Politics & Government

Federal government ends DACA program, but Sacramento ‘Dreamers’ aren’t giving up

After the Trump administration Tuesday announced it was ending a program that protected young undocumented people from deportation, many local immigrants and their supporters expressed anger, sadness and defiance at what they see as an unjust decision.

“It’s not the end,” said Pablo Reyes-Morales, a Sacramento-based union organizer who was brought to the U.S. by his parents when he was 13. “It does bring fear. But after you notice that the world keeps turning, (you) use that fear as a fuel. My entire life has been about ‘How are you going to overcome this challenge?’”

Reyes-Morales was joined by dozens of other so-called “Dreamers” – unauthorized immigrants who came U.S. when they were minors and have grown up here – as well as community activists, politicians, educators and clergy in condemning the termination of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival, or DACA. The cancellation of the program was announced Tuesday morning in a speech made by U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions at the Justice Department.

Sessions said the program was unconstitutional and detrimental to the nation’s economy and security.

“We are a people of compassion, and we are a people of law. But there is nothing compassionate about the failure to enforce immigration laws,” Sessions said. “Enforcing the law saves lives, protects communities and taxpayers and prevents human suffering. Failure to enforce the laws in the past has put our nation at risk of crime, violence and even terrorism. The compassionate thing is to end the lawlessness, enforce our laws, and, if Congress chooses, to make changes to those laws, to do so through the process set forth by our founders in a way that advances the interest of the nation.”

The end of DACA is being framed by federal officials as a six-month phase out, with a deadline of March 2018 for Congress to pass a law addressing the fate of current and future Dreamers, said UC Davis Law School Dean Kevin Johnson, a national expert on immigration law.

Johnson said the Obama-era program, started in 2012, has allowed an estimated 800,000 young people who were brought to the U.S. illegally as children – including more than 200,000 in California and 13,000 in Sacramento – to get authorization to work or go to school and have their DACA status renewed every two years.

The plan announced Tuesday likely will allow some enrolled in DACA to temporarily remain in the program beyond March 2018. Those with DACA permits that expire between now and March 5 have until Oct. 5 to apply for a two-year renewal. However, if those permits are not approved, their legal status could change as early as March 6. Those whose permits expire after the March deadline may not be able to renew them.

Recipients of DACA have to pass extensive background checks, and Johnson said it’s unclear whether or not “the information these youth provided to secure DACA is going to be used for removal purposes. That’s the fear in the community.”

According to Johnson, DACA gave young people brought to the U.S. as children “less uncertainty, the ability to work legally and more hope, and now they’re being returned to a place where they were before 2012, with no hope.”

Angela Velazquez, a former Sacramento Dreamer, said although she is now on the path to legal residency, she understands that dismay.

“I remember what it was like before DACA, not having really any opportunities or any future,” she said. Velazquez, 28, said she came to the United States from Mexico when she was 3, and has lived in Sacramento since she was 5. She applied for permanent residency through her American-born sister.

Sacramento Bishop Jaime Soto, whose diocese encompasses nearly 1 million parishioners in 20 counties, gave a spirited defense of DACA youth Tuesday, saying their energy and creativity have revitalized America. “Even though there is a sense of panic and anxiety ... this too shall pass,” he said at a press conference at Sacramento’s Newman Center.

DACA exists because “three administrations over 21 years and many Congresses have failed to pass immigration reform,” Soto said, adding that as long as people let their voices be heard in protest, he believes Congress will find a legal solution for DACA recipients.

Velazquez, however, said she fears that any action by Congress could benefit Dreamers at the cost of their undocumented parents, who could face stricter sanctions even if their children are allow to retain DACA status. “It’s going to end up hurting us in the end anyway by taking away our parents,” she said.

Soto said the diocese will provide legal aid to DACA youth. But he stopped short of saying the church will provide sanctuary if the government tries to deport DACA recipients or youth who have applied to the program. “That is a part of our tradition. We’ll see what happens – I can’t say we will not do that if necessary,” he said.

Sanctuary for immigrants in U.S. churches last became a prominent topic when more than a million Central American refugees crossed the border in the 1980s to flee civil wars. At its peak, about 500 congregations defied federal immigration laws and provided shelter to undocumented people.

Sara Bobbitt, an immigration attorney for Sacramento Food Bank & Family Services who also spoke at Tuesday’s press conference, said some DACA recipients may be eligible for other forms of immigration relief, such as asylum.

Local immigration attorney Lisa Kobayashi said her phone “has been ringing off the hook” Tuesday with calls from concerned clients.

Kobayashi said she is telling them that not all DACA recipients are the same. One client, she said, has married an American citizen since receiving his protected status, giving him another pathway toward citizenship. But her younger clients, including at least one who will graduate from high school soon and planned on applying for college, are at greater risk because they don’t have alternative avenues to apply for legal status.

Kobayashi said some DACA recipients also may have “petty offenses” that were allowed under the childhood deferral program, and those could present obstacles to other citizenship pathways.

Johnson said the end of the program would compromise the futures of tens of thousands of young people who rely on their work permits to get jobs or work studies to help pay for their college educations. “If you lose DACA, you lose your employment authorization, you lose your work study and ability to work legally, and it jeopardizes your ability to be in school,” he said.

Sacramento City Unified School District spokesman Alex Barrios said that, in addition to students, the district has employees with DACA permits. This past week, Superintendent Jorge Aguilar spoke at a press conference pledging to stand behind those teachers and other workers.

“We are going to explore every option available to protect our employees, to protect our students and to protect our families,” Barrios said.

Mayor Darrell Steinberg declared the president’s move to end DACA “morally repugnant” and “in direct contrast to our core American values. In the face of this action, Sacramento will do what we always do – stand up and with those in our community who are threatened.”

Sacramento City Councilman Eric Guerra, who came to the U.S. undocumented before receiving legal status, called the DACA announcement “reprehensible.”

“Trump’s actions to end the DACA program illustrate his cowardice and continue his attacks upon the most vulnerable, children, immigrants, members of the LGBT community, those with disabilities, and seniors, by his failed executive actions,” Guerra said in a statement.

Stephen Magagnini: 916-321-1072, @SteveMagagnini

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