In the wake of Donald Trump’s victory, undocumented immigrants who arrived in the U.S. as children are thinking twice before applying to a program President Obama started as a way for them to achieve temporary protection: Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, also known as DACA.
The program, an executive action from 2012, offers applicants the opportunity to legally work, apply for a social security number, get a drivers’ license, and travel to and from the country. Only those who entered the U.S. before the age of 16 and had not turned 31 before Obama created the policy can apply for the two-year status with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
President-elect Trump has pledged to “immediately terminate” DACA, in addition to promising to cancel, on his first day in the White House, “every unconstitutional executive action” made by Obama. And Trump’s intended attorney general, Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions, has tried to block and restrict the program multiple times on the floor.
Whether Trump will make good on his promise, and exactly how, remains unclear, especially for the 741,546 approved for the program. They call themselves the “DACAmented.” Then, there’s roughly another 750,000 eligible to apply. Between October and December of last year, 45,576 DACA applications were accepted, 16,336 of them initial and 29,240 renewal, according to Citizenship and Immigration Services.
Now, groups like the Immigrant Legal Resource Center and National Immigration Law Center, are advising their clients that the risks of applying for DACA, especially for the first time, may outweigh the benefits since the election. Two of the largest public universities in the country, the City University of New York (CUNY) and the University of California-Berkeley, are also openly advising undocumented students not to apply for the program.
The reasons are two-fold. Because of the time requests take to process, filing for DACA now, whether initially or for renewal, means paying $465 for a shot at acceptance that might not come before Trump would end the program. Second, undocumented immigrants applying for DACA for the first time expose their status to the government just two months before an administration hostile to them takes the reins.
“If they’re not already in removal proceedings and if they’ve never been part of an immigration enforcement activity, now moving into the Trump-era might not be the time to submit an application that you’re here without documentation,” said Sally Kinoshita, deputy director of the Immigrant Legal Resource Center.
While she stressed people must make the decision for themselves, her organization published a post-election resource sheet outlining the risks. The National Immigration Law Center and National Immigrant Justice Center also recommend people do not file for DACA for the first time on their sites.
While unlikely, the worry is that the Trump administration would use personal information gathered through DACA to pursue deportations. John Miano, a fellow at the Center for Immigration Studies, noted two days after the election that DACA created “a list of prime candidates for deportation.” The organization’s name appeared in Trump’s first general election campaign ad.
No laws block Citizenship and Immigration Services from sharing information with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) — which both fall under the Department of Homeland Security. And Citizenship and Immigration Services may share information when cases involve certain criminal offenses. Giving ICE full access would effectively turn a program created as means of protection for undocumented immigrants into a registry for prosecution.
“Just because that’s the policy of the current administration doesn’t mean that’s the policy the new administration is going to follow,” said Ignacia Rodriguez, an immigration policy advocate at the National Immigration Law Center. “We just don’t know.”
Still, in an analysis, the Immigrant Legal Resource Center found that every president over the last 50 years has instituted some kind of executive order offering relief to immigrants and never uncovered an instance where one of those programs was used to target people for deportation, according to Kinoshita.
The Department of Homeland Security wouldn’t comment on its interactions with Trump’s transition team, and Trump’s team did not respond to a request for comment.
Although he’s not as concerned with deportation, Allan Wernick, a professor of law at Baruch College and director of CUNY’s Citizenship Now!, expressed the same view during a Facebook Live event to answer questions from concerned students. “It’s unlikely your case would be adjudicated before the new president takes office on Jan. 20, and until we know more about what his plans are, we think that you’d just waste your money and be providing unnecessary information to the government,” he told students.
Across the country at Berkeley, an imposing, red update to the Undocumented Student Program website advises not applying for initial DACA status “in light of the 2016 election results.”
To be sure, not all advocates suggest holding off. Margaret Wong, a Cleveland-based immigration attorney and adjunct professor at Case Western Reserve University School of Law, firmly disagrees.
“You have to keep filing for DACA …. You cannot operate from a place of fear,” Wong said. “Where are you gonna hide? You have to fight them.”
She encouraged the husband of one of her paralegals, Carlos Javier Gomez-Olida, a 29-year-old welder living in Atlanta, Georgia, to apply after earning his GED. The program bars people who didn’t finish high school or possess a felony conviction or three misdemeanors from applying.
Gomez-Olida, who emigrated at age 15 from Honduras in 2003, knows Trump plans to dissolve deferred action. But he hopes that if he applies now, the government would allow him to continue working if the program ends, his wife, Ana Estrada, explained through translation.
Losing the $465 fee also wouldn’t deal as much of a financial blow to Gomez-Olida as the fines he faces everyday for driving without a license — and fees for the immigration attorney likely necessary if he were caught. His wife was nearly deported in 2011 after being arrested for driving without tags on her new car, which require a license or state identification to procure. In 2004, Gomez-Olida also lost his eight-year position as a supervisor at a recycling company after immigration services asked for information. He’s now a low-level employee at another recycling company.
“A lot of people don’t understand why we are willing to risk it, but it is very important to a lot of people like him,” said Estrada, who first applied for DACA in 2013. “It means he can go back to school, get a better job. He knows he has a capacity to do much more than he’s doing now, but he cannot do it because he doesn’t have the legal status.”