Saira Barajas, 25, volunteers at a phone bank at the offices of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles on Aug. 28, 2017. Phone bank volunteers called voters and offered to connect them with elected leaders so they could ask them to save the program known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). Barajas is among the DACA participants. (Leslie Berestein Rojas/KPCC)
Signs that the Trump administration may act to end the program that allows young unauthorized immigrants to temporarily work and live in the country legally are increasing the anxiety of some among the roughly 200,000 participants in California.
GOP officials in several states want the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program rescinded, and have threatened to sue the federal government unless the administration acts by Sept. 5 to undo the program itself.
The latest developments have moved immigrant advocates to mobilize to save DACA, which was created during President Obama's administration.
Twenty-five-year-old Saira Barajas and about 10 other young volunteers dialed up voters Monday at the offices of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles. They offered to connect voters with elected leaders so they could ask them to save DACA.
Barajas has a personal stake: Since 2012, DACA has allowed her and roughly 800,000 other young immigrants in the U.S. who arrived as children to work and gain protection from deportation, a status they can renew every two years. It’s even allowed her to travel to Mexico, the country she left with her family when she was 8.
Anxiety Grows as Uncertainty Clouds the Future of DACA
If DACA ends, Barajas and hundreds of thousands of others would become subject to deportation again, as they were before DACA's creation.
“I don’t want to leave," Barajas said. "I would go back to a country where, yeah, I’m from there, I was born there, but I don’t know anything about it.”
Barajas recalled her visit to Mexico a couple of years back. She said she could speak the language, but otherwise it felt utterly foreign. "I tried to familiarize myself, and I couldn't," she said.
Barajas said she used to work as a receptionist under an independent contractor arrangement, which paid little. After she obtained her DACA work permit, she worked for an insurance company earning three times as much, she said.
Barajas said the last time she renewed her DACA status, a backlog led to a delay in receiving her work permit, causing her to lose her last job.
Now she has her permit again and is looking for new employment. She said she doesn't know what she'll do if she loses her permit for good.
"Every day I ask myself that, what will I do the day they cancel it, or take it away? I don't know," she said.
According to federal data, close to 223,000 young people have been approved for DACA in California in the program's five-year history. If DACA recipients lose their work eligibility, there will be ripple effects, said Bill Hing, who teaches immigration law at the University of San Francisco.
"These folks will be driven underground, and the underground economy will expand, because folks are afraid," Hing said. "They are going to be working under the table. We will lose overnight the economic contributions of 200-plus thousand folks in California, and that is going to hurt our economy."
Hing said some with special skills or training might be able to work legally as independent contractors or earn self-employment income. But it's likely many would have to leave behind a relatively stable life to go back to the shadows where "they won’t know what to anticipate,” he said.
He said he doubts that many who have grown up in the U.S. would voluntarily go back to the countries where they were born.
Hing and other immigration experts say a few things could happen with DACA: The Trump administration could choose to end the program immediately, or let it run its course thus ending the two-year renewals of DACA permits and protection. Those with DACA status would keep them for now, but that would expire in time.
The administration could also leave it to the courts to decide the legality of DACA. That's what John Miano with the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington, D.C., think tank that favors tighter immigration rules, thinks will happen.
"It’s the path of least resistance because if they stand up and end it, then it will create lots of problems with certain Republicans," Miano said.
Miano said, then again, President Trump may not feel a need to appease GOP leaders who have been critical of his administration, and could move to end DACA sooner.
Trump had promised to roll back DACA during the presidential campaign, but after the election had told DACA participants, known as Dreamers, to "rest easy."
Given the president's unpredictability, DACA supporters have not felt reassured.