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  1. Florida Politics

Trump vowed to end DACA. Tampa Bay immigrants worry he soon will

Mariana Sanchez Ramirez, 23, poses for a photograph on the Tampa campus of the University of South Florida on Wednesday. Mariana, who was born in Torreon in the state of Coahuila, Mexico, traveled with her family to the United States on a tourist's visa in 2000. She was able to stay in the U.S. and attended college after President Barack Obama's action on Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals in June 2012. Mariana will graduate with a degree in political science from USF next month. (CHRIS URSO | Times)
Published Jul. 29, 2017

Andrea Seabra imagined the worst if Donald Trump won: "I thought on the first day he would say, 'DACA is done' and send immigration officers to every house."

Trump had vowed to immediately rescind President Barack Obama's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, a program that has spared hundreds of thousands of immigrants from deportation.

Six months into Trump's term, though, the government continues to grant new applicants and make renewals. "I'm still here," said Seabra, who lives near St. Petersburg.

Trump has aggressively moved on enforcement, rounding up hard criminals and minor offenders alike, stirring emotional debates in cities and towns across the country. At the same time, he has shown restraint toward the young immigrants who arrived by no fault of their own and have little or no recollection of their homelands.

But there is growing uncertainty, and Trump may be forced to take a stand. A group of Republican state attorneys general have issued an ultimatum: End DACA by Sept. 5 or face a lawsuit contending, as Trump said during the campaign, that the program is "unconstitutional executive amnesty."

Some lawmakers are working on a legislative remedy, but passage is unlikely with many conservatives in opposition and influential Republicans such as Florida Sen. Marco Rubio staying on the sidelines.

About 800,000 people, nearly 33,000 in Florida, have been granted work permits under DACA.

They have obtained driver's licenses and, in some cases, in-state college tuition. They are protected from deportation but their status is by no means permanent; DACA permits must be renewed every two years.

The situation facing Trump illustrates how campaign promises can be hard to keep, especially those with human consequences, not unlike the GOP's struggles over repealing the Affordable Care Act.

"It's a decision that's very, very hard to make," Trump said earlier this month. "There are two sides of a story. It's always tough."

• • •

For the young immigrants, commonly known as Dreamers, the euphoria they felt when DACA began in 2012 has given way to reservations many had when signing up: Someday, it could all vanish.

"It's scary and sad," said Seabra, 30, who came to Florida from Peru with her mother at age 11, overstaying a visa. She graduated cum laude from Saint Leo University in 2016, and this spring she got a job at a major accounting firm.

"At the end of the day, I don't have legal status other than DACA," said Seabra. "I have friends who have been here since they were 2 months old, babies, and they don't know anything but the United States.

"I could lose my job because my work permit would be revoked, my driver's license would be revoked and I would live in fear of deportation. Everything I know could disappear."

On Facebook, she said, friends sound alarms at the sighting of Immigration and Customs Enforcement vans around town.

"We gave this information to the government and came out of the shadows and now this could be used against us if DACA is overturned," said Mariana Sanchez Ramirez, 23, of Tampa.

"It's kind of exhausting sometimes to keep track of it," she said of the debate. "You just don't know what will happen or which side the president will take."

Trump's administration has gotten tough on immigration enforcement but focused on criminals and older immigrants, including parents who brought their children into the country illegally.

Obama sought to protect as many as 5 million otherwise law-abiding immigrant parents as well but was blocked through a legal battle that culminated last year in a deadlocked U.S. Supreme Court decision.

That gives hope to critics of DACA that a new legal challenge will prevail. Ten state attorneys general, led by Ken Paxton of Texas, threaten to sue if a phaseout of the program does not begin by Sept. 5. (Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, a Republican and friend of Trump, is not part of the action, and her office did not respond to questions.)

"Our activists are encouraging their state officials to join with Texas, and we hope Texas will sue to stop the Trump/Obama DACA Dream Amnesty as soon as possible," said William Gheen, president of Americans for Legal Immigration PAC. He argued that DACA encourages more people to enter the United States unlawfully.

