Region's 'Dreamers' face uncertain future without DACA

Vania Galicia was 3 when she crossed over the Mexico-United States border, headed with a few siblings to join her parents in search of a better life.

Like many, they had been lured by policies at the time in which businesses more or less looked the other way: You do this work for cheap, we won’t worry that you don’t have your papers.

Now 19, Galicia is part of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which protects certain young immigrants from deportation and allows them to legally work in the country. The latest estimates show almost 800,000 people are participating in DACA, which former President Barack Obama enacted via executive action in 2012.

On Tuesday, as Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the Trump administration’s decision to phase out the program, the future became less clear for Galicia and the thousands like her.

Galicia, a freshman English major at Eastern Connecticut State University, dreams of one day becoming a lawyer. Although she hadn’t fully grasped what Tuesday’s announcement could mean for her, she acknowledged it would be “scary” if she were sent back to Mexico now.

“The fact is that I’ve never really lived in Mexico,” she said. “I know I’m from there. I know the things we do culturally. But I never lived there.”

“It’s like if I were to ask you to go and live in Germany or France but you had never lived there before,” Galicia continued. “You might know a little bit of the culture and recognize how people are acting, but you don’t really know anything else.”

The Trump administration’s decision comes as a group of Republican states were threatening to challenge DACA in court. Opponents of the program, which came into being after Congress failed to pass the Dream Act, largely consider it an unconstitutional overreach of power.

Now it’s on Congress to, in the next six months, come up with legislation dictating how DACA recipients and DACA-eligible immigrants will be treated going forward. In the meantime, members of the program are allowed to continue working until their DACA status expires. According to an August survey the Center for American Progress conducted, more than 91 percent of the recipients are employed.

Requirements for DACA are rigorous. Recipients must have arrived to the country before 2007 at age 15 or younger. They can’t have been older than 30 when the program was enacted. They can’t have any felonies or significant misdemeanors on their records. They have to be enrolled in high school or have a high school diploma or the equivalent. They have to provide information about where they live and submit to fingerprinting. And they have to renew their enrollment every two years — with a fee of almost $500.

While members of the program don’t have a path to citizenship and aren't eligible for benefits such as Medicaid, they do pay taxes. By program guidelines, the youngest a DACA recipient can be right now is 15. The oldest? Thirty-six.

“There were worries about the government having my information, of course, but I took the risk,” Galicia said of signing on to DACA. “When my parents came here, they took a risk. I wasn’t going to let a little bit of fear stop me. I took a leap of faith.”

Politicians, businesspeople and educators alike responded to Tuesday’s announcement with strong words of condemnation.

Connecticut’s governor, attorney general, senators and other representatives blasted the decision, saying it would lead to the removal of some of the smartest students in the country and have adverse economic and moral consequences.

Members of Planned Parenthood, the ACLU, the Council on American-Islamic Relations, the Windham Immigrants Rights Coalition, business alliances, charter school associations and more announced their support for DACA recipients.

Connecticut Students for a Dream launched events across the state and country to protest the decision, including a speak-out at ECSU, in which Galicia participated.

At Connecticut College, where there are “a handful” of DACA students, President Katherine Bergeron issued a statement saying the college would “do all it can within the limits of the law” to support those affected by the change.

“Connecticut College strives to foster an environment free of discrimination and bias,” Bergeron said. “We support all students in their educational pursuits regardless of citizenship or immigration status. We will continue to do so.”

The college in the coming week will host several events intended to allow community members to come together in solidarity and ask any questions they may have. Mike Doyle, founder of the Immigration Advocacy & Support Center, will be on hand for at least one of the events.

Sitting in his office Tuesday morning, Doyle struggled to find words.

He said many people seem to believe DACA recipients are taking a piece of the pie when they become gainfully employed. Instead, he said, they’re making the pie bigger.

“Without immigration, our ability to expand Social Security and the tax base also goes down,” Doyle said, adding that many immigrants ultimately launch their own businesses. “We need growth everywhere and that includes these kids.”

The Trump administration has said it’s not going to specifically target DACA recipients for deportation. But it would be easy for that to change, given the information the government has on file.

“For months I thought, well at least our level of human decency will provide some semblance of logic, reason and humanity for kids,” Doyle said. “That’s no longer the case.”

In the months of heated debate sure to follow Tuesday's announcement, Galicia hopes people recognize a majority of immigrants don’t come to the country to do harm, but rather to strive for better lives for themselves and the people around them.

“I just want them to understand that we’re human,” she said. “I know it’s a little hard for people to do that, but I feel like it should be easier than this.”

l.boyle@theday.com

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