimed at DACA recipients specifically, but DACA has been effectively closed since 2017,” Kelley-Widmer said. “There are a lot of people who would be eligible for DACA and related services if it were open to new applicants.”  Yale-Loehr said that DACA’s precarity highlights the importance of Path2Papers’ work.  “The DACA program could be terminated by the courts or [a] new administration,” Yale-Loehr said, “[and] many DACA recipients don’t know if they’ll have legal residency options.”  Path2Papers has already yielded results. Since the program’s launch in January, over 120 DACA or DACA-eligible individuals and employers have registered for a consultation, 20 percent of whom — the Path2Peer team has found — are potentially eligible for a work-related visa or green card, according to Kelley-Widmer.  An amicus brief filed before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit case Texas v. United States cited Path2Papers when arguing in favor of DACA. Amicus briefs are filed by a person who is not a party to a case to provide additional information the court may want to consider before making its ruling.  Looking ahead, the nonprofit aims to further address the gap in DACA legal services and reach more underserved individuals. “The initial grant is for two years,” Kelley-Widmer said. “We hope to be able to continue this work in communities that will still be in need of this type of service after that time.” Kelley-Widmer added: “This project could help serve as a model for other areas, especially those with many DACA recipients, [particularly since] free and low cost-employment based immigration options are limited.”