Dreamers and their advocates are fighting back. On Wednesday, 15 people were arrested at a demonstration in Austin and more protests are planned in other cities.

The Trump administration has let DACA stand, but acknowledged its legal trouble. Then-Homeland Security Secretary John F. Kelly, now Trump's chief of staff, this month informed lawmakers that lawyers have told him it may not stand a challenge.

• • •

Public opinion polls show broad support for helping Dreamers. A Morning Consult survey in April showed nearly 4 in 5 registered voters think the young immigrants should be able to stay in the country and just over half support eventual citizenship.

Only 14 percent of voters supported deportation.

Still, the polling has not improved the chances of legislation in Congress.

This month, Sens. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Richard Durbin, D-Ill., introduced an updated "Dream Act" that would grant permanent legal status to qualified immigrants and provide a path to citizenship.

Eligibility requirements include a record free of serious crimes, some college education, military service, or at least three years of full employment.

"To President Trump, you're going to have to make a decision," said Graham. "To the Republican Party: Who are we? What do we believe? When they write the history of these times, I'm going to be with these kids."

Despite calling on Congress to do something to solve the immigration puzzle, White House officials have signaled Trump is not likely to sign the legislation — which stands little chance of reaching his desk.

So far, only one other Republican has signed on: Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona.

Rubio said he was concerned about bad actors in Central America using it as a way to mislead people into making their way north, even though people would have had to live in the United States for at least four years to qualify.

Rubio's office would not say whether he would try to influence the legislation. A House version exists but also faces tough odds.

Rubio, whose involvement in immigration policy has caused him problems with conservatives, worked on a version of the Dream Act in 2012 but never produced a bill.

"It was his dilly-dallying that gave Obama the opportunity to do DACA," said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, which advocates for stricter immigration policies.

Obama himself long said he was limited in what he could do without Congress, but he was under intense pressure to act.

Krikorian says Trump should at least stop issuing new DACA permits — an aim of the attorneys general — and would favor granting current recipients green cards in exchange for requiring employers to use a background check system known as E-Verify as well as closing off avenues for family-based sponsorship.

"There's no question that somebody who came here illegally as a toddler and has grown up here is someone who is American in all but paperwork," Krikorian conceded, arguing that someone who came at age 15 is different.

• • •

Jaime Rangel arrived in the United States with his Mexican parents when he was 3 months old. They settled in Georgia.

"I tell everybody I grew up a Latino eating tortillas and grits at the same time," the 26-year-old said in a Southern drawl. "Northwest Georgia has always been home to me — that's where I got my values, God first and love thy neighbor."

He spoke this month on a conference call arranged by FWD.us, a bipartisan group that has pushed for immigration reform and argued that the economy would suffer if thousands of people are forced out of jobs on a weekly basis.

Rangel said he fell into depression when he learned he was not a U.S. citizen and could not get a driver's license. He obtained one through DACA, and got a job that helps him pay for school at Dalton State College.

"We're just here trying to live the American dream," Rangel said. "Many of us are buying houses, buying cars and contributing to the economy. If DACA were to go away, it would be catastrophic."

Ramirez, the Tampa woman, moved to the United States from Mexico when she was 6. Her father could not find work, she said, and they overstayed a visa. Her parents live under the threat of deportation.

"I love my parents and think they did what any parent would do: They came to provide a better life for me and my sister. I understand why many don't agree with that. This is why I like to speak about my story."

She went to Jefferson High School in Tampa and will graduate from the University of South Florida next month with a degree in political science and plans to move to Washington to begin a career. If DACA is rescinded, she said, "I would be out of a job within days" and could face deportation.

"The United States is my home," Ramirez said. "I don't really remember Mexico. It would be devastating to leave home."

That may be an extreme outcome, but the prospect of falling back into the shadows is real, so she anxiously watches Trump for a sign.

"To me, it's one of the most difficult subjects I have because you have these incredible kids — in many cases, not in all cases," Trump said in February. "It's a very, very tough subject."

Contact Alex Leary at aleary@tampabay.com.

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