DACA Immigrants Here Fear Upheaval

Advocate calls recipients ‘the best of us’

With tears in her eyes at the thought of having to leave her parents and her three younger siblings, a young, soft-spoken 23-year-old woman quietly explained that her dreams were not very different from those of her fellow millennials, regardless of legal status.

“I just want to stay here and make a future, help my family, own a house, and have a full-time job,” she said. One of the 800,000 recipients of the federal program known as DACA, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, she said it had made those dreams seem possible. Now she is not so sure. 

The thought of living separately from her parents is particularly painful for Anna, who asked that her real name not be used. As a child, she had already lived without them for nearly nine years. 

Anna explained that her parents had left her when she was very young with a grandmother in Mexico when they came to the United States. They kept in contact by phone as she grew up, but she did not see them again until she was 9. That is when her father made it back to Puebla, and then walked across the border with her. It is a journey she remembers. “We had to walk for days,” she said, adding they had to leave some people behind. “My parents wanted a different future for me,” she said. 

When Anna arrived at her parents’ house in Bridgehampton, she met her baby sister for the first time. Her parents promised, “We’re never going to separate again,” she said.

  Now, however, they may not be able to keep their promise. President Trump’s administration announced last week that DACA would end in six months, overturning President Barack Obama’s signature immigration policy. Three-quarters of a million young immigrants stand to lose protection from deportation. The Trump administration gave Congress a six-month window to act before DACA recipients lose their ability to work and study in the United States. 

Anna started the fourth grade at the Bridgehampton School, speaking “not one word” of English. Thanks to her “amazing” English as a second language teachers, she learned the language and excelled in school, making the honor roll. It was never a question of whether she would go to college. “My father always told me, ‘You’re going.’ ” 

When DACA began in 2012, friends and teachers encouraged her to apply for it, which she did with the help of an immigration attorney. She was accepted within a month or so. 

She then won a full scholarship to Ithaca College through the Soledad O’Brien’s PowHERful Foundation and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Spanish and Latin American studies. She is trying to find work as a translator, using her skills to help ensure the rights of those who do not speak the language.

Upon hearing the news that DACA would be repealed, she said she cried. “Mexico is a strange place to me. I haven’t been there in years,” she said. “This is my home now.” 

For Daniel Hartnett, a bilingual school social worker who has worked in education for 40 years and helped facilitate 250 DACA applications over the program’s five years, the attorney general’s announcement that DACA would be ended was devastating. “Yesterday was crushing,” he said the next day.

 While the announcement was not a total surprise, since the president had campaigned on it, he had also sent mixed signals during the last few months, Mr. Hartnett said. He called ending DACA “a national disgrace.”

The exact number of DACA recipients, who are sometimes known as Dreamers, on the South Fork is not known, Minerva Perez, the executive director of Organizacion Latino-Americana of Eastern Long Island, said. “I know it’s significant,” she said, adding that there had been “just a tremendous amount of fear and upheaval and depression” since the announcement.

The DACA applicants that Mr. Harnett helped grew up between Southampton and Montauk. The majority are Ecuadorians, Colombians, and Mexicans, he said, but others are from Haiti, Jamaica, and even Russia. The oldest is now 35, the youngest is 19. 

He has known some DACA recipients since they were in kindergarten. “I know a girl who was 4 months old, carried over the border by her mother. She knows no other country than the United States,” he said. A few young immigrants had not understood their legal status before DACA, only to find out when they tried to get a learner’s permit for a driver’s license. He recalled hearing some say, “What do you mean I can’t drive?” DACA made them legally able to drive and work. 

A large number of DACA recipients have gone on to successfully complete college. According to a recent survey of immigrants protected by DACA, 97 percent of the respondents are currently working or in school. “I have DACA kids that I have counseled who are in law school, who are pursuing doctoral programs in science and certainly undergraduate students,” Mr. Hartnett said. “What demographic in this country has this type of result?” 

Part of the reason for their success is that in order to receive the benefit, they were highly vetted, Mr. Hartnett said. They are “highly qualified, highly responsible, highly motivated” individuals. “These are the best of us. This is what you hope your kids become.” 

He said he had advised those he did not think would receive DACA status against filing for it. Under the program, applicants had to provide the federal government with identifying information that exposes their status, he said. 

Following the Sept. 5 announcement, he heard from many of those he counseled. “They’ve been expressing to me enormous fear and anxiety. All I can say is we are going to stand with you. You have a lot of friends who are going to work and get to Congress and really be aggressive with our congressional representatives and solve this.”

His recommendation for those who agree with his beliefs is that they should contact Representative Lee Zeldin and New York’s two senators. 

In a statement last week, Mr. Zeldin said that if the Obama administration wanted to implement the DACA program, it should have made the case with Congress. 

“I support legal immigration. I oppose illegal immigration. If you want to come to American and pursue the American dream, follow the rules,” he said. “It is great to pursue the American dream and to consider yourself a ‘Dreamer’ and everyone in the United States legally should consider themselves ‘Dreamers,’ but you have to follow our laws. Period. We should not reward or excuse criminal behavior.”

New York State Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and the state attorney general, Eric T. Schneiderman, have said the state will sue to protect DACA recipients. “Ending this policy represents an assault on the values that built this state and this nation. The president’s action would upend the lives of hundreds of thousands of young people who have only ever called America their home, including roughly 42,000 New Yorkers,” Governor Cuomo said. “It will rip families apart, sow havoc in our communities, and force innocent people — our neighbors, our friends, and our relatives — to live in fear.” 

Meanwhile, Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr. said DACA boosted the economy and that the need has never been greater for Congress to work to pass comprehensive immigration reform. “Doing away with the program is not only morally wrong, but economically irresponsible. These young people pay taxes, purchase homes, start businesses, and create jobs,” he said. “They are Americans; this is their home, and we must not turn our backs on them.”

While nervous, Anna said she remains hopeful that something will be done. “I’m going to keep fighting until a new law is passed that is going to protect us and allow us to achieve our dreams.”