Ending Obama-era DACA for young immigrants bad for Utah, supporters say

(Al Hartmann | The Salt Lake Tribune) Legislators Angela Romero, front left, Luz Escamilla and Mark Archuleta Wheatley all spoke to a diverse group that gathered on the steps of the Utah Capitol on Tuesday, Sept. 5, 2017. Comunidades Unidas (Communities United), which organized the event, said that the Trump adminstration's plans to end the DACA program is bad for Utah's families and economy. Individuals including 'Dreamers" spoke out for Congress to come up with alternative legislation.

Francisco Juarez hasn’t been to Mexico since he fled the country in his parents’ arms as a 6-month-old baby. Now he fears being deported back to a place he’s never really known.

“I’m American in every way except on paper,” he said.

Juarez, now 22, has lived in Utah for most of his life. He’s set to graduate from college here in May. This is where he’s grown up with his sister. And it’s the state he considers home.

On Tuesday, that became a little more uncertain. The program that helped Juarez stay in the United States is set to be phased out in six months with President Donald Trump announcing his intentions to dissolve the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals.

DACA allows undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as children to legally obtain work permits and attend school. Utah political leaders, religious officials and community members reacted with equal parts concern for its end and hope for a legislative solution to replace it.

Comunidades Unidas, a Salt Lake City-based resource for Latinos, held a news conference on the steps of the Utah Capitol in light of the Tuesday decision. Executive Director Luis Garza described the policy change as an “attack on Utah’s families, economy and values.”

The program has been an “undeniable success,” he said, providing recipients with the chance to contribute to society and make the state stronger. “Dreamers are human beings — not tokens or bargaining chips — who deserve dignity and respect.”

Garza and others asked Utah’s congressional delegation to provide a pathway to citizenship for student immigrants.

Last week, Sen. Orrin Hatch called the president and urged him not to dissolve the program, fearing it would put DACA participants “in an extremely difficult place.”

“I agree with the president — we need tougher enforcement of our immigration laws, but we also need a real, permanent solution that recognizes the positive impact Dreamers have in our communities,” the Republican senator said after the administration’s announcement Tuesday.

Hatch was an original sponsor of the Dream Act in 2001, which did not pass but would have allowed undocumented students to pursue an education. He supports Congress drafting a replacement for DACA that would create “a path forward for our Dreamer population.”

Trump’s decision phases out the program over six months with the intention of providing “a window of opportunity for Congress to finally act,” he said. The Department of Homeland Security will no longer accept new applications for work permits under DACA, which recipients must reapply for every two years (with a background check and a fee).

All existing permits will be honored until they expire and those that end before March 5, 2018, can be renewed if done before Oct. 5. Applications already submitted “will be processed,” Trump added in a 900-word statement.

Lucey Contreras, 28, says the anxiety level is high among Dreamers and the decision feels like “betrayal.” She came to the United States from Mexico when she was 3 or 4 years old. She believes the government encouraged young, undocumented immigrants to “come out, show us who you are … and then something like this happens.”

Rescinding DACA “was always a possibility,” Contreras said, “but I guess it’s just a moral thing.”

The program has granted permission to 800,000 immigrants to stay in the United States for work or school; more than 10,500 of those individuals were approved in Utah, according to the Migration Policy Institute. Thousands more were eligible to apply, Contreras said, but didn’t trust the government enough to sign up using personal information. Now, some DACA recipients are afraid to renew or regret enrolling in the first place.

Trump’s announcement came on the arbitrary deadline given by Republican attorneys general from 10 states, who sent a letter to U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions in June, threatening a lawsuit if Trump didn’t announce plans to phase out DACA. Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes was not among them, though he released a comment Monday saying Trump “has every right” to dissolve the program implemented in 2012 by President Barack Obama through an executive order.

“It is unconscionable to deport a young person who came to this country as a child or even infant without any choice of their own,” Reyes said. “Rather than deporting those in whom America has already invested many resources, I urge Congress to pass legislation that provides a workable path forward so these young people can prove their ongoing commitment to this country and benefit all of us with their talents and skills.”

Roughly 80 percent of the recipients in Utah were born in Mexico before coming to the United States as children.

Trump said he does “not favor punishing children, most of whom are now adults, for the actions of their parents.” He also pledged that the administration’s enforcement priorities — which have included tougher policies targeting undocumented immigrants who have committed crimes — won’t expand to those in the DACA program “unless they are criminals, are involved in criminal activity or are members of a gang.”

Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune Antonella Packard speaks at a news conference in Salt Lake City, Wednesday May 3, 2017. The Multicultural Engagement for Utah (ME4U) coalition, a non-partisan group of organizations serving people of color and Native American Tribes, recently launched the “JustUs Utah” initiative in response to "the underserved and underrepresented voices of Utah’s voters of color who are feeling excluded and ignored in the development of political engagement strategies."

That pledge isn’t worth much to Antonella Packard, state director for Utah’s branch of the League of United Latin American Citizens. She believes Trump lied when he said he’d “resolve the DACA issue with heart and compassion.”

“We had hoped that the president would have kept his promise,” Packard said. Now, she added, “he’s betrayed young people.”

Utah Rep. Mia Love, whose parents fled Haiti to escape potential political persecution and settled in the United States, said she is “sensitive to the position in which young, undocumented immigrants find themselves.”

“From the beginning, Congress should have taken the lead in crafting a solution to this issue,” she said.

Republican colleagues Rep. Chris Stewart and Sen. Mike Lee, along with House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., view DACA as an overreach of federal power. Stewart supports two current bills — the BRIDGE Act and the Encourage New Legalized Immigrants to Start Training Act — that would offer temporary relief from deportation with “provisional protected presence” and work permits. The requirements for approval are nearly identical to what exists in current law.

“While well-intentioned, the way the Obama administration went about enacting DACA was unconstitutional,” the Republican congressman said. “Authority to alter immigration law clearly only lies within the purview of Congress. Nonetheless, I believe that we must protect those individuals who came to this country as children.”

Lee, too, looks to find “a balance between compassion and deterring future illegal immigration.”

Legislators from both sides of the aisle had pushed for an extension of the program while detractors suggest immigrants exploit DACA to gain legal status. In a rare post-presidency statement, Obama said Trump’s decision cast a shadow “over some of our best and brightest young people once again.”

Nidia Romero, who was brought to the United States when she was 4, spoke at Tuesday’s news conference in Utah because she wanted people to see “the faces of DACA.” Her five children, all born in the country, are citizens. She is not.

Romero has lived “in fear [her] whole life,” but when the program was implemented, she was “no longer worried” and felt like she could “pursue all the dreams that I had.”

“Now that they have put an end to DACA,” she said, ”my fears have come alive again.”

Utah officials weighed in Tuesday, most expressing disappointment in the decision. A raft of businesses — including the Utah-based ancestry.com, the Utah Hotel and Lodging Association and the Utah Restaurant Association — signed on to an open letter to congressional leaders asking them to preserve DACA.

Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams, a Democrat, said he was “disheartened” by the administration’s move and noted that “now the deportation clock is ticking.” State Rep. Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City, emphasized that “these are people’s lives that we’re playing with, that the president is playing with.”

(Al Hartmann | The Salt Lake Tribune) Legislators Angela Romero, front left, Luz Escamilla and Mark Archuleta Wheatley all spoke to a diverse group that gathered on the steps of the Utah capitol Tuesday Sept. 5. Comunidades Unidas (Communities United), that organized the event said that that the Trump adminstration's plans to end the DACA program is bad for Utah's families and economy. Individuals including 'Dreamers" spoke out for Congress to come up with alternative legislation.

State Sen. Luz Escamilla, D-Salt Lake City, said the issue is no longer a presidential problem; “this is really an issue of our Congress.” While legislative leaders need to come up with “comprehensive immigration reform … right now we need to focus on these young men and women and protect them immediately,” she added.

Escamilla also noted that the loss of revenue from DACA recipients — who bring in an estimated $476 million to Utah each year, according to the Center for American Progress — would negatively impact the state’s economy.

Bishop Oscar Solis of the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City urged legislators to develop a permanent solution “that cannot be lost through the arbitrary whims of politics.” The administration’s actions, he added, “represent a heartbreaking moment in our history that shows the absence of mercy and goodwill, and a short-sighted vision for the future.”

The state’s largest religious group, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, declined to issue an opinion on the policy shift.

Meanwhile, the phone at the University of Utah’s Dream Center, where Francisco Juarez and others work to provide assistance for undocumented students, was ringing nonstop Tuesday. Alonso Reyna Rivarola, program director, said the office feels “devastated by the news.”

“A lot of our students are in crisis mode,” Reyna Rivarola said. “They’re not sure if they should continue going to school.”