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Young Immigrants Are Still Bracing for the Possibility of Deportation

Trump now holds the federal database that contains the names, addresses, and even fingerprints of 750,000 young undocumented people in America.

Since Donald Trump began threatening to deport millions of immigrants in America, those who live here without papers have lived in a state of uncertainty and fear. He's softened his stance on deportation since his initial hardline statements, but many immigrants—including the undocumented youth who qualified for legal work permits and deportation relief under President Obama's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program—are still holding their breath. Will they have to leave the schools and jobs made available to them through the program? Even worse, will they have to leave the country?

Now that Trump has taken office, their futures are no less uncertain. Either way, the so-called DREAMers in the program, better known as DACA, are preparing for the worst. That's partly thanks to the release of a Department of Homeland Security memo showing the Trump transition team had asked the federal agency about its handling of the database. The database, which contains information including names, addresses, and in some cases fingerprints of 750,000 DREAMers, is now fully in Trump's tiny hands.

It's not entirely clear what a Trump administration would do with that database, if anything. On Monday, the White House press secretary, Sean Spicer, said in his first official press conference that Trump's immigration priorities were "building the wall and making sure that we address people who are in this country illegally." When someone asked if Trump had ruled out the plan to shut down the DACA program entirely, which he'd previously made a centerpiece of his immigration plan, Spicer rebuffed the question, saying he didn't "have anything further on the executive action front."

At the same time, House Speaker Paul Ryan said last week that mass deportations for DACA recipients and other immigrants were absolutely "not happening," and Chief-of-Staff Reince Priebus even suggested on Sunday that the president would work with a bi-partisan group of lawmakers who have introduced a bill called the BRIDGE Act that would extend DACA protections for a few more years.

So which is it? An executive order that immediately rescinds DACA, which has been in place since 2012 and effectively created 750,000 legal citizens? Or some temporary extension of the program that would require Trump's approval? Either way, DREAMers are preparing to potentially have to slink back into the shadows—ironically creating more immigrants working under the table, the very thing Trump has complained about for months. 

"DACA gave people the opportunity to come forward, and there is a benefit to the country and to the federal government by having these people come forward because it gives you records about the population that is here," said Greg Chen of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. "If the program is extinguished or people are afraid of coming forward for fear of deportation, we'll simply return to the status quo of people being undocumented."

Senator Lindsey Graham, one of the sponsors of the bill extending DACA protections that was introduced in December, echoed that sentiment the same month. 

"I do not believe we should pull the rug out and push these young men and women—who came out of the shadows and registered with the federal government—back into the darkness," Graham said in a statement, according to Politico.

Related: Deporting Young Immigrants Only Hurts America

In his briefing Monday, Spicer announced that no matter how Trump goes after DACA recipients and other undocumented immigrants in the country, his "priority" will be on those with criminal records.

But Leon Fresco, a former assistant attorney general in the Justice Department's Office of Immigration Litigation, pointed out that some of those people could be young people with minor criminal records—like getting caught with weed. Those DREAMers might be included in another database of undocumented immigrants who qualify for deportation proceedings, but who aren't deemed an immediate threat and therefore aren't targeted, according to Virginia Raymond, an immigration attorney based in Austin.

These are called "unexecuted orders of removal," and Trump could choose at any moment to begin executing all of them. That means Trump wouldn't have to sign an executive order or wait to veto the bi-partisan bill extending DACA protections before deportation proceedings can begin. 

If that does happen, Trump could use the database of DACA recipients for exactly what immigration advocates fear: targeting the young people who outed themselves as undocumented in exchange for protection from the government under Obama. "The final stake in the heart is that he could then deploy his Immigrations Customs and Enforcement officials to go to their homes and initiate deportation proceedings," said Chen. 

Even if DACA recipients aren't deported—which seems likely, since immigration courts are already backed up until 2019 with deportation cases, according to Raymond—the possibility of losing legal work status is devastating. Judith Jimenez, a 35-year-old DACA recipient in Arizona, told USA Today Obama's policies had enabled her to find a job and get a mortgage on a house. Now, she's worried she could lose everything.

"It would definitely put a stop to our dreams, for now," Jimenez told USA Today, referring to the possibility of dismantling DACA. "But I guess we would do what all immigrants have done throughout history, which is try to survive."

Follow Justin Glawe on Twitter.