When Diana’s parents immigrated from China to Mexico years ago, they worked off-the-books jobs for $3 an hour to support Diana and her brother. But when her family came to the United States, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA) gave Diana the chance to go to college and work — legally and for a fair wage.
After meeting strict requirements, screenings, and background checks, and filing to renew every two years, she became a DACA recipient five years ago, graduated from UC Santa Cruz, and now holds a job protecting immigrant rights. “DACA gave only some of us this opportunity to thrive, but I believe all immigrants have this potential,” she said at a City Hall press conference last week.
About 5,000 children and young adults in San Francisco — and more than 76,000 in the greater Bay Area — are protected under DACA, says Adrienne Pon, director of the city’s Office of Civic Engagement and Immigrant Affairs. When the Trump administration announced last week that it would end DACA by March 2018, it threw their lives into chaos.
“We’ve been talking with a lot of DACA holders who are feeling very anxious, concerned, and fearful about what’s going to happen,” Pon says. “In many cases, the DACA holder may be the primary breadwinner in their family, and may have elderly parents or young siblings who depend on them.”
The Obama administration created DACA in June 2012 through an executive order allowing some undocumented immigrants who entered the U.S. as children to receive a renewable, two-year amnesty from the threat of deportation. It also made them eligible for work permits, which increased their chances of finding good jobs. DACA recipients are often called “DREAMers” after the proposed DREAM Act, which would have offered legal status to those who attended college or joined the military if Congress had ever approved it.
When Donald Trump was elected, he promised to axe DACA on his first day in office. It took a bit longer than that, but when Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced DACA’s end last week, he attacked the program, calling it an “open-ended circumvention of immigration laws” and an “unconstitutional exercise of authority by the Executive Branch.” Sessions blamed DACA for the surge of unaccompanied minors to the U.S. in recent years, and said the program’s 800,000 beneficiaries have displaced hundreds of thousands of American citizens from jobs.
Trump says that DACA recipients whose legal status expires on or before March 5, 2018, will have until Oct. 5 to renew their permits. Otherwise, all current DACA permits will expire, leaving recipients vulnerable to deportation as early as next spring — unless Congress takes action to protect them. Because many recipients came to the U.S. as young children, they have no real connection to their countries of birth.
Pon says that DACA recipients, like the majority of the undocumented immigrants in the U.S., are longtime residents who work hard, and pay taxes — and have risked their lives to create better living conditions for themselves and their families. Threatening to oust DACA permit holders creates an unnecessary crisis for this group of young people, she says.
“They pose no threat to the U.S.,” Pon says. “Why would you create chaos?”
Sessions’ announcement was the latest in a string of moves that have made undocumented immigrants in the Bay Area and across the U.S. increasingly anxious since Trump was elected. When Trump announced his candidacy, he whipped up fears about immigrants, claiming that many Mexicans, in particular, are “criminals” and “rapists.” Early in his campaign, he promised to deport “millions and millions of undocumented immigrants.”
He also used the 2015 murder of Kathryn Steinle in San Francisco — by Jose Inez Garcia-Zarate, an undocumented immigrant with a criminal history — to argue that sanctuary-city policies should be abolished. Deportation efforts were already very active under President Barack Obama, but Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) released data in April showing that between Jan. 20 and April 29 of this year, it had arrested 38 percent more immigrants than during the same period in 2016.
Deportation efforts have since slowed; between Jan. 1 and June 30, they have dropped 15 percent over the same period in 2016, which ICE spokesman Victoria Kice chalked up to a “dramatic decline in illegal border crossings” this year.
Local and state leaders were quick to protest the news of DACA’s potential sunset. Mayor Ed Lee — who worked as a community organizer and immigrant-rights advocate before he became Mayor in 2011 — blasted Trump’s “us and them” attitude toward immigrants during a press conference last week.
“Without a doubt, they are us. They are all of us. And they should not have to live in fear of deportation,” Lee said. “The lives of these wonderful individuals are too important to be part of some political game.”
By signing up for DACA, young undocumented immigrants provided all of their personal details to the government, which makes them much easier to track down if deportations begin next spring, Lee said. He called on Congress to make sure DACA doesn’t end.
Legislators will soon have a chance to do so. In July, Senators Lindsey Graham, Dick Durbin, Jeff Flake, and Chuck Schumer introduced the Dream Act of 2017, which would make it easier for DACA recipients and other undocumented immigrants to achieve citizenship.
Rep. Nancy Pelosi called the repeal a “cruel act of political cowardice.” And, late last week, she told Trump that DACA recipients “really need reassurance … that the six-month period is not a period of roundup,” as she recalled in a press conference. After the phone call, he tweeted, “For all of those (DACA) that are concerned about your status during the 6 month period, you have nothing to worry about — No action!”
California Attorney General Xavier Becerra filed lawsuit against the Trump administration over the DACA decision on Monday. He notes that more than 200,000 DACA permit holders live, work, and go to school in California, making them a major force in the state’s economy. Separately, 15 other states and Washington, D.C., took Trump to court over the repeal last week.
None of that has kept local DACA recipients from feeling heartbroken by Trump’s actions. Alicia, a San Francisco State student, began to cry at last week’s City Hall press conference as she imagined talking to her family about the repeal. Her status recently allowed her to travel to see her grandparents for the first time in 13 years — and return to San Francisco safely. Losing her DACA status would make such trips impossible.
“It’s devastating,” she said.
Hong Mei Pang, a former DACA recipient and current immigration program manager for Chinese for Affirmative Action, isn’t just upset by the decision — she’s furious. “We have an administration that is entangled with white supremacy and is determined to criminalize all immigrants,” she said during last week’s press conference.
“The plan to end DACA is born out of cruel xenophobia. … The immigrant community will unite against these atrocities.”