DREAMers with kids prepare for the worst

Angelica Villalobos, a mother of four American children, is one of thousands of "Dreamers" who could be deported if President Trump revokes Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA).
Courtesy of United We Dream

Hundreds of thousands of families in the US are anxiously awaiting a decision from President Donald Trump that could change the course of their lives. Will they lose their jobs? Will they have to drop out of college? Will immigration agents knock on their doors to kick them out of the country they consider home? And what will happen to their American kids if they have to leave?

These are the questions racing through the minds of young undocumented immigrants with temporary deportation protection through Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, also known as DACA. Every day that passes brings more anxiety for DACA families, who are waiting to see if Trump fulfills a campaign promise to scrap the Obama-era program, which has allowed about 800,000 undocumented immigrants to live and work legally in the United States since 2012.

If Trump does end DACA, these young immigrants would be deportable. They are known as "Dreamers" —undocumented immigrants, younger than 35, whose parents brought them to the United States as children. The fact that the federal government now has their names and addresses is particularly alarming to them.

"I feel betrayed," said Lorena Jofrey, a 34-year-old insurance agent from Miami. "We provided them with all our information. Now, if they take [DACA] away, I am scared to death that they are going to use that against us. They know exactly where we work and where we live."

Although rumors have been swirling that Trump will end DACA this week, he's wavered on his earlier campaign vow since taking office, saying that he doesn't want to harm this group of DREAMers who were brought to the United States illegally as children and have grown up thinking they are American. Now the president faces renewed pressure to end the program, as several state attorneys general plan to challenge DACA in court on Tuesday if Trump doesn't announce plans to end it before then.

In the five years since DACA went into effect, thousands of undocumented immigrants have been able to go to college, get driver's licenses and get jobs and pay taxes for the first time. Many now have their own children, who are American citizens. Parents with DACA are wrestling with the question of what to tell their children, and whether it would be best to leave them in the United States or take them away if they are forced to leave.

Jofrey, who is a single mother, says she took her 6-year-old daughter to a meeting Tuesday for DACA recipients to come up with a backup plan. Her DACA permit expires in 2019. She says she's struggled to explain to her daughter what is happening.

"I told her, 'They are trying to take away DACA from Mommy,'" said Jofrey, whose own parents brought her to the United States from Chile when she was 10 years old. "I don't know if she understands the concept."

Panic sets in

Dreamers became a powerful force in US politics during the immigration-reform debate in the Obama years. Democrats and Republicans alike sympathized with the plight of these young immigrants, who were brought to the United States illegally as kids through no fault of their own. They talked and acted like other American kids, but couldn't work or go to college because they didn't have Social Security numbers.

The Dreamers grew vocal about their frustration, forming advocacy groups and lobbying legislators. And when comprehensive immigration reform stalled in Congress, Obama signed an executive order creating DACA in 2012, which allowed undocumented immigrants who arrived in the United States during certain years to get temporary Social Security numbers and deportation protection. They had to pass criminal background checks, pay back taxes, and renew DACA every two years. The program was a temporary solution, but it was one that Hillary Clinton vowed to maintain as president. Trump, on the other hand, centered his campaign on anti-immigrant rhetoric, and the most right-wing elements of his base wanted DACA gone.

Since Trump's victory, DACA recipients have been expecting the worst. Those I spoke to — most of whom are parents now — are experiencing a range of emotions: panic, anger, hopelessness. They say they knew it was a risk to come out of the shadows and give all their information to the federal government to be eligible for DACA. They always knew DACA was a temporary program that any future administration could revoke. But at the time, the risks seemed worthwhile and the potential danger seemed remote. Now it's all too real.

"We are humans. We're not animals that you send back to the shelter because you don’t want them anymore," said Anahi Sosa, who is 8 months pregnant and starting her second semester of college next week. "We have kids, parents, grandparents. We have dreams and goals too."

Sosa, who arrived in the United States from Mexico when she was a baby, said she is practicing her Spanish in case she has to move to Mexico. Right now she has a scholarship to Essex County College in Newark, New Jersey, where she is studying to become a dental hygienist. She said DACA allowed her to work as a receptionist, and then as a dental assistant. Her DACA permit expires in February.

"I guess I am mentally preparing myself for the worst, but hoping for the best. With my son on the way, I am thinking a lot about him too," said Sosa. "I believe in prayer too. Hearts can change. I do believe God has a plan for us Dreamers and for America as a whole."

While some are praying, others are taking action. Angelica Villalobos, a 32-year-old mother of four, flew on Tuesday from her home in Oklahoma City to Washington, DC, prepared for a fight. She said she was ready to pressure members of Congress to pass a bill to protect Dreamers if Trump does decide to end the program.

Villalobos, an office manager at a tire store, said she will hold House Speaker Paul Ryan to a promise he made to her in January. Then, at a town hall meeting that aired on CNN, Villalobos asked Ryan if she should be deported.

Ryan said no, and assured Villalobos that he was working to find a “good, humane solution” for the families protected by DACA.

If DACA ends, Villalobos said she hopes to meet with Ryan to remind him about his promise. She wants Congress to act quickly to pass the Dream Act or the Hope Act, which give permanent deportation protection to many DACA recipients.

"This is not amnesty — we are part of the community," said Villalobos. "I make more money now and I pay more taxes. I don’t receive any social benefits from the government and I volunteer at the school district. [DACA] is a good program."

What DACA parents tell their kids

There is no data on how many DACA recipients have US-born children, but the prospect of deportation post-DACA raises the question about what will happen to them. Most of the parents I spoke to said they would take their kids with them if they are deported, but some of their kids don't want to go.

Villalobos says she and her husband have been forthcoming with her four daughters about the fact that they have DACA and that it could be revoked at any time. Her eldest, who is 17, asked if she could find a way to stay in the United States if Villalobos is deported to Mexico. Her 10-year-old daughter is having a hard time with the idea.

"She cried the day after the election and reads a lot about the violence in Mexico," said Villalobos, whose DACA permit expires in November. "It's so hard to have this conversation with a 10-year-old — to make her feel that I am strong and comforting and that everything is going to be okay. I don't know if everything is going to be okay."

Karina, a 26-year-old DACA mom who lives in the Orlando area, said she has been preparing her 7-year-old son for the possibility that she might be deported to Mexico one day.

"It's been hard for us to think about," said Karina, who declined to give her last name out of fear of alerting immigration authorities. "I said, 'This man is trying to take the Hispanic community out of the country because he thinks we are bad people.' But I try to keep him calm and tell him that we are going to be okay."

Karina, who also has a 1-year-old son, said she would try to find her children a bilingual school in Mexico if she is deported. That way, they could keep their English skills and return the United States one day if they want to. She's heard that tourist towns on Mexico's Caribbean coast have hospitality jobs for deportees who speak English.

But not everyone would leave the US willingly — the government will have to force many DACA families out of the country. The DACA recipients I spoke to said they would go back underground before they would consider leaving their homes.

Jofrey said she would likely lose her job as an insurance agent, which allowed her to get health insurance and 401(k) benefits for the first time instead of getting paid cash under the table.

"I will probably just go back into the shadows and do the jobs that I used to do before," she said.

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