Manuel Bartsch’s first child is due in February. He and his wife have already picked out a name: Mason David Bartsch.
But Manuel can’t plan that far ahead yet.
“My wife asks me that every day, ‘What do you think’s gonna happen?’” he says. “And personally, I don’t know.”
Between now and the birth of his son is the day that Donald Trump will be inaugurated as the 45th president of the United States, and the day that he’s pledged to revoke executive actions taken by Barack Obama that he finds “unconstitutional.”
Bartsch and 740,000 other people — not to mention their families, friends, and employers — have enjoyed protection from the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program for the past four years. On January 20, if President-elect Trump wishes, that could be among the “unconstitutional” actions that are simply disappeared.
Bartsch could lose his job liquidating grocery stores. He could be banned from finding another job legally. And trying to work under the table to support his family — much less driving to work — could make him an easy target for deportation. Or President Trump could allow the program to sunset gently, buying Bartsch a couple more years.
Immigrants around the US are terrified by the threat of a Trump administration. Trump may “only” succeed in deporting 2 to 3 million people, as he’s promised, but if every unauthorized immigrant in the US is vulnerable to deportation, that’s still a high chance for a lot of people. For many people living in the US, that makes it impossible to make plans — and difficult to escape from a net of constant fear.
“Some folks are packing up their bags to leave, some folks are very depressed,” says immigration advocate (and DACA recipient) Julian Gomez. “I heard from someone whose father is detained who’s telling his daughter that people in the detention center were having suicidal thoughts.”
Not all of them are DACA recipients. But for those who are, the state of fear is a vertiginous shift from the relative stability of the past few years, which have allowed many of them to get degrees, jobs, and peace of mind. And other immigrants are looking to the fate of DACA recipients as a canary in the coal mine — to see just how much worse even than the first term of President Obama’s administration a Trump administration would be.
What Trump wants to do with immigrants Obama protected isn’t yet clear — which makes the future even scarier
The Trump team’s plan for its first 100 days in office promises to “cancel every unconstitutional executive action, memorandum and order issued by President Obama.” But it hasn’t yet provided a list of which Obama actions that includes.
Trump’s campaign website, however, specifically singles out the DACA program (as well as the Obama administration’s abortive attempt to expand deferred action for millions more immigrants in 2014) as an “illegal executive amnesty” — and says it will be “immediately” terminated.
The DACA program (unlike the 2014 deferred-action proposals) didn’t get all that much criticism from Republicans in Congress when it was implemented, because it protects people who entered the US as children or young teens and have lived here for years — people who many Americans tend to agree should be allowed to stay in the country.
Since the election, the Trump transition team has started stressing it’s going to target “criminals.” Stripping protections from hundreds of thousands of young adults with American roots and college degrees — thus leaving them vulnerable to deportation — might draw unwanted attention to a violation of that priority.
The problem is that no one really knows. It’s not entirely clear that the Trump transition team is taking promises made by the Trump campaign all that seriously. It’s possible that President Trump won’t end DACA on his first day in office.
He could quietly order immigration agents to stop approving new applications for deferred action, or renewals for people who already have it — sunsetting the program over the course of two years without much fanfare. (That’s what Roy Beck, the executive director of immigration-restriction advocacy group NumbersUSA, is pushing for — to give immigrants “time to plan.”)
Or he could flip-flop and not end DACA at all.
For the people enrolled in DACA, the uncertainty makes it impossible to plan the next steps in their lives.
“There are a lot of specific legal questions being asked,” says Gomez, who coordinates campus outreach for the advocacy group Define American. “Like, ‘I bought a house with DACA, does that mean I’m going to lose my house?’ What to say to folks who say ‘hey, am I going to be deported?’ There’s a lot of questions we can’t answer right now.”
Did DACA recipients make themselves sitting ducks for Trump’s coming deportations?
When the Obama administration first rolled out DACA in 2012, it occasionally struggled to persuade immigrants that it was safe to apply. After all, the federal government had been tracking down and deporting their neighbors and relatives for years; why would they suddenly trust the federal government enough to turn over information about where they lived, where they worked, and even what their fingerprints looked like?
The administration solved this by putting strict confidentiality restrictions in place, so that the agencies responsible for apprehending and deporting immigrants couldn’t access the data of people who’d signed up for DACA. But just as President Trump isn’t bound by law to continue the program, he’s not bound to maintain those confidentiality requirements either.
In the worst-case scenario, immigration agents could deliberately go after DACA recipients first — after all, they would know where to find them. That’s a serious enough concern that lawyers are advising their clients that, if they’re eligible for DACA but haven’t already applied, they shouldn’t apply now.
“I think it's very unlikely that President Trump would email his new ICE director a list from USCIS and say here are your targets,” says Jessica Vaughan of the Center for Immigration Studies (which advocates for stricter enforcement of immigration laws). “It's extremely unlikely that people would be targeted for deportation just because they received DACA, without other factors that would make them a priority for enforcement.”
What Vaughan finds more likely, though, is that the confidentiality restrictions on DACA recipients’ data will be relaxed so that other agencies — federal and local — can use it to conduct other investigations.
“If there's an open investigation for some criminal activity, and a detective is told by an informant 'this person is living with their sibling who has deferred action’ — right now, that detective could not get that address from USCIS,” she says. “But I think there's potential, and I hope that they will relax some of those confidentiality provisions.”
