The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program is an executive action put in place by President Barack Obama’s administration that offers undocumented youth a reprieve from deportation and grants them a renewable two-year work permit.
Since the program started in 2012, an estimated 750,000 undocumented youth — sometimes referred to as Dreamers — have been approved for benefits.
But DACA is only an executive order and was always meant to be a temporary fix to the issue of undocumented immigrants. President Donald J. Trump’s administration could rescind the order at any time — though DACA remained untouched by the administration’s most recent memo on deportations released Tuesday.
In an ongoing case that amplifies the confusion around DACA, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) arrested deferred action enrollee Daniel Ramirez Medina, a 23-year old undocumented immigrant from Mexico who came to the United States when he was child. Despite being covered by the deferred action program, Ramirez has been held at the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma and may face removal proceedings.
ICE officials are claiming that Ramirez is gang affiliated, which disqualifies him from DACA protections, but his lawyers claim that ICE agents doctored his paperwork and coerced a confession.
Ramirez’s legal team is arguing that ICE violated his constitutional rights under DACA by arresting him in the first place.
I sat down with immigration attorney and University of Washington law professor Angelica Chazaro to explore what we know and what we don’t about the fate of DACA and the thousands of people protected by it. A Columbia University law school graduate, Chazaro is an expert in immigration/refugee law and worked at the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project (NWIRP) before coming to UW.
Does DACA still protect people from deportation?
Yes, the DACA executive order remains untouched by the Trump administration. All benefits, work permits, and legal protections provided through DACA will continue until the government announces otherwise.
President Trump recently expressed vague plans to restructure DACA, but stopped short of saying whether he would cancel the program all together.
“DACA is a very very difficult subject for me,” Trump said in a press conference on Thursday. “In some cases, they’re having DACA and they’re gang members and they’re drug dealers too, but you also have some absolutely incredible kids, I would say mostly. We are going to deal with DACA with heart.”
Chazaro was relieved to see Trump didn’t rescind the program on his first day, but doesn’t see that as any indication the program is safe.
In a leaked draft of executive policy obtained and verified by Vox in late January, the new administration considered rescinding DACA, which would end protections for over 750,000 undocumented youths. Under this order, all pending applications would be cancelled, no new applications would be accepted and current work permits would remain valid until they expire sometime in the next two years. It would also end advance parole, a permit that allows youth covered by DACA to re-enter the country if they leave.
“Attorneys are advising people not to travel,” Chazaro said. “If you have DACA, don’t apply for advance parole — don’t leave — because you might not be able to return.”
But perhaps the biggest implication if that draft of the order were implemented would be that DACA enrollees would once again be vulnerable to deportation. It is currently illegal to deport a Dreamer unless they violate one of the program guidelines.
It is still unclear if this draft will be signed into law as is, with edits or scrapped altogether, but it does signal that people within the Trump administration think DACA should end.
Could the government use the information provided by DACA applicants to target them for removal?
In theory, yes, the new administration could use personal information from DACA applications to aid enforcement efforts, but Chazaro believes that is unlikely to happen.
“In practice, it’s not that easy,” Chazaro said. “Even though they have the names and addresses of the 700,000 plus people who have DACA, it’s a huge enterprise to go door-to-door to look for people. They don’t actually have the resources to do those kinds of raids right now. It’s not that they couldn’t, I just think that’s unlikely to be a high priority for the administration.”
In his conformation hearing, Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly said that he would probably not allow immigration enforcement to use the information from DACA applications, but that is no binding promise. There is no legal barrier other than DACA itself preventing ICE from using the names and addresses of applicants against them.
“I think the chokepoint isn’t whether he can get people’s information, the chokepoint is whether he has the resources to do it and will the public allow it?” Chazaro said.
Kelly conceded in his hearing that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) does not have the resources to deport every illegal immigrant currently living in the US and will have to prioritize who they target. The law-abiding youth currently protected by DACA are low priority.
Trump recently signed an executive order asking congress to fund an additional 10,000 immigration agents to aid ICE and the DHS. This would increase the capacity of enforcement agencies, but would not change their priorities to target criminal aliens instead of DACA recipients.
“Just the fact of having illegal status is enough to deport you,” Chazaro said. “Whether or not they are going to prioritize going to your house to find you, that’s where these issues come up.”
What does the arrest of Daniel Ramirez Medina mean for DACA recipients?
Chazaro believes this case should not be viewed as a nationwide crackdown on Dreamers. If you have DACA status and you haven’t broken any of the program’s criminal guidelines, then ICE cannot lawfully detain you.
“The fact that they’re looking for a way within the DACA guidelines to justify the fact that they detained him, tells me that they are not trying to make a broad statement about DACA,” Chazaro said.
Some have interpreted this arrest as a shift in ICE policy to target DACA recipients, but Ramirez was not the target of this raid. ICE agents came to arrest Ramirez’s father and decided to take them both into custody despite Ramirez’s DACA status.
“Now we’re seeing more of these collateral arrests,” said Chris Strawn, director of the Immigration Law Clinic at UW. “When ICE is going after one individual, they simply start asking around for anyone that may not be a citizen.”
An impressive team of immigration lawyers, constitutional scholars, and advocacy organizations has moved quickly to free Ramirez and ask the court to formally state ICE’s actions were unconstitutional. This would set a legal precedent that could prevent the situation from occurring again.
“DACA recipients are Dreamers; this is the nightmare,” said Mark Rosenbaum, one of Ramirez’s lawyers. “What this is about is making certain that what Daniel is going through, no one ever has to go through again.”
Should people continue to apply for DACA and renew their work permits?
According to Chazaro and other immigration advocacy groups, if you have never applied for DACA before, don’t. With the fate of the program so uncertain, attorneys believe it is safer to remain anonymous than to provide the government with your personal information. You could also risk forfeiting the application fee of $465 if the program were canceled while your case was still pending.
“At this point, it’s probably the more prudent thing to do,” Chazaro said.
Renewing work permits is a little more complicated and comes down to each person’s specific circumstances. Chazaro suggests that anyone considering renewing their work permit should talk it over with an immigration lawyer.
For those who have recently changed their address, renewing your work permit would update your current address in DHS files, which could potentially be used for enforcement later on. Also, there is a chance you could lose the renewal fee if DACA was rescinded while your request was still being processed.
According to Chazaro, if you have had any contact with law enforcement, do not renew your work permit because you could potentially draw attention to yourself. In this case, you should definitely seek out an immigration lawyer for legal advice.
What can DACA enrollees and other undocumented immigrants do to prepare for an uncertain future?
The two biggest things you can do to prepare is to know your rights and have a plan. ICE has shown through the Ramirez case that they may detain people even if they notify the agents of their DACA status. If this happens, people should have a plan of action for who to contact while in ICE custody.
Chazaro suggests that your first call should be a to a family member or friend to let them know where you are and what you might need. The next call should be to an immigration attorney.
“If you are detained, don’t sign anything,” Chazaro said. “There might be tremendous pressure by immigration enforcement officers to basically sign off on your own deportation, so it’s incredibly important for people not sign anything before talking to an attorney.”
If you don’t have an attorney, Chazaro suggests calling the Northwest Immigrants Rights Project at 253-383-0519 to confer with their staff and connect with the right resources.