“My parents were always afraid for us to share our legal status. But today, I‘m no longer scared. I’m no longer afraid. And today I can share my story without being scared,” Maria Fernanda said at the Utah Capitol on Thursday night.
She and more than 100 other people rallied in support of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program amid indications that President Donald Trump may soon end the policy that has protected young immigrants from deportation.
Chelsie Acosta, who is in her third year teaching at Glendale Middle School, had planned to make bright, bold posters with the students in her Latinos in Action class.
Instead, she said, ”I ended up spending 45 minutes consoling six of my students in tears, messaging with their family about what’s going on tomorrow.”
Trump is expected to announce his decision on whether to end DACA as soon as Friday.
“Not knowing what‘s going to happen, it’s a bit scary,” Fernanda said. ”But we didn’t have DACA before, so I know, no matter what happens, we’ll find a way to make it work.”
The program, implemented in 2012, allows undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as children to legally receive work permits and attend school. DACA recipients must reapply for the program every two years, which requires them to pass background checks and pay a fee. Critics of the program say it allows people who have broken the law to escape taking responsibility for their actions.
Several who have benefited from the DACA program spoke at Thursday night’s rally. Some told stories of the opportunities afforded them, other spoke of fear of being deported to a country they hardly knew.
Fernanda moved to the United States with her family as a 10-year-old. DACA allowed her to work toward a degree in political science and international relations at Brigham Young University.
“Nothing has been handed to us,” said Maria Fernanda. ”I worked, and continued to work 10 times harder than anyone else to just get a little bit of what others do get handed. But you know what? That‘s OK. And that’s OK because it makes me that much more passionate about my dreams.”
Her brother was deported to Mexico in 2012, and her family has not seen him in five years.
“Like me, I know there‘s thousands of families in my situation that understand my pain. I miss him ever day,” she said, her voice breaking.
Trump has spoken both in support and opposition of DACA — from slamming the program on the campaign trail to in April, telling young recipients of program protections that they can ”rest easy.” they can ”rest easy.”
The uncertainty has left several people concerned about their futures. That uncertainty isn’t new for some young immigrants.
Deyvid Morales was nearly deported in 2011, he said Thursday evening. Morales’ family brought him to the United States from Mexico when he was 9 years old.
“I know the uncertainty that you feel,” Morales said. In 2011, he was told by an Immigrations Customs and Enforcements officer that if he talked to the news media or asked for help, the agent would come to his house at 3 a.m. and ”take whoever is home,” Morales said.
“For six months, I didn‘t say anything,” Morales said.
Then, he took his story public, which bolstered support for him, he said. Morales became a poster-child for DACA when, just before he expected to be deported, President Barack Obama issued the order to defer deportation of children of undocumented immigrants, like him, who had no criminal records.
“You don‘t know how powerful your story is until you share it,” he said. ”If we don’t share our stories, people are not going to know who we are.”
Brandy Farmer, the president of the nonprofit organization Centro Civico Mexicano, said she sees many young immigrants who are nervous not only to share their stories but even to congregate.
Centro Civico Mexicano hosts events, celebrations, soccer tournaments and classes, Farmer said. After the presidential election in November, people started canceling weddings and coming-of-age quinceanera ceremonies at the event center, she told a Salt Lake Tribune reporter.
“They were afraid to be anywhere they could be found,” Farmer said. “They were afraid the police were going to come in and take them.”
While the rally was organized to defend DACA, some speakers said mere deferment isn’t enough.
It’s is a step in the right direction, said Francisco Juarez, but it’s not a solution. The program gave him more opportunities for scholarships, he said, but what the nation needs is immigration reform.
“Dismantling this program would be a mistake,” Juarez said, adding that rallygoers should call their elected representatives, sign petitions and encourage immigration legislation.
The rally also was meant to urge Republican Sens. Orrin Hatch and Mike Lee to announce their support for DACA. Organizers will deliver a petition to Hatch’s office, requesting a statement, according to Mayra Cedano, the immigrants rights and community engagement manager at Comunidades Unidas, a nonprofit that provides immigration and health services to Utah Latinos.
Comunidades Unidas delivered a similar petition to the Utah attorney general’s office Thursday morning.
The petition, with 3,100 signatures, requests that the attorney general release a statement of support for DACA. The office didn’t plan to release such an endorsement Thursday, according to spokesman Daniel Burton.
Attorney General Sean Reyes has not publicly announced support or opposition to DACA, but he “feels strongly about the appropriate process for reform coming through Congress, as laid out through the Constitution,” Burton said.
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, along with attorneys general from nine other states, sent a letter to U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions in June, calling for DACA to be phased out, with a deadline of Sept. 5, 2017.
The state-level attorneys general threatened to sue if the Trump administration doesn’t agree to phase out DACA, according to the letter.
In July, 20 attorneys general signed a letter defending DACA, saying it has been a boon for “communities, universities, and employers with which these Dreamers are connected, and for the American economy as a whole.”
On Thursday, Rep. Angela Romero and Rebecca Chavez-Houck, both D-Salt Lake City, said Utah’s economy would lose millions of dollars if DACA is stripped away.
Utah has approved DACA applications for more than 10,500 people, according to the Migration Policy Institute. The program also is estimated to bring $476 million into the state annually, says the Center for American Progress.
”For me, it‘s more about the human element of this,” Romero said. “For me, it’s about families.”
Correction: Sept. 1, 10 a.m. >> An earlier version of this story about a rally to defend DACA misspelled an activist's name. The correct spelling is Maria Fernanda.