If you’re not protected from deportation, you’re vulnerable to it
Donald Trump and allies say that their priority will be deporting “criminal illegal immigrants.” President Obama, throughout his time in the White House, has said something similar.
But Obama has learned the hard way that just saying you want to focus on deporting “criminals” doesn’t keep immigrants without criminal records from getting deported too. Nor does instructing agents to focus on certain types of immigrants, and to treat others — like young unauthorized immigrants, or parents of US citizens — as “low priorities.”
The reason that President Obama implemented DACA was that, despite saying he didn’t want to deport (and wasn’t deporting) young unauthorized immigrants with college degrees, those people were still being deported when immigration agents or local law enforcement apprehended them. Allowing immigrants to apply proactively for protection was the only way to make sure that they did not, in fact, get deported.
That’s because the people actually empowered to arrest and deport immigrants don’t agree with the idea that certain immigrants should be less of a “priority.” Many federal immigration agents feel strongly that anyone who has violated immigration law ought to be subject to deportation, and that the Obama administration has created de facto “open borders” by dictating otherwise.
Many local law enforcement agents, too, have taken an enthusiastic role in helping apprehend unauthorized immigrants, whether it’s by taking part in federal-local “task forces” (which Trump is likely to reinstate) or changing their policing strategies to maximize the chances they’ll arrest and book an unauthorized immigrant so ICE can take him away.
And the line between “criminals” and DACA recipients will blur significantly without official protection, because the most likely way that the Trump administration will be able to apprehend 2 to 3 million “criminal illegal immigrants” is to call them criminals for being “illegal.”
Many states don’t allow most unauthorized immigrants to get drivers’ licenses, but allow people with deferred action, including DACA recipients, to get them. Lose DACA, and they’d lose the ability to drive legally.
Instead, they’d face a choice — not driving or breaking the law — that often doesn’t feel like a choice at all.
Gomez knows a friend who, before receiving DACA, had to drive their father to the hospital for chemotherapy. “If they had gotten stopped, they would have been a criminal,” he points out. “They were undocumented. But they were not going to not drive their father to the hospital, who has cancer.”
Bartsch puts it more simply: “People will go to extreme lengths to provide for their family.”
DACA recipients don’t need to be deported to have their lives destroyed
Most DACA recipients are better qualified than many other unauthorized immigrants to fight their deportations if ICE tries to deport them. Julian Gomez says that “most of my anxiety comes from what’s going to happen to everyone else” — people who haven’t been in the US for as long, don’t have the same English skills, can’t make the money that DACA recipients have been able to make by working legally and therefore are less likely to be able to pay lawyers.
“To have had DACA” — he catches himself — “or, to have DACA, I’m already talking in the past tense, is very privileged for me.” It allowed him to get a degree at a four-year college (he transferred from community college after getting deferred action). It allowed him to take a full-time job.
But privilege only goes so far. Gomez and other DACA recipients remember all too well the constant fear that deportation is possible. Gomez learned it growing up, when the home across the street from his family’s got raided in the middle of the night: “We didn’t even know they were undocumented — their house was raided, they were all detained and deported, except for their daughter who happened to not be at the house at the time.
“I think that was the moment where it felt more real, because literally they lived right in front of us and I felt, ‘okay, that could have been me.’”
DACA removed that fear temporarily. Losing DACA could restore it.
That’s exactly the point of revoking DACA. Opponents of the program feel that it’s inappropriate to protect someone who’s broken the law from the consequences of breaking it, and that deportation is the consequence of violating immigration laws. “Anyone who enters the U.S. illegally is subject to deportation,” Trump’s campaign website says. “That is what it means to have laws and to have a country.”
Right now, DACA still offers some protection from that. But even just knowing that DACA could be revoked is making it impossible to plan ahead more than a few weeks.
Gomez’s parents are waiting for their applications for citizenship to be approved so they can petition for him to immigrate legally; he’s crossing his fingers that that happens before January 20, but is realizing he might need to make other plans. Bartsch is trying to save as much money as possible while he’s still employed, in case he loses his job before his son is born. (Some employers of “DACAmented” immigrants, meanwhile, are already drafting up termination notices — on the logic that if Trump forces their employees to lose their jobs, they can at least get severance from being fired.)
Others aren’t so resilient. “People are talking about this as a future problem, ‘in January if this happens,’ but people are already packing their bags and self-deporting,” says Gomez. “People are already doing these things because they feel they don’t have hope.”
This, too, is in line with what DACA opponents want. The goal of a strict immigration enforcement regime, ultimately, is that the government doesn’t have to deport everyone to reduce the unauthorized immigrant population — and that if people decide to leave on their own, that’s a victory for enforcement.
But the problem with self-deportation is that the government doesn’t get to decide who gets to stay and who gets to leave. When everyone is equally vulnerable to deportation — even the people the president-elect says aren’t being targeted — everyone has a reason to give up.
“I wouldn’t say people are afraid,” says Gomez, before semi-ironically referencing a movement slogan: “We’re, you know, ‘undocumented and unafraid.’ But we’re…” and then he pauses for a long time.
“I don’t really know. We are … cautious?” Another pause.
“Organizing,” he decides. “We believe in our ability to fight this.” But it took him a while to get there.