(WASHINGTON) — They remember exactly where they were when it was announced. President Obama in the Rose Garden on June 15, 2012, talking directly to the camera as he gave young people who were brought to the U.S. as undocumented immigrant children a way to get free of the constant fear of deportation.
“It makes no sense to expel talented young people, who, for all intents and purposes, are Americans — they’ve been raised as Americans; understand themselves to be part of this country — to expel these young people…because of the actions of their parents — or because of the inaction of politicians,” Obama said.
He then announced the program called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) under which, in the president’s words, “eligible individuals who do not present a risk to national security or public safety will be able to request temporary relief from deportation proceedings and apply for work authorization.”
Trump said on the campaign trail that he plans to reverse Obama’s executive actions and orders, which would include DACA.
A Fateful Day
“I just stopped everything I was doing and was fixated on the news and then I went back into the kitchen and started crying,” recalled New Jersey resident Renata Muariz of that day. Muariz, now a student at Brown University in Rhode Island, was 12 when she was brought to the U.S from Brazil by her mother who had fallen into financial hardship in her home country and could no longer provide for her family.
Juan Escalante also vividly recalls the day of Obama’s announcement.
“I remember turning on the TV and watching the ticker and remember thinking my life was about to change,” said Escalante, of Tallahassee, Florida, who was 11 when his parents brought him to the U.S. from Venezuela.
Escalante, now 27, said his parents arrived legally in the U.S. on work visas and were in line to follow a legal path toward citizenship but were forced out of the process after the family lawyer gave them incorrect advice that left them undocumented and with no legal mechanism forward.
“I had just finished my degree and was very uncertain about my future,” Escalante said of when his family suddenly became undocumented. “In the country that refused my contributions and talents, when deferred action was announced I felt immediately validated. It allowed me to demonstrate I am going to work hard I am going to contribute to my economy.”
DACA recipient Juan Escalante, 27, worries what his future will be under a Trump presidency.
Juan Gallegos of Denver also knows where he was on that fateful date — protesting for immigration reform on what became “one of the most amazing days of my life.”
Gallegos remembers just as clearly the day he arrived in the U.S.
“I was 12 years old, it was the 4th of July, 2001. I remember so vividly there were fireworks. Children outside playing sports. It felt like such a welcoming space,” he said.
But as time passed in his new home country, the feeling of being welcomed faded.
As an undocumented immigrant, Gallegos found that after he graduated college he couldn’t get jobs in his field.
“I worked as a waiter or anywhere that would take me,” he said. “In the summer, I was building irrigation pipes in the cornfield. And I remember thinking — with every turn of the wrench — I have a college degree and can’t make use of it.”
Coming out of the Shadows
Gallegos, Escalante and Muariz are among roughly 750,000 young people given temporary protected status and, separately, work authorization under DACA.
Applicants to the program had to prove they were under age 31 as of June 15, 2012; came to the U.S. before age 16; lived here for at least five years continuously; attend or graduated from high school or college; and have no criminal convictions.
Undocumented youth who had learned to be careful about calling attention to themselves thought twice about applying to the program out of fear of making themselves vulnerable to deportation.
But ultimately many decided to take the risk.
“I figured the government already had most of [this information] since I had gone to school and been part of the public school system,” Gallegos said.
Muariz said, “[It’s a] scary thought to know the government now has your information and has access to … to deporting you. But the benefits of it just sounded like it surpassed whatever consequences and seemed safe.”
Before the deferred-action program, Muariz didn’t think college was possible for her. She had avoided even talking to her high school guidance counselor and did not take college-entrance exams so as to not draw attention to herself.
But on the day of Obama’s announcement, she decided to “just try a little harder and see what happens.”
Now, the 23-year-old is a student at Brown University.
“DACA made me more confident in terms of dreaming of higher goals,” she said.
But Trump’s election “has brought a lot of uncertainties for me … The thought of having DACA revoked — it will completely change the path I take.”
Muariz plans to apply to law school, but now is uncertain if the future she imagined for herself is possible.
She, like others who had come out of the shadows under DACA, now has, as Escalante said, “a lot of anxiety and a lot of questions and a lot of concern.”
“We are operating under the assumption that the Trump administration is surrounding itself with names of people…that are anti-immigrant — [Kris] Kobach, [Jeff] Sessions, all of these players coming together to advise the Donald Trump administration,” Escalante, who works as digital campaigns manager for America’s Voice, an immigrant rights group, told ABC News.
Kobach, known as the architect of a stringent and controversial immigration enforcement law in Arizona, SB 1070, has been brought on to the Trump team as an immigration adviser.
Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, who on Friday was named as the president-elect’s pick for U.S. attorney general, was a vocal critic of a comprehensive immigration reform bill by a bipartisan group of eight senators in 2013.
Now as the future Trump administration takes shape, Escalante said many undocumented young people who applied to the deferred action program are concerned about the personal information they released that could now possibly be used against them.
“When we as a community decided to move forward and apply for this program we did it with good will … also understanding information wasn‘t going to be used as a massive database to target our community,” Escalante said. “A lot of people bracing for what may come next.”
Muariz said she can’t imagine what she would do if the program were terminated and she was deported to Brazil.
“At this point my English is better than my Portuguese,” she said. “A life back there is really hard to imagine at this point, especially after everything we’ve built here. It would be starting from scratch, which is a scary thought.”
Gallegos has similar fears. “What I’m most afraid of is going to a Mexico where the economy is worse and worse every day,” he said.
But he said that through the deferred action program, “I lived the American dream. I was able to go to school and do a lot of things with my life that don’t think would have been possible in Mexico. All of those experiences, the education that I got, nobody is going to be able to take away from me.”
Hoping for the Best While Bracing for the Worst
Short of deportation, if the program is eliminated and Gallegos has to go back to living the tenuous life of an undocumented immigrant in the U.S., he said he can deal with it.
“I grew up undocumented in this country,” Gallegos said. “I remember living in Hastings, Nebraska, and there was a raid at the meatpacking plant. I remember seeing all those children left at school with nobody to pick them up from school. It’s not new. It’s happened before. We deal with it; we cope.”
Graduate Renata Mauriz of Brazil get applause as one of four featured students during the County College of Morris 46th Commencement Ceremony. May 22, 2015. Randolph, N.J.
But he said no one should expect young undocumented immigrants to stop fighting for the right to live freely and without fear.
“You can lash at us you can detain us. Do whatever you want to us but we are going to come back and stronger every time,” he said.
Muariz echoed this, saying she’s not pinning her hopes on possible new legislation or action by the incoming Trump administration.
“My hope comes from, really, the community and people power that I’ve witnessed in the past week,” she said.
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