HOUSTON (CN) – President Donald Trump’s executive orders have paralyzed Latino immigrants with fear as they wait to see what he will sign next, and immigration attorneys expect him to phase out a program that has shielded more than 750,000 people from deportation.
César Espinosa, a baby-faced 31-year-old who came to the United States with his family at age 6, is a model citizen. After graduating with honors in 2004 from one of Houston’s top public high schools, he was accepted by Harvard University and other Ivy League schools.
“But when I tried to go, there was really no hope for me,” Espinosa told Courthouse News, citing his undocumented status.
Though he couldn’t attend Harvard, Espinosa, whose family has a history of political activism and community organizing, found plenty to do in his hometown of Houston.
He became a day-labor organizer, obtained a degree in political science and Mexican-American studies from the University of Houston, and in 2007 he co-founded FIEL Houston Inc., a student-run nonprofit that educates immigrants about how to legalize their status, apply to college and get financial aid.
Espinosa’s constant fear of deportation was eased in 2012 when he qualified for Deferred Action for Early Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, a program former President Barack Obama started that year, under which undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children can be protected from deportation and get federal work permits for renewable two-year terms. People in the program are called “Dreamers.”
“For me it’s changed my life in the sense that I’ve been able to get a driver’s license because I drive a lot here in Texas and in Houston. So just the simple act of being able to have an identifying document really meant a big deal for me and my family,” Espinosa said in an interview.
But with a new president in office who campaigned on a promise to deport undocumented immigrants – and signed an executive order that blocked and turned back some refugees trying to enter the country at airports before federal courts enjoined the order – Espinosa and other Latino immigrants fear what he has in store for them.
“Not only am I fearful for myself, but FIEL services a large community here in Houston, we have a membership of over 7,000, and we hear it every single day when folks come into the office and they’re calling us and they’re very fearful of what could happen next,” Espinosa said.
Though Trump’s travel ban explicitly tried to block refugees from six Middle Eastern countries and Somalia, reports that permanent residents from the seven named countries and others have been detained by federal immigration authorities and questioned at airports have made Latino legal residents hesitant to travel abroad and motivated them to apply for U.S. citizenship, according to two Houston immigration attorneys.
“I’ve recommended people who are lawful permanent residents and have a criminal history or a pending criminal case, even if it’s minor, do not travel as a resident,” attorney Laura Patricia Fernandez said.
Fernandez said she’s told clients who have a clean criminal record and are permanent legal residents, like green card holders, that it’s okay for them to travel abroad.
She said Trump’s presidency has made her job busier and more frustrating “because there’s a lot of misinformation out there” and “nobody can predict what Donald Trump will do.”
“I’ve actually received a lot of calls recently from people who are interested in naturalizing and people who have had their residency since the 1980s, since the last amnesty that passed 30 years ago,” she said in an interview. “There are a lot of people who have never naturalized for whatever reason, I guess they never thought they would be affected, now they’re interested in naturalizing.”
Despite his reputation as the patron saint of conservative Republicans – who are typically opposed to a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, which they deride as amnesty – former President Ronald Reagan signed a law in 1986 that made anyone who entered the country before 1982 eligible for amnesty.
The federal government is currently still accepting new and renewal DACA applications because Obama extended the application window before he left office last month.
Both Fernandez and her fellow Houston immigration attorney Ruby Powers said they expect Trump to phase out the program, meaning Dreamers who renewed or obtained DACA status in January would see their federal work permits expire in January 2019, exposing them to the specter of deportation.
“DACA has benefited more than 750,000 people and that’s going to have a severe economic impact for businesses, for communities because some people have taken out mortgages, they’re the bread winners, they are at universities,” Fernandez said.
But Ira Mehlman, a spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, said the program was illegal from day one.
“Our view is that DACA was an unconstitutional program to begin with. President Obama never really had the authority to implement it. It was just never challenged in the courts so it was allowed to stand,” he said in an interview.
Obama tried to expand DACA by getting rid of age limits for applicants with an executive order he signed in November 2014 that also created Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Residents, also called DAPA, a family-unity program designed to shield parents whose children have lawful status from being deported.
A federal court granted Texas and 25 other Republican-led states who sued the federal government over the programs an injunction against expanding DACA and DAPA in February 2015 that was upheld by default with a 4-4 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court in June 2016.
Mehlman conceded that Dreamers will no longer be protected once the program is phased out, which he also expects Trump to do, but said he doesn’t think they will be targeted by immigration authorities.
“It doesn’t mean that they are going to be deported. It just means that they’re back in the same status that they had prior to the establishment of DACA and Trump has said that he will consider options for people who have DACA sometime down the road,” Mehlman said.
Trump has reportedly said Dreamers shouldn’t be worried because he has a “big heart.”
But on Jan. 25, Vox.com posted a draft memo it said it obtained from an unnamed White House source – who the site said had also given it a draft of Trump’s executive order establishing the refugee travel ban that later checked out as authentic – about Trump’s plans to repeal DACA and DAPA.
The unsigned draft states: “This Executive Order fulfills several key campaign promises related to immigration by, among other things: (1) rescinding the DAPA program entirely, which is currently subject to a federal court injunction; (2) ceasing the processing of new DACA applicants, and allowing current recipients to retain their work permits until they expire at some point in the next two years.”
Advocates often claim undocumented immigrants benefit the economy and that farmers, motel and hotel owners and restaurant operators couldn’t function without them to pick and plant their crops, clean their rooms, cook their food and do their dishes.
But Mehlman, whose nonprofit employer advocates for a reduction in immigration to the United States, disputes that.
“What these employers have done is create self-fulfilling prophecies that if you offer poor wages and poor working conditions, then only illegal aliens show up to take the jobs, then you say, ‘Oh you see only illegal aliens will do it.’ And that’s not true,” he said. “Virtually all the jobs that are being done by illegal aliens today, were not too long ago done by American workers, usually for higher wages and under better working conditions and they would be again. The economy adjusted to their presence, it would adjust just the same to their absence.”
Nonetheless, Espinosa and others are hopeful that Congress will act if Trump decides to do away with DACA, and there’s already a bipartisan stopgap measure in the works.
U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., reintroduced The Bar Removal of Individuals Who Dream and Grow Our Economy Act, or Bridge Act, last month, which would shield DACA recipients and eligible applicants from deportation for three years, while Congress, in theory, works on comprehensive immigration reform.
A companion bill has been introduced in the House of Representatives. The Bridge Act was first proposed in late 2016.
“It’s definitely something we can get behind and support,” Espinosa said about the Act.
Espinosa said the only members of his immediate family still in Mexico are his grandparents, who live in Mexico City, and Mexico would feel foreign to him.
“It would be very strange. I’ve lived my whole life here. I’ve studied here. I have a large community and a large friend base here. So it would be very difficult to start over in a place I don’t really know,” he said.