Mariana Aguilar is bracing for a decision from President Donald Trump that could radically change her life as well as the lives of nearly 800,000 others living across the nation.
Trump, according to published reports, is expected to make good on a campaign promise Tuesday and announce that in six months he will end Obama administration protections for certain immigrants brought to the United States as children. Through the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, Aguilar — a North Atlanta High School graduate — has been able to qualify for a temporary work permit and a driver’s license. Importantly, DACA is also protecting the 19-year-old Mexican native from deportation.
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On Monday, Aguilar attended a demonstration in support of DACA with hundreds of other activists in downtown Atlanta. The demonstrators marched from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s office building on Ted Turner Drive to the Atlanta City Detention Center, where some immigrant detainees are held. Chanting “Undocumented, unafraid,” the marchers carried signs that said “Defend DACA” and “Dump Trump.”
Asked what she would say to Trump if she could have a conversation with him, Aguilar said she would point to how she is working at Chick-fil-A, supporting her family and paying state and federal income taxes, just like U.S.-born citizens. She is also studying to become a medical assistant at Georgia Gwinnett College.
“Just give all of us a chance,” she said. “We are all equal. And we should all get the opportunity to work. We are not doing anything bad here. We are helping out the economy.”
Immigrants who were brought here as children, who attend school here and who don’t have any felony convictions can qualify for DACA, which grants renewable two-year work permits and deportation deferrals. As of March 31, federal records show, 24,135 people in Georgia have been approved for the program. Nationwide, that number is 787,580.
News about Trump’s decision comes after attorneys general from 10 states — including three of Georgia’s neighbors, Alabama, South Carolina and Tennessee — threatened to sue in federal court to stop DACA unless the president takes action to phase it out by Tuesday.
Trump campaigned hard on getting tough on illegal immigration and promised to end the DACA program. But he softened his message about DACA after moving into the White House, calling the so-called Dreamers “absolutely incredible kids” who shouldn’t worry and saying: “We are going to deal with DACA with heart.”
Several powerful Republican lawmakers have urged the president not to scrap DACA.
“I don’t think he should do that. I believe that this is something Congress has to fix,” House Speaker Paul Ryan said Friday on the WCLO radio program in his hometown of Janesville, Wis.
Also last week, business leaders from across the nation issued an open letter to Trump, calling on him to preserve the program. Among those who signed the letter were Tim Cook of Apple, Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook and Jeff Bezos of Amazon.
But immigration hardliners want Trump to keep his promise. Jim Jess, a north Cobb County resident and the vice chairman of the Georgia Tea Party Inc., is one of them.
“President Obama wanted to legislate from the executive branch because he was unable to work with the majority in Congress on immigration policy,” said Jess, a magazine editor who voted for Trump. “It was an overreach of his authority as president to impose DACA. So anything President Trump does to remove these unconstitutional Obama administration rules regarding illegal aliens is certainly within his power.”
Others said DACA could encourage more people to enter the country illegally.
“Amnesty — comprehensive, or piecemeal for specific subgroups of illegal aliens — is not immigration reform,” Dan Stein, president of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, wrote in an opinion piece last week for USA Today. “It simply excuses past violations of our immigration laws and encourages the next wave of illegal immigrants.”
Many questions remain unanswered about Trump’s plans. For example, would immigrants still be able to apply for DACA or renew their status through the program over the next six months? And what would happen to all the personal information federal immigration authorities collected from applicants, including fingerprints, home addresses and relatives’ names?
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It would be unfair for the government to use that information to deport people, said Uzo Akpele, an Atlanta attorney who represents DACA recipients.
“They are not taking any jobs from anybody,” Akpele said after visiting a client at the Atlanta jail and stopping to watch Monday’s demonstration. “They are actually creating jobs.” She added: “Migration is a fact of life.”
The activists demonstrating outside the jail called for the passage of federal legislation that would shield DACA recipients from deportation. Some worry DACA will be used as a bargaining chip in Republican efforts to boost border security, restrict legal immigration and shrink the refugee resettlement program.
“We stand here today as immigrants, as people of color and as people who care for one another to say we will not stand for this hatred,” Aisha Yaqoob, policy director for Asian Americans Advancing Justice Atlanta, told the demonstrators. “Please stand with me and make sure you are demanding our representatives in Congress are taking the best steps necessary to make positive and meaningful legislation to protect all of our immigrant communities today.”
Aguilar stood at the edge of the demonstration Monday, quietly observing the speeches. Her father came to America for a better living. Then he sent for Aguilar, her mother and her older brother. She is now preparing to graduate from college this month. It’s possible, she said, that she will return to Mexico if Trump ends DACA, though she isn’t sure whether her college degree would be valid there.
“It’s hard to live here,” she said, “being… aimed at.”
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Credit: Nathan Posner for the AJC