WASHINGTON — Rallies and demonstrations on Tuesday are taking the place of long queues as immigrant rights groups and allies mark the fifth anniversary of an Obama administration deportation relief and work permission program now in peril under President Donald Trump.
On Aug. 15, 2012, the Obama administration started accepting the first applications from young immigrants for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, known as DACA. Hundreds of thousands of teens and young adults who came to the U.S. as children but do not have legal status lined up outside offices of lawyers and groups helping them with applications.
Since then, some 800,000 people have been granted DACA, a temporary benefit that must be renewed every two years.
While the Trump administration has kept the program in place thus far, DACA faces a looming deadline of Sept. 5, set by Texas and nine other states that have threatened to take the administration to court unless it agrees to bring the program to an end.
Gustavo Torres, executive director of the immigrant rights group CASA in suburban Washington, D.C. issued a call for all DACA recipients and people with another form of deportation protection known as Temporary Protected Status to turn out for the rally.
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“Right now is a critical time to stand up and demand that the Trump administration does what is right and protect these hard-working immigrants who are contributing to the economic engine of this country," Torres said.
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Rep. Luis Gutiérrez (D-IL) is leading a rally on Tuesday in front of the White House. He posted a video on YouTube, saying he is going to “stand up for the immigrants.”
While President Trump campaigned on a hardline immigration stance, he has said that he would help DACA recipients, but has not outlined any specific plans.
But White House Chief of Staff John Kelly told members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus last month, when he was still Homeland Security secretary, that the administration would not commit to defending the program in court.
This has immigration attorneys like Robert Remes worried. "I am certainly worried because they could cancel the program as easily as they put it into effect," said Remes. "The Trump administration cannot be trusted to do what is right and decent as they have stood for just the opposite."
Yesenia Contreras-Frazier, a paralegal in Washington, D.C. who focuses on immigration law and has DACA clients, said people are scared, but she tells them not to listen to rumors.
"They are still accepting applications and processing them and approving them so I tell people to go ahead and apply," said Contreras-Frazier.
"The worrisome part is that we don’t know. We don’t know what the Trump administration is going to do, we don’t know who the new Homeland Security secretary will be and whether they will get rid of the program or not. It’s all of this uncertainty that is nerve wracking."
'Dreamer' is a term often used to refer to young immigrants who arrived or stayed in the country illegally, often brought by parents who also are illegally in the country.
Jacqueline Cortés Nava, 23, is an incoming senior at the University of Virginia who came to the U.S. from Mexico at age 9. She said she didn’t know that she was undocumented until she went to high school.
"DACA has benefitted me because it gives me peace of mind. It allows me to get a driver’s license and be able to work legally and get in-state tuition. If we didn’t have in-state tuition there’s no way that I would be able to afford to go to school," she said.
In a telephonic press briefing on Monday, Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., defended the program, saying that many DACA recipients have "only known this country as their own — this is their home. Trump should pay attention to his own words when he said we should show great heart in dealing with these young people. (To get rid of the program) undermines our values as a nation of immigrants," said Harris. California is home to the largest number of DACA residents — 200,000, or nearly one in four of all DACA recipients.
Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, D-Nev., whose home state has some 12,000 DACA residents, said that Dreamers are under attack by hard-line immigration advocates. "It is wrong that these extraordinary young men and women brought to this country as children face constant uncertainty about their future. We have to protect them from being targeted based on hate and vitriol."