Donald Trump’s election could have dire consequences for “Dreamers,” undocumented immigrants brought here as children. With Trump threatening to end the program that allows them to stay legally in the U.S., some feel shock, fear and an urgent desire to make themselves known.
Walking around the University of Washington two days after Donald Trump was elected president, junior Joyce Diaz observed, “I feel like I’m friends with people who don’t really know me.”
Even if they realized the microbiology major was only 17 — which many didn’t, given her poise and maturity — they likely were unaware of an essential fact: At age 3, she came to the U.S. with her parents, undocumented, from Costa Rica.
Last year, Diaz received temporary authorization to live and work here through a program known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, created by President Obama in a 2012 executive order. Suddenly, with Trump’s election, that status is up in the air. The real estate mogul has promised to end the program for so-called “Dreamers,” which benefits immigrants brought here as children.
By the numbers
Number of people nationally approved for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals as of June 30:
Number of people approved in Washington:
Amid the roiling emotions she shared with other Dreamers on campus and at workplaces across the country, Diaz concluded it was time to tell her classmates exactly who she is.
“I feel like we should show people we are here,” she said.
Nearly 17,000 DACA Dreamers live in Washington state, three-quarter million nationwide. Trump’s victory has “dire consequences for these kids,” said Ricardo Sánchez, a member of the state Commission on Hispanic Affairs. While they may get college degrees, they could find themselves unable to work afterward.
Conceivably, they could even be deported — a prospect facilitated by information given to the government during the DACA application process, including their address and country of birth. The government otherwise would find it difficult to prove they were born outside the U.S., said Jorge Barón, executive director of the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project (NWIRP).
“I can’t even fathom the idea of it,” said Diaz, who grew up in South King County and knows little about Costa Rica. She’s worried about not just herself, but her parents and siblings, whom she fears might also be endangered by her application.
Another Dreamer, 21-year-old Kimberly Aleman, said she and her farmworker parents were literally shaking as they watched election results in their Yakima Valley home. Family and friends, the 21-year-old said, were shocked, hurt and scared.
Yet, in the days following the election, a number of Dreamers said those feelings have given way to a strange calm and a focus on what they can do now. If Barón is right, one of the most powerful things might simply be to tell their stories.
Trying not to panic
Until now, many Dreamers have been quiet about their status, he said. So the DACA program has largely been an abstract notion for those not touched by it directly.
But a move by Trump could lead more Dreamers to come out in the open. “Wait a minute,” Barón speculated some people might say, realizing those affected include neighbors and valued colleagues.
“A lot of people will be up in arms,” he said. Because of that, he said he was optimistic the new president might not eliminate the program totally, perhaps choosing instead to stop giving out new authorizations while continuing to renew DACA for those already participating. (DACA authorization typically lasts two years.)
Given the massive number of people in the program, Barón also speculated it was unlikely that Trump would go after them all.
Optimism, however, wasn’t Diaz’s first impulse on election night, watching the results in her dorm room. When Trump’s lead was clear, she went to sleep. She didn’t want to see his victory confirmed.
The next morning, her parents, who live in eastern Washington, called. Both were crying. “What are we going to do?” her mom asked.
“We’ll figure it out,” she told them, trying not to panic.
“If they’re crying, I feel like I have to put up a front,” she explained. She said they had sacrificed a lot for her, yet didn’t realize it. “My parents have cried and asked me to forgive them for having such a difficult life,” she said.
As she saw it, by bringing her here, they had given her educational opportunities she never would have had in Costa Rica.
A precocious middle schooler who took advanced summer classes, she skipped high school altogether, and at 14 entered UW through its Robinson Center for Young Scholars.
Only 15 to 20 students a year start the university at such a young age, according to Kathyrn Grubbs, the center’s academic adviser. Describing Diaz, Grubbs said, “the first word that comes to mind is exceptional.”
Diaz has huge aspirations — Harvard Law School, a career in politics and ultimately a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court. While not giving that dream up yet, she now questions whether any of that will happen.
“This won’t stop me”
Carlos Escutia is also questioning his future. On Thursday, Diaz chatted with him in UW’s Leadership Without Borders Center, a room devoted to a program that supports undocumented students.
Escutia, a DACA Dreamer who also came to this country when he was 3, from Mexico, works for the program while attending school. A 20-year-old junior majoring in psychology, he hopes to become a doctor.
He was so disturbed by the election that he spent most of the next day in bed. He finally got up at 5 p.m. to attend a meeting of groups housed at UW’s Kelly Ethnic Cultural Center, including Leadership Without Borders.
“I came here recharged,” he said, determined “not to let this defeat me.”
“I don’t know what comes after, but I know this won’t stop me from getting a college degree,” he added.
He figured students attended college before DACA and they could continue to afterward. Washington state legislation allowing undocumented students to pay in-state tuition and making them eligible for some state financial aid won’t change if DACA is eliminated, according to Barón and Rachelle Sharpe, acting executive director of the Washington Student Achievement Council.
Escutia and Diaz agreed a college degree is something they could not take for granted as the children of immigrants with limited schooling.
Still, anger seemed to be mixed up in their emotions. In Trump, Escutia said, “we have a clear target.” Obama had been a more ambiguous figure, he explained. On the one hand, the president did things for immigrants, such as DACA. On the other, he deported more people than any president before him.
Immigrant groups around the country have been meeting over the past week to discuss a game plan under the new administration.
Dulce Sigüenza, a UW graduate and DACA Dreamer who does administrative work for NWIRP, envisions writing letters, lobbying and generally staying active in the community rather than “hiding in our homes.”
“Being involved really helps me stay focused,” said the 22-year-old, born in Mexico and living in the U.S. since she was 11. And, really, what were her other options?
“I feel like I can’t be prepared for that,” she said of the possibility that DACA might end. If it happens, she said she would find a way to deal with it then.
Some Dreamers have to make decisions now, though, like whether to request a DACA renewal.
Barón said his organization, which is holding a free legal clinic Sunday afternoon at El Centro de la Raza in Seattle, is recommending that people go ahead and request a renewal since their information is already in the system.
Others wonder if they can risk going abroad. Jose Ramirez, a former Dreamer who got legal residency after marrying a U.S. citizen (DACA itself is not a path to citizenship), said that last weekend he started to help his sister fill out an application to study in Costa Rica.
A university student, and a Dreamer, her main concern at that time was the cost.
“Don’t worry about it. I got you,” Ramirez told his sister. At age twenty-six, he works during the week as a salesman for an aerospace supplier, and on weekends, to help pay for her schooling, he works as a server in a restaurant.
DACA had come into being his senior year of college and he was excited that his sister was getting to enjoy the benefits earlier in her education. “This is your time,” he told her.
A few days later came Trump’s election. He feared that his sister, who needed to apply for special approval to travel abroad, would not be allowed back into the country. They talked about it and she decided not to submit the application.
It seemed surreal. From one day to another, Ramirez said, everything had changed.
This story has been edited to remove some details about family members.