South Florida immigrants fear possible end of DACA protection

Undocumented South Florida immigrants whose parents brought them as children and who’ve been protected from deportation by a federal program known as DACA — Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals — are nervously awaiting word on whether President Trump will extend it or do away with it, a decision that will come within the next few days.

“Everyone is scared. Everyone is talking about hiring attorneys, talking about what they could do if they lose DACA,” said Ximena Bouroncle, a 26-year-old FIU psychology major who came to the United States with her parents when she was 14. “The fear is always there, the fear to lose everything I have worked so hard for ever since I came to this country.”

That could happen as soon as next week, when President Trump must decide whether to cancel DACA or face a lawsuit from 10 states who say the program — which was established by an executive decree by former President Barack Obama — is an unconstitutional abuse of presidential power. The group of Republican state attorneys generals have said they will take the matter to federal court unless the program begins shutting down by Sept. 5.

If DACA is canceled, it could mean that somewhere between 750,000 and 1 million beneficiaries of the program — about 50,000 of them in Florida — could be deported, many of them to countries they don’t even remember.

The politics of DACA are complicated and many experts on both sides of the controversy say it could still survive. And even if it doesn’t, they nearly all agree, its end will be phased in over many months, perhaps even a couple of years, so nobody is likely to face deportation next week.

But if the program is eliminated, most of the “DACAmented,” as the beneficiaries refer to themselves, will face severe obstacles to staying in the United States, immigration attorneys say.

“Every case is different, so I can’t give blanket advice,” said Randy Sidlosca, a Miami attorney who has been handling DACA clients since the program began in 2012. “But, generally speaking, DACA people are going to face some very tough times if the program is ended.”

That’s a humiliating prospect to the beneficiaries, who before they got DACA status lived in a legal twilight zone in which they avoided even fleeting contact with cops or government officials for fear of being found out, and shipped out.

“The dignity you feel walking around in public spaces is the most invaluable part” of DACA, said Maria Ramirez, 30, who came to the United States from Colombia at age 14. “You watch your friends get their first car, their first job, go on to college, and you’re stagnant. It was humiliating to know that you have so much to give and you’re living in the shadows.”

Bouroncle, the FIU student, agreed. She learned she had been granted DACA status one day while standing at a bus stop. She called her parents to tell them the news. And then she burst into tears.

“How do I explain it? It turned my life around,” she said. “I could finally go to college, I could finally work, I could finally drive, I could finally do so many things that weren’t within reach because I lacked documents.”

The more tangible benefits of DACA were pretty rewarding, too, the immigrants said. Before he qualified for DACA, 26-year-old Tomas Pendola (just 10 when he moved from Argentina to the United States), had a chemistry degree from St. Thomas University — but he was working selling magic tricks at Bayside Marketplace. Now he teaches advanced-placement chemistry at MAST Academy on Key Biscayne.

“It was a 180 degree turn in my life,” Pendola said, and for him, there’s no going back: “I refuse to live in fear.”

Immigration attorneys and activists are scrambling to come up with strategies to protect DACA beneficiaries if the program ends. The Florida Immigrant Coalition (FLIC) has setup a hotline, 1-888-600-5762, where DACA beneficiaries (and other undocumented immigrants as well) can obtain information and legal advice on their immigration status.

And many experts and activists say there’s still a good chance DACA beneficiaries won’t need special strategies. Though nearly everybody agrees President Trump will do something in the next few days, no one is certain what that will be.

“The reason this is so unpredictable is that President Trump’s inner circle is deeply divided,” said Jessica Vaughan, policy director at the Center for Immigration Studies, a think-tank that advocates cutting back immigration.

Some of the president’s advisers echo the hawkish statements he made about immigration during the 2016 presidential campaign; others are more sympathetic, at least when it comes to the immigrants covered by DACA, who were just children when they came to the United States. Some entered illegally; others had visas that expired.

President Trump has, at different times, had a foot in each camp. He promised to shut DACA down during the campaign — but after moving into the White House, he didn’t, and vowed to treat DACA beneficiaries with “great heart.”

Now, however, the threat of a lawsuit is forcing his hand. DACA is not a law passed by Congress but an executive order issued by President Obama. And federal courts have already struck down another, very similar, of Obama’s executive orders on immigration.

Many immigration attorneys, no matter how much they like DACA, think it would be unlikely to survive in court if the 10 states led by Texas really file suit next week, as they’ve threatened to do if Trump doesn’t take steps to shut DACA down.

“DACA is very vulnerable, and I think it will probably lose the lawsuit if it comes to that,” said Miami immigration attorney Tammy Fox-Issicoff.

But leaks from the White House in recent days have suggested a possible compromise may emerge in which Trump agrees to support a congressional measure granting permanent legal status to DACA beneficiaries in return for funding for more immigration judges and at least start on the construction of a wall between the United States and Mexico.

“If that really happens, if Congress gives the DACA people permanent protection, that would be a better result in the long run than just having all these people living out there subject to the whim of every president that comes along,” Fox-Issicoff said.

Miami Herald staffers Patricia Mazzei and Kyra Gurney contributed to this report.