A Nightmare for DREAMers

Ending DACA affects an estimated 124,000 Texans

Edilsa Lopez (Photo by John Anderson)

Homeless on the streets of Guatemala, Edilsa Lopez, her mother, and three siblings often slept in abandoned buildings and churches. Exposed to the harsh elements, the vagabond existence was still safer than living with their violent and abusive father. The 12-year-old and her family eventually made their way to the U.S., in search of a better life, but on the way Lopez became separated from her family, left in the desert, and eventually picked up by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

After ICE dumped her at the U.S.-Mexico border, kidnappers snatched the young girl, who would spend the next few months as a victim of human trafficking. Routinely molested and forced into manual labor, Lopez became numb to the abuse but remained resilient. "There were many times I thought I was going to die. But I knew I had to be tough," Lopez told me during an interview in early September near her home off East Riverside Drive. "If you show any weakness, they dispose of you."

She found herself alone with one of her captors, who after making unwanted advances, suddenly fell asleep. Lopez knew then it was her chance to escape. She kicked off her shoes and bolted silently from the house, sprinting as far as she could to freedom, not even knowing which city she was in. (Brownsville, she later learned.) The young girl knocked on the door of a random house and was greeted by a woman who clothed and fed her her first meal in days – lasagna and Cheetos, she recalls with a grin: "I was tired, I was traumatized. But I was so grateful that this total stranger showed me compassion."

Lopez reunited with her mother in Houston and from there poured her energy into schoolwork, graduating in the top 10% of her high school class, which earned her a spot at UT-Austin. Still feeling like an outsider, Lopez says her life changed when she secured Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), the federal program that allows young undocumented immigrants brought to the country as children the ability to work and study without the threat of deportation. "I didn't feel like I belonged. Then DACA gave me the purpose and value I was missing all my life," she said. She paid her way through college on a DACA work permit, and graduated in 2015 with a double major. Lopez now works as a financial analyst in Downtown Austin.

Lopez, like the 800,000 DACA recipients nationwide – or "DREAMers" as they're known – suffered a cruel and heartless blow from the Trump administration on Sept. 5, when Attorney General Jeff Ses­sions – a man once deemed too racist for federal judgeship – announced almost gleefully that the Obama-era protection for DREAMers would end on March 5, 2018, unless a consistently gridlocked Congress can agree to a legislative solution. Likely to prevent looking weak on immigration, Sessions broke the news on the day that Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton had vowed to sue the feds if Trump didn't rescind DACA, a fanatical call opposed in writing by Mayor Steve Adler and other local officials. Sessions' intent affects an estimated 124,000 Texans – the second-largest DACA population behind California – and up to 14,000 eligible recipients in Travis County who have largely ventured to the state from Mexico, according to the Migration Policy Institute.

Lopez's journey to the U.S. is one of many stories DREAMers have shared to highlight the struggles and sacrifice made to escape treacherous surroundings for a secure future. But that security has since been stripped away, leaving DACA recipients on the cusp of the unknown. Lopez now suffers from panic attacks and "emotional distress," and faces nightmares about getting deported to Guatemala. "I can't plan my future. I can't plan my career," she said. "I'm exhausted living with this uncertainty."

My Home Now

In June of 2012, the year that Barack Oba­ma instituted DACA, UT-Austin's Immi­gra­tion Law Clinic was well ahead of the immigration curve, setting up one of the first large-scale workshops to process DACA applications in the country. The two-year renewable protection and work permit allows undocumented immigrants who were brought to the country by their parents before the age of 16; born on or after June 16, 1981; and have lived in the U.S. since 2007 the ability to live, work, and study. It also grants recipients social security cards and eligibility for driver's licenses. The immigration policy, albeit temporary and not a pathway to citizenship, is considered a humane and just avenue for young undocumented children to thrive in the U.S. While the law clinic's work has dispersed to other local community groups since then, it established a lasting model.

As of today, DACA and work permits will remain valid until their expiration date, but new DACA applications won't be accepted (absent speedy congressional action). The rush has been on for DACA recipients, whose applications expire between now and March 5, to ensure that U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services receives their renewals by Oct. 5. The tight and stressful deadline is exacerbated by a potentially cost-prohibitive renewal price tag ($495) – nearly $2,000 for a family of four. DACAmented residents have at most two years remaining, with some only able to secure the next few months. "After that they become vulnerable to deportation. They lose their work authorization and their ability to be full members of the community," said Denise Gilman, who runs the Immigration Law Clinic. Gilman doesn't necessarily anticipate massive deportation sweeps of Dreamers, but does concede: "You never know with this administration and its high level of cruelty and short-sightedness toward immigrants."

