‘This is a time for vigilance’ advocates warn as lawmakers seek a deal by 19 January deadline on undocumented immigrants brought to the US as children
Donald Trump has repeatedly said he wants to protect young undocumented immigrants from deportation, but that very population was left confused and frustrated this week by US lawmakers and courts responding to the president’s demands.
A federal court on Tuesday night blocked the Trump administration from terminating the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (Daca) program that allowed 800,000 immigrants to work and go to school in the US without fear of deportation. Hours earlier, the president had a rare televised meeting with lawmakers about how to protect this population.
“This is a time for vigilance,” said Marielena Hincapié, executive director of the National Immigration Law Center, which has filed a separate lawsuit against the Trump administration for cancelling Daca in September 2017.
Who are the Dreamers?
Dreamers are young immigrants who would qualify for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival (Daca) program, enacted under Barack Obama in 2012. Most people in the program entered the US as children and have lived in the US for years “undocumented”. Daca gave them temporary protection from deportation and work permits. Daca was only available to people younger than 31 on 15 June 2012, who arrived in the US before turning 16 and lived there continuously since June 2007. Most Dreamers are from Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras and the largest numbers live in California, Texas, Florida and New York. Donald Trump cancelled the program in September but has also said repeatedly he wants Congress to develop a program to “help” the population.
What will happen to the Dreamers?
Under the Trump administration, new applications under Daca will no longer be accepted. For those currently in the program, their legal status and other Daca-related permits (such as to work and attend college) will begin expiring in March 2018 – unless Congress passes legislation allowing a new channel for temporary or permanent legal immigration status – and Dreamers will all lose their status by March 2020.
Technically, as their statuses lapse they could be deported and sent back to countries many have no familiarity with. It is still unclear whether this would happen. Fear had been rising in the run-up to last week’s announcement. Those with work permits expiring between 5 September 2017 and 5 March 2018 will be allowed to apply for renewal by 5 October.
What does this week's ruling by Judge William Alsup mean?
In his ruling, Alsup ordered the Trump administration to restart the program, allowing Daca recipients who already qualify for the program to submit applications for renewal.
However, he said the federal government did not have to process new applications from people who had not previously received protection under the program.
When the Trump administration ended the Daca program, it allowed Daca recipients whose legal status expired on or before 5 March to renew their legal status. Roughly 22,000 recipients failed to successfully renew their legal status for various reasons.
Legal experts and immigration advocates are advising Daca recipients not to file for renewal until the administration provides more information about how it intends to comply with the ruling.
“These next days and weeks are going to create a lot of confusion on the legal front,” said Marielena Hincapie, executive director of the National Immigration Law Center, which has filed a separate lawsuit against the Trump administration’s termination of Daca.
Hincapie and other immigration advocates have warned that the legal situation for people who qualified for Daca is fluid. They also emphasized that despite the court’s order, there is no system in place to renew Daca status and that anyone offering the service is probably a scammer. “These next days and weeks are going to create a lot of confusion on the legal front,” said Hincapie.
Staisy Ngare, whose Daca status expires in June, told the Guardian she was optimistic about what comes next.
“I am not scared,” Ngare said. “I feel like good news is coming.”
The 24-year-old, who came to the US from Kenya when she was four, said she was buoyed by public support for people like her, known as Dreamers, and the practical difficulties of removing 800,000 people from the US. “Even though it’s taking a long time for them to agree to something I can see where they are headed towards,” she said.
Daca is set to end on 5 March, but Democrats see the 19 January deadline to pass a federal budget as their best opportunity to demand action on the program. If Congress cannot reach a budget deal next week, there could be a partial government shutdown.
Advocates are urging Dreamers and their supporters to focus on the 19 January deadline as the courts work through the legality of ending Daca, but the uncertainty weighs on many of the young people.
“Living life with this level of highs and lows is incredibly difficult,” said Adrian Reyna, a Daca recipient and a campaign director at United We Dream.
Reyna said his sister, who also has Daca protections, called him after the court decision to ask if everything was now fixed. He said he had to explain that their future is still unclear. “Don’t let anyone tell you the urgency to get this done is not real,” he said.
Trump provided a rare look at the government’s handling of immigration legislation on Tuesday, when he allowed reporters to broadcast a 55-minute discussion with lawmakers from both parties about Dreamers.
The president said a “bill of love” should be introduced for Dreamers but did not provide a clear stance on what he believed such legislation should look like. At one point, Trump seemed to endorse the Democrats’ push for legislation that does not include funding for a border wall before a senior Republican intervened and reminded the president that the party expects expanded border security provisions in the legislation.
On Wednesday, Senator Jeff Flake, a Republican of Arizona who is part of the negotiations, said he has “concerns” that the courts might delay action by Congress.
“If we go beyond March 5 and the courts come back and say it’s over, we have no runway – it’s done,” Flake said. He said negotiations in the Senate were in the “final stretch” and predicted a bill within the next few days.
Democrats, meanwhile, stressed that the court order offers only a temporary reprieve. Chuck Schumer, the Senate minority leader, said that the ruling “in no way diminishes the urgency of resolving the Daca issue”.
“The fact remains the only way to guarantee the legal status for Dreamers is to pass Daca protections into law and do it now,” he added.
Daca recipient Jung Woo Kim, 33, said he was disappointed with how both parties spoke about Dreamers in the meeting as though they were “bargaining chips”. “I don’t think they speak the language we speak,” he said.
Kim is more protected than most because his Daca expires in 2019. He first applied for the program at 28, after working illegally to pay for university. Once Kim received Daca status, he was able to go to the dentist for the first time since he left South Korea at 15. “I was able to get government ID so I could prove to myself I wasn’t a ghost any more,” he said.
He urged legislators to act with urgency on the issue of Dreamers. Kim said: “If I were your son, what would you do? Would you let me just stay in this limbo?”
Lauren Gambino contributed reporting from Washington DC.