The mood was bleak as undocumented students, immigration advocates, and politicians gathered Sunday to discuss the uncertain future of the nation’s 740,000 DREAMers whose tenuous legal protections President-elect Donald Trump has promised to undo.
As they considered Trump’s softening stance on immigration and with Congress set to vote on the Bridge Act in 2017, U.S. Reps. Joaquín Castro (D-Texas) and Lloyd Doggett (D-Texas) presented messages that mixed guarded optimism with calls for fierce vigilance and solidarity.
“Predicting what (Trump) will do is a little like predicting the weather in Washington on inauguration day,” Doggett told the crowd of 100 attending the Q&A panel at the University of Texas at San Antonio’s downtown campus. “I can tell you it will be very cold … But whether it is so cold and stormy that it becomes dangerous, I’m not sure.”
Trump has said he would “immediately terminate” President Barack Obama’s executive orders on immigration. Though a successful lawsuit by the State of Texas blocked Obama’s broader 2014 immigration reforms, his Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program has remained a lifeline to young immigrants – known as DREAMers – since its implementation in 2012.
DACA essentially postpones the deportation of undocumented immigrants who entered the country as minors, have clean criminal records, and are in or have graduated high school and offers them a temporary work permit.
For many young San Antonians, the executive order has allowed them to participate in the only country they’ve ever known.
“As a DREAMer, I do thank you,” Narda Martinez, a coordinator with UTSA’s Immigration Youth Leadership Organization, told the crowd. “I’ve taken so many great things, I’ve had so many opportunities since I’ve been a holder of DACA, and I want to do so much more for this city and this country.”
Martinez has lived in the U.S. since she was 6 years old and is studying bilingual education at UTSA. She said those joining the rising tide of anti-immigration animosity – many of whom are themselves near descendants of immigrants – dishonor their own heritage, country, and history.
“All the fight that (their ancestors) went through, it’s like a slap in the face,” she said.
Though Obama justified his use of executive privilege to create DACA by pointing to Congress’ inaction, many Republicans decried the program as an overreach of power and a disregard for the rule of law.
“Presidents do not have the luxury of choosing which laws to enforce and which to discard,” Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) wrote in a news release immediately following DACA’s announcement.
One of Congress’ most vehement opponents of DACA and immigration reform, Sessions said the measure has “almost no enforceable limits and requirements” and would bloat a costly immigration bureaucracy. He also referred to DACA as “backdoor amnesty,” though it does not provide legal status or a path to citizenship.
With Session’s appointment as Trump’s U.S. Attorney General, many DACA recipients fear the new administration will make good on its promise to implement mass deportation, even of historically “low priority” DREAMers.
But Castro pointed to a “glimmer of hope” in Trump’s apparent reversal on his approach to the DREAM Act.
“We’re going to work something out that’s going to make people happy and proud,” Trump told Time magazine. “They got brought here at a very young age, they’ve worked here, they’ve gone to school here. Some were good students. Some have wonderful jobs. And they’re in never-never land because they don’t know what’s going to happen.”
Trump remained vague and still said he would reverse DACA.
Castro also emphasized the potential of a bipartisan bill, the Bridge Act, that would effectively write DACA into law for three years. The bill’s sponsors, Sens. Dick Durban (D-Ill.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), introduced the bill on Friday.
Though Graham proclaimed Obama’s implementation of DACA unconstitutional in a statement Friday, he said he does “not believe we should pull the rug out and push these young men and women — who came out of the shadows and registered with the federal government — back into the darkness.”
House Speaker Paul Ryan voiced a similar sentiment, making Democrats like Castro optimistic that the bill might pass.
“There are kids who came through no fault of their own and find themselves in a legal limbo,” Castro told the Rivard Report. “So there’s bipartisan support to protect them, to make sure that they can stay in what is often the only country that they’ve ever known.”
Those attending the panel included its host, State Rep. Diego Bernal (D-123), Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1), Councilwoman Rebecca Viagran (D3), and Councilman Rey Saldaña (D4).
Participants directed many of their questions at the three immigration experts present: Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF) Regional Counsel Marisa Bono; De Mott, McChesney, Curtright & Armendariz, LLP (DMCA) Partner Marisol Pérez, and Refugee and Immigrant Center for Legal Services (RAICES) Executive Director Jonathan Ryan.
While Bono and Pérez reassured concerned DREAMers of their constitutional rights, Ryan predicted a tidal wave of human rights abuses.
“We are all preparing to be under attack,” he told the DREAMers in the room. “And we stand ready, not just to defend you, but to fight back. And we know how.”
Ryan’s tone mixed a winning mindset with intense frustration in a system whose perpetual inefficacy he believes is intentional.
“When people describe our immigration system as broken,” Ryan told the Rivard Report, “they fail to recognize that for the corporations that built billions of dollars of profits and the politicians that score millions of votes on the casting of aspersions and insults against the immigration community – for them this immigration system is working just fine.”
All three experts underscored the importance for continuing to file for DACA, as this will underline the program’s significance.
University representatives encouraged supporting undocumented students and only permitting federal immigration authorities on campuses when they present a warrant. This practice of creating “sanctuary campuses” has become a hotly debated issue in recent weeks following Gov. Greg Abbott’s promise to cut funding to “sanctuary campuses.”
Bono, however, described this as an “ambitious boogeyman” that is unlikely to have legal backing.
“I don’t know what authority he thinks he has to do what he claims he’s going to do,” she said.
Bono explained that the terms “sanctuary campus” and “sanctuary city” are misleading because all they do is reaffirm the legal fact that universities and local governments have no role in enforcing immigration policy. She emphasized, however, that shying away from this message could be particularly damaging to the central values of inclusivity universities should take.
Ryan added that universities have an opportunity to send a positive message to the Trump administration.
“You have to make them take every single chancellor and every single trustee in America to the table, because they won’t,” Ryan said. “This is a blinking contest.”
Doggett, however, told the Rivard Report he believes Congress and Texas Legislature will pass anti-sanctuary bills.
Many in the crowd voiced frustration with the limitations of resources to even begin understanding the legal landscape. Alba Avila, a fourth-grade teacher at David Crockett Elementary, said her students were terrified by the uncertain situation facing their families and that she felt powerless.
“I had students whose parents were deported, and it’s not even on the checklist for the counselor to check for,” Avila said.
While the broad direction of immigration policy will be up to Trump and his Republican Congress, Treviño and Bernal said it’s the responsibility of local and state officials to help connect people with the information and resources they need to adapt to those changes.
“We’re closest to the issue,” Treviño explained, adding that the City is working on disseminating useful information on the resources available.
Elementary teacher Maria Rocha said it has been painful to watch the country she’s lived in since age 3 go backward, to feel her chances of being more than a second-class member of society evaporate. She said Obama’s announcement of DACA, which fell on her birthday and college graduation party, was the best day in her life.
“I’m going to go against the people who tell us to get in the back of the line. We’ve been in line our whole lives.”