Just two days after Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the Trump administration’s intent to kill DACA, the program that shields nearly 800,000 young undocumented immigrants from deportation, the president tried to reassure Dreamers that everything is fine.
“You have nothing to worry about,” Trump tweeted Thursday morning, adding that there will be “no action” for the next six months while he waits for Congress to react to his plan.
What Trump failed to mention is that immigration agents have been targeting Dreamers and eroding the protections afforded by DACA since the day he took office. VICE News reported in May that DACA revocations surged by 25 percent in the first three months of Trump’s presidency, and at least 43 people who once had DACA status have been deported on his watch. That number likely increased in the months since, but an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) spokesperson said statistics are only available through March.
The cases of Dreamers who had and lost DACA reveal what could be in store for tens of thousands of others if Congress fails to act soon. VICE News spoke with a 29-year-old woman whose DACA renewal was denied under Trump, and with the attorney for a young Seattle man who was detained during an ICE raid despite having DACA status. In each instance, the Dreamers were subsequently sucked into the Kafkaesque immigration detention and court systems. Both now face deportation.
Jessica Colotl first sensed trouble in the spring, a few months after she applied to renew DACA. She’d already qualified for the program twice before and assumed her renewal would be a formality. After weeks of agonizing and waiting for an update, she learned on May 2 that U.S. Customs and Immigration Services had denied her application with no explanation.
“You don’t know what’s going to happen — you don’t know if once you get home, ICE will show up at your house and try to detain you.”
“I honestly thought it was a glitch in the system, because nothing in my case had changed,” Colotl said. “I was in complete disbelief. I couldn’t make sense of what had happened.”
Colotl is a poster child for DACA. She came to the U.S. from Mexico with her family when she was 11, graduated from college, and now works in Georgia as a paralegal with ambitions to become an attorney. She pays taxes, goes to church, and does community service. All of that was upended when DACA went away. She lost her work permit, and avoided going out to minimize the chances of an encounter with authorities.
“It basically paralyzed my life,” she said. “I had to stop working. I had to stop driving. I had to live in fear once again. You don’t know what’s going to happen — you don’t know if once you get home, ICE will show up at your house and try to detain you.”
It was only after filing a lawsuit to challenge the denial of her DACA renewal that Colotl learned what happened: Homeland Security claimed she had a felony conviction on her record for making a false statement to police. Michael Tan, her attorney from the ACLU, calls this allegation “totally bogus.” Colotl was charged in 2010 with driving without a license, and she eventually pleaded guilty to the misdemeanor. (Prior to DACA, it was impossible for her to obtain a driver’s license in Georgia.) She says the felony false statement charge was the result of a misunderstanding during the encounter, and it was ultimately dismissed.
Colotl won an injunction that temporarily restored her DACA and her work permit, but the government has stated that her renewal application for the program could still be denied. The justification is a memorandum issued in February by John Kelly, the former Homeland Security secretary who is now Trump’s chief of staff. The memo says anyone in the country illegally is now considered a priority for deportation, especially if they’ve had any sort of encounter with the criminal justice system.
“This administration has told [immigration] agents that the gloves are off and they have free rein to go after people they want to go after,” Tan said. “That means Dreamers and folks who had some measure of security under the prior administration are now potentially vulnerable in a way they weren’t before.”
In a statement Thursday to VICE News, an ICE official said that “absent any law enforcement interests, the department will generally not take actions to remove active DACA beneficiaries.” The statement said the agency’s priority targets are “criminal aliens, illegal reentrants (in other words, persons who have been previously removed and illegally reentered the country), and those persons with outstanding orders of removal.”
“DACA’s demise seems to be the next logical step from the quickly eroding status that DACA had under Trump.”
“There is no plan at this time to target persons outside of those parameters,” the statement said, “and if we encounter persons whose DACA remains in effect during our enforcement operations, then the DACA will still be assessed as we have done historically.”
ICE also tried to allay concerns that information provided by Dreamers during the DACA application process would not be used to track them down if the program ends, stating that would only occur when there’s “a significant law enforcement or national security interest.”
Still, The vulnerability of Dreamers under Trump is especially evident in the case of Daniel Ramirez Medina. Despite offering proof of his DACA status, the 23-year-old Ramirez, who came to the U.S. from Mexico when he was 7, was detained in February when ICE agents came looking for his father at their house in Washington state. Although he has no criminal record, Ramirez was labeled “a risk to public safety,” accused of being affiliated with a gang, and locked up for more than a month. His case is still pending, and he faces deportation.
While the circumstances in Ramirez’s case are unique, his attorney, Luis Cortes, has noticed an uptick of cases in immigration court where Dreamers have had their DACA status revoked for merely being charged with petty offenses, or for being in the wrong place at the wrong time when immigration agents or police showed up. He was distraught by the announcement Tuesday about DACA’s imminent repeal, but he said it came as no surprise.
“DACA’s demise seems to be the next logical step from the quickly eroding status that DACA had under Trump,” Cortes said, adding that he doesn’t expect Trump to intervene and help Dreamers if Congress fails to act. “If it’s one of his negotiating tools, it exposes how inhumanely he really sees this issue. I have no faith he’s going to quote unquote do the right thing. He hasn’t shown that in any of his actions toward DACA.”
Colotl is more hopeful. She expects federal lawmakers to pass either the DREAM Act, a comprehensive immigration reform package, or the Bridge Act, which would temporarily reinstate DACA. House Speaker Paul Ryan has told Dreamers to “rest easy” and promised to take action before Trump’s six-month deadline expires. Either way, Colotl has a fight ahead of her. While her legal fight over DACA plays out, she’s also in “removal proceedings” in immigration court, which means she could be deported.
“Just because DACA went away doesn’t mean I’m going away,” Colotl said. “This is my country. This is where I grew up. I have no intentions of giving up. I’ve accomplished too much. I’m not going to let it go easily.”