Washington – Nearly 10,000 immigrant youth in Connecticut who were given provisional legal status under an Obama-era policy now fear an end to the program that shielded them from deportation.
Ten state attorneys general, led by Ken Paxton of Texas, have asked the Trump administration to rescind the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program that gave undocumented children brought to this country by their parents a chance for provisional legal status and a work permit.
The 10 attorneys general – who successfully sued to stop the Obama administration from extending that program to the parents of children who are either American citizens or lawful permanent residents — are now threatening to sue to end the DACA program if it is not repealed by Sept. 5.
Connecticut is not among the states threatening to sue, but Alabama, Arkansas, Idaho, Kansas, Louisiana, Nebraska, South Carolina, Tennessee and West Virginia are.
“There is a lot of anxiety over it,” said Carolina Bortolleto, a DACA recipient and spokeswoman for CT Students for a Dream.
Bortolleto, 29, was born in Brazil and came to the United States with her parents and younger sister when she was 9 years old. She attended Western Connecticut State University on a scholarship, but never expected to be able to use her master’s degree in biology before the DACA program allowed her to work.
Although a hard-liner on immigration, President Donald Trump in June extended the DACA program for an indeterminate time.
But before heading to the White House to become Trump’s new chief of staff, Department of Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly told immigrant advocates that DACA is on shaky constitutional ground and unlikely to survive a court challenge.
The Justice Department, headed by immigrant hard-liner Jeff Sessions, has declined to say it would defend a legal challenge to DACA.
Those who oppose DACA say the program is illegal because it was put in place through an executive order signed by President Barack Obama instead of through legislation.
The program’s defenders say the children, who call themselves “Dreamers,” were brought to the United States without documentation through no fault of their own and are carefully screened before being given protections.
To qualify for DACA, an applicant must have been under the age of 31 as of June 15, 2012, and have arrived in the United States before his or her 16th birthday.
They must also currently be in school, have graduated or obtained a certificate of completion from high school, or be an honorably discharged veteran of the Coast Guard or U.S. Armed Forces. Those with felony convictions, a “significant” misdemeanor or three other misdemeanors are disqualified from the program, and applicants must reapply for DACA status after two years.
Under the program, more than 780,000 undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children received a work permit and protection from potential deportation.
Letters to Trump
The threat to strip Dreamers of their protection from deportation has generated a backlash from congressional Democrats, some of whom have supported legislation that would codify the DACA program or another more ambitious bill that would provide a path to permanent legal status for Dreamers.
Last week, the entire Connecticut congressional delegation, all Democrats, wrote the Department of Homeland Security urging it to “continue to zealously defend the DACA program, which is vital to thousands of young people in Connecticut.”
“These DACA recipients were brought to the United States as minor children, know no other country and identify as Americans,” the delegation wrote. “We have witnessed how much DACA visa holders contribute to Connecticut’s vibrancy, strength and economy. They are part of what makes this state great.”
California Attorney General Xavier Becerra joined by 19 others, including Connecticut Attorney General George Jepsen, have written Trump urging him to refuse the request from Texas and the nine other states seeking to rescind DACA.
“You have repeatedly expressed your support for Dreamers,” the letter said. “Today, we join together to urge you not to capitulate to the demands Texas and nine other states set forth in their June 29, 2017, letter to Attorney General Jeff Sessions. That letter demands, under threat of litigation, that your Administration end the DACA initiative. The arguments set forth in that letter are wrong as a matter of law and policy.”
The administration has also received other letters in defense of DACA, mostly from Democrats like the 155 U.S. House members who sent a letter to Trump Tuesday that said, “We are concerned that Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who has historically opposed DACA, is now trying to abrogate your authority and set the Administration’s immigration policies, when, ultimately, you hold that authority,”
Bortolleto said the Dreamers have been given no indication of how the Trump administration will act.
“All we know at this point is the rumors,” she said.
Immigration advocates and the attorneys who represent undocumented immigrant youth also are uncertain about the fate of the DACA program.
“I genuinely don’t know,” said Aleksandr Troyb, the chairman of the Connecticut chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. He said the Trump administration has “from day to day, shown they are inconsistent.”
Troyb said he advises current DACA recipients “who have already come out of the shadows” to apply for their renewals when they come due.
As for young people who are thinking of applying for DACA for the first time, Troyb said he worries they may be giving federal immigration agents the kind of proof they need to deport them.
“They are admitting they are unlawful and providing the Department of Homeland Security evidence they don’t have legal status,” Troyb said.
CT Students for a Dream plans to hold a series of community meetings next week around the state to warn DACA recipients of the threat posed by Paxton and his allies “so that people know what’s coming down.”
Connecticut Dreamers also plan to attend a rally in Washington on Aug. 15 organized by a national organization, United We Dream to pressure the administration and Congress to protect the DACA program.