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Dreamers reflect on DACA as the Obama-era program turns 7 and faces Trump’s challenge

Christian Quintero at his home in Richardson, Texas, on June 13, 2019. Quintero is a Dreamer from Colombia, currently attending the University of Texas at Dallas.

VERNON BRYANT/DALLAS MORNING NEWS/TNS

By OBED MANUEL AND MARIA MENDEZ | The Dallas Morning News | Published: June 16, 2019

DALLAS (Tribune News Service) — Emma Chalott Barron remembers June 15, 2012.

She huddled around the TV that day with her parents and watched as President Barack Obama announced the creation of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, a program that would change hundreds of thousands of lives.

Chalott Barron, then 14, didn’t understand the technical aspects of the program. But she knew life was about to get better.

Dreamers, unauthorized immigrants brought to the U.S. as children like herself, would be able to get renewable two-year work permits and a reprieve from deportation as long as they met specific criteria.

“In that moment, I thought my life was going to change,” Chalott Barron said.

Seven years later, June 15 is a bittersweet reminder for Chalott Barron and close to 700,000 active DACA beneficiaries that their quasi-legal status is founded on shaky ground that is vulnerable to the changing politics around it.

President Donald Trump fulfilled a campaign promise in September 2017 when then-U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that the administration would be ending DACA. Trump then called on Congress to act.

Chalott Barron, then an Austin College senior, had enjoyed DACA’s benefits: more scholarships, working legally and even traveling to Mexico under the advanced parole portion of the program.

“I felt like I was grieving for a lost future, but with the recognition that that future was never really mine because (DACA) was never a permanent fix,” she said.

Several federal court decisions issued since January 2018, including one from a South Texas judge known for being tough on immigration cases, have stalled the Trump administration’s move.

Trump has appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court to decide whether he has the authority to end DACA, but the justices may not take up the case until the fall and might not deliver a decision until June 2020. Even if the justices say the program can end, some DACA work permits may outlive Trump’s presidency if he loses in 2020.

The attempt to undo DACA did close the program to new applicants. Currently, only those who were granted DACA or sent in applications before the September 2017 announcement are eligible to renew their permits.

There are an estimated 250,000 Dreamers in the U.S. who would be eligible but didn’t apply or were too young to qualify. Estimates show that close to 100,000 Dreamers graduate from high school every year around the country. Many don’t have DACA and are heading toward the same limbo that existed before Obama’s move.

But for DACA recipients like Omar Campos, whose family moved to the U.S. from Mexico City when he was 5, there’s no looking back. The only path is to pay the $495 renewal fee every two years.

At a DACA renewal workshop earlier this week, Campos shuffled through a stack of immigration forms while listening to a workshop volunteer explain how the forms work.

Campos filled out the forms by himself that night. But many of the roughly 30 people attending did the paperwork alongside parents, cousins or siblings.

“It’s a family affair,” said Chalott Barron, who serves as an officer for the North Texas Dream Team, the immigration advocacy group that hosts the free workshops.

It was Campos’ third DACA renewal and he wanted to save on legal fees. He fears being without DACA’s protections.

“In the back of my head, I was always worried about getting in trouble, not necessarily for doing something bad but for being at the wrong place at the wrong time,” said Campos, who now owns a construction company with his dad.

DACA’s creation led to Dreamers coming “out of the shadows,” working legally, getting scholarships and finding a sense of belonging, said Randy Capps, director of research for U.S. programs at the Migration Policy Institute.

“That kind of aspiration isn’t possible without work authorization,” Capps said.

Marco Malagon, a North Texas Dream Team co-founder who pushed for DACA’s creation, said he is now focused on helping Dreamers find avenues toward permanent residency or citizenship.

Malagon was himself a Dreamer but was too old to apply for DACA. To qualify for DACA, Dreamers couldn’t be older than 31 on June 15, 2012, and had to be at least 15 to apply.

He gained permanent residency through his wife’s petition for him in 2018.

He said it was heartbreaking when he found out he didn’t qualify for DACA. “When you push so hard and don’t get anything, it’s hard,” Malagon said. “But I got a lot of good friendships, people who benefited from it, so I was good with that.”

The Obama administration’s move to create DACA was “bold,” said Jessica Vauhghan, director of policy studies at the Center for Immigration Studies, a group that calls for stricter immigration laws.

“Nothing quite so expansive had ever been done in this way,” she said. ”Obama really stretched his work permit issuance authority as a tool to regularize this particular group who are in the country illegally.”

As for its legacy, Vaughan said she remains unconvinced that the program has yielded only positive results and would like to see more research into the effect of DACA beneficiaries to weigh whether they should be granted full legal status.

“It worked out really well for the 800,000 people who got DACA but hasn’t helped advance the cause of amnesty for other immigrants,” she said. ”If anything it made it more difficult to get anything done on amnesty.”

The program’s popularity, Capps said, gave some positive momentum to the 2013 attempts to pass comprehensive immigration reform, but as the program became more politicized and the Obama administration attempted to provide more protection to other unauthorized immigrants, it “poisoned the well.”

“There’s a political price to be paid,” Capps said. ”It set a precedent for doing a runaround of Congress, and we see that now with the Trump administration doing more on immigration through executive actions.”

DACA has repeatedly been a bargaining chip between Republicans and Democrats. Last year, Democrats offered Trump a clean swap: $25 billion for his campaign-promised border wall in exchange for a pathway to citizenship for Dreamers. But the deal fell through.

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