Daniela Rojas, a 22-year-old Latin American Studies major at UT, considers DACA an important source of protection, a way to focus on her education rather than the fret of deportation, especially in the wake of local raids. Fleeing Colombia, Rojas' family started anew in Austin when she was 11 years old. "It was a huge relief to lead this kind of normal life, to be able to work and save money for school, to be able to drive without fear of getting stopped and deported. But now, I don't know what's going to happen," said Rojas. Her DACA application will expire in 2019, around the time she expects to graduate. "I worry that if Congress doesn't do anything, I might not be able to work after I graduate, even with a degree." Rojas thinks often about the fate of her 13-year-old sister, who planned to obtain DACA when she turned 16. That door has since been slammed shut for her and thousands of other undocumented youth.

"The thought of going back to a country that I don't really remember, that I don't have a life in, really scares me," said Rojas. "It wouldn't make sense to return. Austin is my home now."

Xenophobic Lies

Against the towering J.J. Pickle Federal Building Downtown the day of Sessions' announcement, a cadre of disappointed DREAMers gathered to recount stories and vow, alongside allies from the Equal Justice Center and Texas Civil Rights Project, to pressure Congress into crafting a workable solution. A determined Vanessa Rodriguez stood before the crowd. "I realized my struggles are crumbling down to nothing … but I am not going anywhere," she said. "I am going to fight for my future just as much as my parents fought for my life."

Rodriguez moved from Puebla, Mexico, to nearby Elgin when she was 6, and is currently enrolled at UT. She aspires to be a labor rights attorney. However, today, her future is murky. The instability is doubly frustrating to her because she says she's gone above and beyond to work hard and prove her worth to society – an unfair expectation, but one that many DREAMers share. "I knew I had to work twice as hard as anyone else in my grade because of my undocumented status," she said, in an interview following the event. "It wasn't enough to be top 10 percent, I had to be top five percent."

DREAMers and DACA advocates rally outside the J.J. Pickle Federal Building in September. (Photo by Mary Tuma)
“There’s a shortage of high-skilled labor in this country. Any indication that these students are taking jobs away is not a justifiable comment – they are actually filling positions that need to be filled.” – Immigration attorney Natalia Drelichman

The desire to prove self-worth is likely in part a result of misleading statements blasting from right-wing media and conservative Republican politicians, eager to smear and distort the reality of immigration largely to maintain white supremacy and pander to racist electoral bases. While announcing DACA's end, Sessions echoed a handful of oft-perpetuated lies, including the claim the program increases crime. Yet a simple glance at the eligibility requirements quickly dispel that myth: To be qualified for DACA, an individual cannot have been convicted of a felony or serious misdemeanors (or three or more other misdemeanors) and "otherwise pose a threat to national security or public safety." They must complete background checks, and have completed high school (or a GED), be currently enrolled in school, or been honorably discharged from the armed forces. In other words, DREAMers are mostly working, educated noncriminals required to be on good behavior. Rodriguez, pointing to the many hurdles hopeful DACA-ers must pass before being accepted, stands "perplexed" at how little most people understand of the program. "We are nurses, we are firefighters, we are teachers – we are out there serving other Americans," she said.

Sessions peddled another common mistruth when he derided DREAMers for stealing American jobs. Aside from the fact his claim is based on a shaky and illogical premise (employment is not a zero-sum game), no evidence to bolster it even exists. In fact, a lengthy study released last year by the National Academies of Sciences, Engin­eer­ing, and Medicine found that immigration has "little to no negative effects on overall wages and employment of native-born workers in the longer term." Other studies show DACA has made a positive impact on the U.S. economy: For instance, DREAMers create jobs by starting their own businesses and purchasing cars and homes, contributing to sales tax. The program has been a "major driver of economic growth," according to a 2016 study from the Center for American Progress. CAP estimates that DACA's end will result in a $460 billion loss from the national GDP over the next decade.

"It's a pretty standard response from a xenophobic administration," said Natalia Drelichman, a local immigration attorney and director of legal programs at American Gateways, of the erroneous jobs claim. "There's a shortage of high-skilled labor in this country. Any indication that these students are taking jobs away is not a justifiable comment – they are actually filling positions that need to be filled."

Drelichman's local nonprofit has been kicked into "overdrive" helping DACA-ers renew applications in the Austin area. Her clients range from McDonald's employees to medical school students, and while some have successfully renewed, others can't find the cash or have fallen behind – now it's become too late. "I've had some really tough conversations lately," said Drelich­man. "The federal government just told my clients, 'You don't matter; the fact that you're a contributing member of society doesn't matter.' They're trying to make them second-class citizens." As part of a coalition of organizations under the Texas Here to Stay umbrella, the legal team has partnered up with local groups like Educa­tion Aus­tin and the Uni­ver­si­ty Leadership Initiative to host DACA informational sessions in the community. With DACA no longer an option, attorneys advise DREAMers to seek other forms of relief if available.

