DACA recipients wait for Trump moves on young immigrants' program

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The future of a program that gives temporary protection from deportation and work permits to young immigrants living in the country illegally is up in the air.

On Thursday, President Donald Trump repeated he won’t end the program known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, but without revealing details of possible restrictions to the program.

"We’re going to show great heart. DACA is a very, very difficult subject for me," Trump said at a White House press conference.

As a candidate, Trump vowed to revoke the executive action that created DACA, but has since softened his stand.

Still, the arrest by immigration agents of 23-year-old DACA recipient Daniel Ramirez Medina last week raised questions about what Trump plans while increasing fears among the immigrants in the program.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials have defended Medina's arrest, calling him an admitted gang member. Attorneys representing him have said that is a false claim, and that Medina has no criminal record. They have petitioned the federal court for his release.

The program of temporary protection and work permits has been open to young immigrants who arrived in the country as children and are here illegally. Those in the program can renew their DACA protection every two years.

Roughly 750,000 young people have been approved for DACA since its inception, about half of whom live in California. 

One DACA recipient's story

The recent arrest has young immigrants like Jungwoo Kim worried. Kim came to the U.S. from South Korea when he was 15.

He was sent to the U.S. by his parents on a temporary visa to live with his aunt in Orange County. Kim said at the time, his parents were struggling financially, and they felt he would have better opportunities in the U.S. 

Once his visa ran out, he stayed.

After high school, he worked under-the-table jobs in restaurants and construction and as a valet, saving up and putting himself through college. 

In August 2012, when Kim was in his late 20s and just finishing college, President Obama created DACA by executive action. Unlike many DACA-eligible Asian immigrants who chose not to apply in fear of revealing their status to their peers or their information to the government, Kim applied for DACA.

"I think there are two choices you can make. You get defeated by your fear, or you just overcome your fear. I chose the latter one," he said.  

With his degree and his DACA work permit, Kim quickly found good-paying work, first with a furniture company downtown, then as an insurance agent.

Last year, he changed course and decided he wanted a career in community service. He's now a community organizer with the Korean Resource Center, a Koreatown nonprofit that provides social services to immigrants and seniors.

Kim knows that with a stroke of President Trump's pen, his life could dramatically change for the worse. If DACA is dismantled, "that means I cannot drive, I cannot work, I cannot go back to school, so what can I do?" Kim said.

Working again without a permit is an option, he said. "But I don't think they are going to hire me, because I'm getting older." Now 32, he believes under-the-table employers are more likely to employ people who are younger and cheaper to hire.

Even given Trump's latest remarks that suggests he won't put an end DACA, no one is sure what to believe, said Karthick Ramakrishnan, a political scientist at University of California, Riverside. 

“There is a lot of uncertainty, especially in the last week, in terms of the future of the DACA program," Ramakrishnan said. "Not only as to whether they will renew the program, but what they will do with people who currently have DACA.”

Depending on what Trump decides, the impact on the young immigrants in DACA may not be immediate. While Trump could choose to dissolve the program entirely, he could also grandfather in those already in DACA. Or the program could be slowly phased out.

"He could stop taking applications and just let the program die out," said John Miano, a fellow with the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington, D.C., think tank that advocates tighter immigration rules. "He could decide to allow the courts to decide, and declare DACA...unlawful."

In June, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a 4-4 ruling on a case that would have expanded DACA and allowed temporary legal status for parents of U.S. citizen children, a change planned under an Obama executive action. The split decision sent the case back to a Texas federal court, and the Trump administration is not expected to pursue a defense of the Obama program.

Miano said his best guess is that Trump will move to end DACA, in one way or another.

"Because I think DACA is unlawful, and I think he thinks it’s unlawful, and I think the courts are going to find it unlawful, so I think he has to do something different,” Miano said.

In the meantime, Congress could take action. A bipartisan group in the Senate recently introduced the so-called "Bridge Act," which would extend DACA protections and make the program a legislative one rather than one created by the executive branch.

Whatever transpires, legal nonprofits serving immigrants said they continue to help immigrants process their two-year DACA renewals. However, they have pretty much stopped filing new applications for the program. 

"All we can really do right now is advocate on how the program is a success," said Anthony Ng, a policy advocate with Asian Americans Advancing Justice in downtown L.A., which advises immigrants of their legal rights.

Ng, who was born in the Philippines, is himself a DACA recipient. He is thinking ahead to what he and others will do if DACA is repealed.

"You'd have to figure out how to survive again," he said. "You'd have to figure out how to earn income, how to get housing. DACA was able to provide a lot of folks a more stable life. To be able to take that back ... it’s a little hard to imagine it right now, because the impact is so personal."

Jungwoo Kim in Koreatown said right now he needs "to plan for the worst, hope for the best.

"I don't want to just wait. I think I need to be ready," Kim said. He's not sure exactly what to be ready for, other than to go back to life in the shadows, knowing even that may not be possible.

"I already gave all my information to DHS (Department of Homeland Security)," he said. "They have my fingerprints. They know where I am. I already file taxes. They have my work records, my school records. If they decide to get me, they get me."

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