Students

For Students Imperiled by Trump’s DACA Rollback, a Scramble for Answers

September 06, 2017

Courtesy of Alex Ortiz
Alex Ortiz, who came to the United States from Honduras at age 10, works as an admissions recruiter for Southwest Tennessee Community College. "I love what I do," he said, "using my job as a platform for undocumented and minority kids to access higher education."

Jose Guillermo Rivas was immersed in the first day of his internship on Tuesday when news broke that could crush his dream of becoming a high-school guidance counselor.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that the Trump administration was ending the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, provoking different levels of panic among Mr. Rivas and the hundreds of thousands of other so-called Dreamers who face the possibility of deportation over the next few years unless Congress acts.

The Obama-era program gave two-year renewable work permits, driver’s licenses, and protection from immediate deportation to many undocumented immigrants who were brought here illegally when they were children.

As they sifted through news reports about what the gradual phaseout of the DACA program would mean, Dreamers and their supporters shared and updated details on how applications and renewals are likely to be handled.

Those whose work permits will be expiring soon struggled to understand when, and how, they would be laid off from their jobs.

Many rely on that income to pay for college, and some are graduates with young children.

College leaders offered reassurance that they would do everything they could to help frightened students.

Edni del Rosal, a graduate student in electrical engineering at the University of Texas-Rio Grande Valley, was relieved to learn that he’ll be able to renew his permit, which expires on February 28, for another two years. That means he can take the job he has lined up at IBM, starting in January.

Others aren’t as fortunate.

Alex Ortiz, an admissions recruiter for Southwest Tennessee Community College, came to the United States from Honduras when he was 10 and grew up in Tennessee.

"The first thing I did was go online to look at the details," said Mr. Ortiz, 24, whose work permit expires in October 2018. "When I saw that I only have one year left I was shocked and saddened, but also angry."

Among the highlights the students were learning as the government updated its websites: No new DACA applications are being accepted, but the government will consider requests that were filed before Tuesday on a case-by-case basis. Everyone who has DACA protection will be able to keep it until their two-year permits run out. Those whose permits expire before March 5, 2018, can renew them if they can submit their applications, along with a $495 filing fee, by October 5.

When he listened to Mr. Sessions announce that DACA was being rescinded, Mr. Ortiz said his blood boiled. If he loses his job, he’ll also lose his health insurance and be forced to drop out of graduate school.

"The worst part is I love what I do, using my job as a platform for undocumented and minority kids to access higher education."

He said he was also upset at President Trump "for not showing his face and being the one to deliver the news." The attorney general, Mr. Ortiz said, was ignorant of the facts when he referred to Dreamers as "illegal aliens" who were stealing jobs from Americans. "We’re running small businesses, we’re paying taxes, we’re providing for Social Security and those federal Pell Grants that their children will use," Mr. Ortiz said. "We’re contributing to the economy."

He’s worked hard to get to where he is. After despairing of being able to afford any of the colleges that accepted him, he got a full ride at Tougaloo College, a small, historically black college where he repaid the favor by helping recruit several students from Freedom University, an underground college in Georgia for undocumented students.

When he received DACA status in 2013, it allowed him to land positions as a Congressional intern and later as a Spanish teacher and admissions recruiter.

Mr. Ortiz said he was encouraged by the outpouring of support from his colleagues at Southwest Tennessee. The president, Tracy D. Hall, visited him on Wednesday and assured him the college would explore possibilities for keeping him on if the DACA program is rescinded.

"I don’t know what our options are, but what I do know is that it would be devastating if we lost him," Ms. Hall said. "His energy and innovation are huge assets, and he’s helped so many students and their families."

A Chilling Admonition

When the word officially came on Tuesday that the Trump administration was planning to announce an end to the DACA program, Moises Serrano’s undocumented friends were glued to social media. Mr. Serrano, however, was doing his best to disconnect so he could focus on his first day of senior-year classes at Sarah Lawrence College.

"I don’t need any more bad news in my life," he said grimly. "I’m trying to be a student and lead as normal a life as possible."

“I don't need any more bad news in my life. I'm trying to be a student and lead as normal a life as possible.”

Mr. Serrano is the central figure in a recently released documentary film that he co-produced about being undocumented and gay. He declined to say when his DACA permit expires because he doesn’t want that factor to influence potential employers.

The president, he said, "is taking away our ability to survive and thrive, but immigrants will always find a way." Meanwhile, confusing signals from the Trump administration continued with a chilling admonition to Dreamers to "prepare for and arrange their departure from the United States."

That advice came in a "talking points" memo distributed on Capitol Hill on Tuesday by the Trump administration and obtained by CNN and ABC News.

"The Department of Homeland Security urges DACA recipients to use the time remaining on their work authorizations to prepare for and arrange their departure from the United States — including proactively seeking travel documentation — or to apply for other immigration benefits for which they may be eligible," the document states.

The thought of going to Honduras — for a time referred to as "the murder capital of the world" and a place he has little recollection of — terrified Mr. Ortiz.

But by Tuesday evening, the president was tweeting his support for continuing DACA (as long as Congress was on the hook for it) and promising to "revisit" the issue if Congress fails to act.

Mr. Trump joined a flood of players pressuring Congress to push DACA to the forefront of an already-packed fall agenda. Sixty-four higher-education advocacy groups issued a statement on Wednesday urging lawmakers to pass the Dream Act, one of several bills pending that would protect students currently covered by DACA.

Over the life of the program, about 800,000 undocumented people have benefited from DACA, and currently, about 690,000 people have valid permits.

Ninety-seven percent of the beneficiaries are pursuing education or working. One fifth are in college, a third are in high school, and 5 percent have completed bachelor’s degrees, the higher-education groups noted.

"They are just as deserving of opportunities to access higher education as all other students," the statement reads. "It is immoral for us as a country to turn our back on these individuals, many of whom have never known any country but the United States.

Also on Wednesday, New York’s attorney general, Eric T. Schneiderman, a Democrat, led a coalition of 16 attorneys general in suing to try to protect Dreamers.

The lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York, argues that the DACA rescission discriminates against Dreamers of Mexican origin, who make up 78 percent of DACA recipients. It also argues that the move violates due-process rights and hurts the states’ residents, institutions, and economies.

"As President Trump’s statements about Mexico and those with Mexican roots show," the attorneys general wrote, "the President has demonstrated a willingness to disparage Mexicans in a misguided attempt to secure support from his constituency, even when such impulses are impermissible motives for directing governmental policy."

Mr. Rivas, a graduate student in counseling at the University of Wyoming, said his work permit would expire in January 2019. "I don’t know what the future holds. At this point, everything is uncertain," said the 27-year-old, who was brought to Wyoming from Mexico when he was 6. "I’m a counselor in training, and without work authorization, I don’t think I’ll be able to extend or renew my license," he said. "It’s just overwhelming trying to figure out where I go from here."

Katherine Mangan writes about community colleges, completion efforts, and job training, as well as other topics in daily news. Follow her on Twitter @KatherineMangan, or email her at katherine.mangan@chronicle.com.