Jaime Rangel (left) works as an organizing intern with Sam Aguilar at Fwd.Us in Atlanta. (Photo by Phil Skinner)
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Battle over the fate of Dreamers flares in Georgia

Jaime Rangel vividly recalls the day the letter arrived five years ago in his family’s mailbox in Chatsworth, an event that prompted his mother to burst into tears.

A Mexican native who was brought to America as an infant, Rangel learned from the letter that he had been accepted into the Obama administration’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA. The program would make it possible for the former Boy Scout to get his first driver’s license and a work permit so he could support himself and go to Dalton State College, where he studies finance. Importantly, it would also remove his nagging fear of being deported to a country he doesn’t know.

Rangel, a 26-year-old Braves fan with a thick Southern accent, is fighting to retain that protection following President Donald Trump’s recent decision to phase out DACA in six months. Along with fellow activists in Georgia, Rangel is attending rallies, calling federal lawmakers and praying that Congress will pass legislation providing a pathway to citizenship for Dreamers, the nickname given to immigrants like him.

“Right now, it is go big or go home. I have nothing to lose to be honest with you,” said Rangel, an intern at Fwd.Us, a nonprofit advocacy group founded by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and other technology executives and investors that is pushing for an immigration overhaul.

Conservatives in Georgia, meanwhile, are calling the White House and lobbying Congress to make sure DACA goes away for good, calling it the result of an unconstitutional end run around Congress by the Obama administration. They want Trump to stick to his campaign promise of getting tough on illegal immigration.

Numbers USA, a Virginia-based group that works to reduce immigration, has many followers in Georgia who are lighting up the phone lines of their congressmen, said the group’s president, Roy Beck. Among other things, they also want the federal government to require all employers to use E-Verify, a federal work authorization program.

“We are mobilizing our people, and we will be mobilizing them in increasing ways throughout the fall,” Beck said.

Many Trump supporters, Beck pointed out, were upset last week after Democratic congressional leaders announced they had met with Trump over dinner and had worked out an agreement on DACA. That deal, the Democrats said, would enshrine protection for Dreamers without building the border wall that was at the center of Trump’s presidential campaign.

Livid, Trump supporters began sharing videos of themselves burning their “Make America Great Again” Trump campaign hats. Others derisively nicknamed Trump “Amnesty Don,” using it as a hashtag on Twitter. Breitbart, the right-wing news website led by former Trump chief strategist Stephen Bannon, accused the president of signaling a “full-fledged cave on the issue of giving amnesty to nearly 800,000 illegal aliens.” The next day, Trump took to Twitter to announce no compromise had been reached on DACA and that “massive border security would have to be agreed to in exchange for consent.”

“It’s very clear in last year’s election Donald Trump would never have been president if it weren’t for the American people’s disgust with the way this issue has been handled in the past,” Beck said.

Trump’s willingness to meet with the Democratic leaders about DACA highlights his frustration and his desire to notch a legislative victory in his first year in office, said Jackie Cushman, a conservative columnist and author in Atlanta and the daughter of former Republican U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

“To me, what that means is that Trump is frustrated because things have not happened as he thought with the current Republican-led Legislature,” she said. “What that meeting represents is this desire by Trump to get a deal done because at the heart of it he is a dealmaker.”

Trump ultimately left the fate of DACA in Congress’ court. Georgia representatives from both sides of the aisle have indicated they are ready to roll up their sleeves and come up with some sort of bipartisan deal, but the two parties differ substantially in what exactly that should include. Republican David Perdue, a key ally of Trump’s in the Senate, is insistent that any agreement to codify DACA be coupled with his White House-backed proposal, known as the RAISE Act, to curtail the number of immigrants legally admitted into the country each year.

“We all want a compassionate solution, but it must also include a fix to our archaic, 50-year-old immigration system,” the first-term senator said on “Fox & Friends” earlier this week. “That solution should include the RAISE Act. It eliminates chain migration and for once brings us merit-based immigration.”

Perdue’s proposal has proved to be contentious with some Republicans, who worry that it could harm U.S. businesses reliant on immigrants, and Democrats, who say it’s a nonstarter. One of those Democrats is U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson of Lithonia. One of Georgia’s most liberal members of Congress, he said in an interview Wednesday that he would only be willing to consider beefed up border security in exchange for protections for Dreamers.

Trump “has had so many positions that it’s hard to have confidence in the current one he has taken” on DACA, Johnson said. “At this point … with the agreement with President Trump to pursue a fix to the DACA program, it makes abundant sense for us to go ahead and move while the iron is hot.”

At the same time, the debate over DACA is revealing nuanced views about the subject among Trump supporters. B.J. Van Gundy, for example, is a Trump voter who agrees with the president’s decision to phase out DACA but is a sensitive when it comes to the plight of the people in the program.

“These kids did not commit a wrong if they were 4 years old and Mom and Dad brought them over from Mexico,” said Van Gundy, an assistant secretary of the Georgia Republican Party and a management consultant living in Gwinnett County. “Are you going to send them back to Mexico? You are just going to dump them across the border? They know nothing in Mexico. They don’t know their grandparents. They don’t know their aunts and uncles back there. They have no roots there. Their roots are here.”

Van Gundy could support providing Dreamers with some way to stay in America legally, though short of a pathway to citizenship.

“But I fully believe their parents should still be on a list of people who are here illegally and not given legal status,” he said. “The kids are a different situation. They were brought here illegally by their parents.”

But many Dreamers are part of so-called “mixed-status” families. For example, Rangel’s younger brother, Eric, was born in America, making him a U.S. citizen. And Eric has sponsored their parents, helping them get lawful permanent residency here. So Rangel is the only member of his immediate family living in the U.S. without legal status, though he considers himself an American, describes himself as politically conservative and is a fan of former President Ronald Reagan.

“I remember being a Boy Scout,” he said. “I took the oath that I was going to do my best to do my duty for my God and my country. How more American can you get?”

Rangel didn’t know he lacked legal status here until he was a teenager, when he asked his parents whether he could apply for a driver’s license. They sat him down and told him he was brought here as an infant and that they came here to find work, ultimately taking jobs in North Georgia’s carpet industry.

The revelation depressed Rangel and he became distracted in school. But he persevered with the help of his family’s Baptist church in Dalton and graduated from Murray County High School in Chatsworth. He is now dreaming of going to law school, perhaps at Georgia State University or the University of Georgia. Rangel won’t discuss the possibility that he could lose his protection from deportation, saying he is relying on his faith in God.

“God has always given me the guidance. God has brought me to where I am at,” he said. “I am praying that our Congress is going to act. The ball is in their court now.”

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