Ramped-Up Funding

An eerie quiet fell over the typically bustling flea market on the corner of North Lamar and Applegate Drive, just north of Rundberg Lane, in the weeks leading up to Sept. 1. Residents in the area had braced for a ruling on anti-immigrant Senate Bill 4 by lying low and not entering the public arena. When Judge Orlando Garcia temporarily blocked the law in August, said Greg Casar, the area's representative on City Council, the market resumed in full swing. And now, another wave of unease has fallen over the community because of the DACA decision and recent ruling from the 5th Circuit reversing certain parts of Garcia's ruling ("Travis County to Comply With All ICE Detainers After 5th Circuit Ruling," Sept. 26). "This is the moment we're in," noted Casar. "Unpredictable times of celebration mixed in with fear. The community is facing oppression but at the same time showing bravery and organizing."

The city has done its job to step in and combat the attacks on local immigrants.

And the city has done its job to step in and combat the attacks on local immigrants. On top of the mid-year $200,000 infusion into American Gateways and Catholic Charities of Central Texas to provide legal immigration counsel (passed around the time of Trump's efforts to enforce a travel ban in January), City Council added another $135,000 during budget readings this month for agencies that deal with DACA, deportation defense, asylum, and a wide range of immigration-related services. Adding to that pot, the city recently won a private grant of $100,000 from the New York-based VERA Institute of Justice, which flowed to American Gate­ways. In October, Council plans to consider a resolution authorizing the city's federal lobbyists to support the DREAM Act and oppose the border wall pushed by Trump.

"We provided very little for these sorts of services before 2017, but rapidly recognized we need to change that," said Casar. "These attacks from the federal administration and the state are so constant, we knew it was critical to continue increasing our efforts. The DACA decision only highlighted how important it was to ramp it up."

Aside from Council's financial assistance, Casar points to nixing the city's longstanding juvenile curfew policy as an avenue to reduce the impact of discriminatory incarceration of minorities, which can lead to potential deportation of DREAMers. "One of the paths ICE takes to rope immigrants into deportation is using the criminal justice system as a path toward removal proceedings," he said. In June, Council ended the daytime school-hours youth curfew but extended the nighttime curfew through Oct. 1. They'll reconsider the issue at their Sept. 28 meeting; Casar says Police Chief Brian Manley has now come around in support of striking the rule, giving him hope that other CMs will follow suit.

At Congress' Doorstep

The fate of DACA now rests in the hands of Congress, tasked with crafting a plan by March 5. Early talks indicate some Repub­lic­ans would like to trade off codifying or extending DACA with border security or a wall – a concession some Dems aren't willing to accept. "There is an attempt to use DREAMers as a bargaining chip to secure other aspects of the anti-immigrant agenda, like the border wall," U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett of Austin said in a September interview. "I've tried to emphasize DREAMers are non-negotiable."

While bills like the BRIDGE Act (which provides a three-year DACA extension) and the ENLIST Act (which would grant residency to the undocumented enlisted in the military) seek to provide partial remedy, Doggett strongly backs the American Hope Act, the most comprehensive and permanent of the bills in the mix. But the most viable legislative solution for pro-immigrant advocates remains the DREAM Act of 2017, a bipartisan measure that provides a pathway to citizenship, of which Doggett is a co-sponsor. And it looks like Dems have the majority of Americans on their side, with 54% in support of Congress creating a pathway to citizenship, according to a recent Politico/Morning Consult poll.

Jose Garibay (Photo by John Anderson)

"We need to not wait until the very end of the six months to act on this," Doggett stressed. "There will be some issues Repub­licans will need Democratic votes on, so we will need to hold firm so that until this is resolved they won't be getting those votes."

Among the legislative obstacles is House Speaker Paul Ryan's stated obstinance in bringing any immigration-related bill to the floor without the support of a Republican caucus majority. Adding to that is the president's volatile unpredictability – just a week after his administration killed DACA, he tweeted a message in support of DREAMers. Eyes are also on whether a duo of suits challenging the DACA decision's constitutionality, one filed by California and the other by 15 states (led by New York and Washington) could ultimately prevail in the interim.

Maintaining hope that elected representatives will find a meaningful compromise is 20-year-old Jose Garibay, a St. Edward's University junior. He was 4 when his family came from Mexico to Austin, where he spent the formative years of his life. He hopes to pursue a master's degree in education policy to help low-income students enter college. While the decision to end DACA devastated him and extinguished not only his future plans but those of his high school aged brother, Garibay emphasizes his optimism and willpower above all else. He plans to spend his energy lobbying congressional leaders for a permanent solution.

"We need to push for something that not only encompasses us but also protects our parents, who took the ultimate risk to come here so we would have a better life," Garibay told me. "I know many are scared and feeling hopeless right now but it's important to remember we are still human, we deserve justice, and no one has a right to take away our ability to keep fighting."

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DACA, Edilsa Lopez, Greg Casar, Donald Trump, Jeff Sessions, Lloyd Doggett, Vanessa Rodriguez

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