HOUSTON (CN) — Supporters of a policy that has shielded 800,000 immigrants from deportation rallied at the White House and in Austin on Tuesday, as pressure mounts on the Trump administration to rescind the policy or face a lawsuit from Texas.
Tuesday was the five-year anniversary of the day the government began taking applications for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, 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.
Karla Perez, a board member of the Houston affiliate of Washington-based nonprofit United We Dream, received DACA protection in November 2012.
Perez said in an interview that DACA has allowed her to pursue her dream of becoming an immigration attorney and helping battered women and children. She is set to graduate with a law degree from the University of Houston in May 2018.
She has renewed her DACA status more than once, and it’s set to expire in autumn 2018.
But only if the Trump administration caves to pressure from Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton and officials from nine other Republican-led states, who sent Trump a letter on June 29, promising to sue the government if Trump does not rescind DACA by Sept. 5 and phase out the program by not renewing the lawful status of so-called Dreamers.
Around 100 DACA supporters rallied at the state Capitol in Austin on Tuesday. Some linked arms and blocked the entrance to Paxton’s office building while chanting, “Paxton has got to go.”
More than 200,000 DACA applications have been approved for Texas residents, second only to Californians. Despite the program’s success stories, Paxton says he believes President Barack Obama established DACA illegally.
“More people have been able to get better jobs and with that the ability to contribute more to our local economies,” she said. “People have been able to buy their first homes and certainly being able to have a driver’s license or state ID opens up more employment possibilities. … By having DACA I know of friends who have been able to support their parents and support their siblings.”
During the presidential election campaign, Trump often appeared with family members of people murdered by undocumented immigrants and promised to deport all the estimated 11 million in the United States, leading DACA supporters to believe he would kill the program.
But he expressed empathy for Dreamers at a press conference early this year.
“We’re going to show great heart. DACA is a very, very difficult subject for me, I will tell you. To me, it’s one of the most difficult subjects I have, because you have these incredible kids, in many cases, not in all cases. In some of the cases they’re having DACA and they’re gang members and they’re drug dealers too,” he said at a White House news conference in February.
Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly, who has since been moved to White House chief of staff, announced in June the end to a program inspired by DACA that would have shielded parents of U.S. citizens and residents from deportation and let them apply for work permits.
But the administration left DACA in place and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services is still accepting applications.
A DHS spokeswoman told Courthouse News on Tuesday that the administration has yet to make a decision on DACA.
“DHS stance remains the same: the future of the DACA program continues to be under review with the administration. The president has remarked on the need to handle DACA with compassion and with heart. … Should a court or the Congress seek to modify the program, DHS is well tested for reacting to legal guidance and would quickly and professionally make changes to the program in the least impactful manner possible for recipients,” DHS spokeswoman Joanne Talbot said.
U.S. District Judge Andrew Hanen issued an injunction in February 2015 in Brownsville, blocking an expanded version of DACA and Deferred Action for Parents of Americans, or DAPA, two directives Obama unveiled in November 2014, after a Texas-led coalition of 26 states sued.
The Fifth Circuit upheld Hanen’s injunction. A 4-4 split at the Supreme Court in June 2016 left the order in place, dashing the hopes of more than 3 million parents who qualified for DAPA.
The case has been stayed in Hanen’s court, but Paxton said he would revive it with an amended complaint if Trump does not do away with DACA.
Attorneys general from Arkansas, South Carolina, West Virginia, Tennessee, Kansas, Louisiana, Alabama, Nebraska and Idaho’s governor signed on to Paxton’s ultimatum.
University of Houston law professor Michael A. Olivas and 104 of his peers from universities across the country sent an open letter to Trump on Monday, stating that DACA is a partial solution to the government’s lack of resources to deport all the paperless immigrants in the United States.
“In our view, there is no question that DACA 2012 is a lawful exercise of prosecutorial discretion,” the letter states.
The professors say the Constitution grants the president the right to grant “deferred action,” a form of prosecutorial discretion, to categories of people such as crime victims, and that presidents have been using it for decades to shield immigrants from deportation.
President George W. Bush’s administration, for instance, started a deferred action program for students uprooted by Hurricane Katrina and for widows of U.S. citizens.
Olivas told Courthouse News he believes Hanen misinterpreted the law when he blocked the 2014 policy directives, but that case has not reached the merits of the 2012 DACA memo.
“He has tipped his hand, and I do not expect him to be any more fair or scholarly in this round,” Olivas said of Hanen, who was appointed by President George W. Bush. “But the pending challenges by Paxton and other GOP AGs are political, not legal. DACA is a lawful use of prosecutorial discretion.”
Olivas said the only case to challenge the original DACA memo was brought by a group of Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents and Mississippi.
The ICE agents claimed DACA forced them to violate their obligation to detain any undocumented immigrants they encountered. Mississippi said it would cost the state $25 million in health care, education and law enforcement.
The Fifth Circuit upheld dismissal of that lawsuit in April 2015, finding the ICE agents and Mississippi lacked standing.
Houston immigration attorney Laura Patricia Fernandez has given legal advice to more than 100 Dreamers. She cited an April report from the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy that estimated Dreamers pay $2 billion each year in state and local taxes.
“These young adults have also been screened for criminal records and were educated in U.S. schools. Also, many DACA recipients are members of mixed families, composed of U.S. citizen and lawful permanent resident family members and undocumented family members,” Fernandez said in an email.
Both Fernandez and Perez, the University of Houston law student, said that even if the courts block DACA they will keep fighting to keep the policy alive.
Perez said the uncertainty of DACA’s future since Trump took office has caused fear and anxiety for herself, fellow Dreamers and immigrants, but it has also strengthened their resolve.
“It’s given us a conviction and sense of determination to do everything that we can to keep DACA in place,” she said.
(Photo shows Ellis Island in New York, gateway to the United States for generations of immigrants.)