Monday, Aug. 21, 2017 | 2 a.m.
Brenda Romero remembered feeling angry when she was a teenager and it truly hit her what it meant to be undocumented. Whether it was her longing to get a driver’s license, her dream of college or her desire to secure a good-paying job to help her family, her immigration status was a barrier.
That was until a June morning five years ago when President Barack Obama announced an executive order known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals.
“I remember President Obama giving that address,” said Romero, who had just graduated from high school that summer. “I remember crying because I couldn’t believe that was something happening. (DACA) gave me hope.”
Since the order, nearly 800,000 people have qualified for the program, an estimated 13,000 from Nevada.
Dream Big Vegas, which helps undocumented immigrants with access to education, partnered with the Culinary Union to recognize DACA’s Aug. 15 anniversary. As much as it was a celebration, the gathering of DACA recipients, other undocumented people and various supporters got into the uncertainty around immigration.
“(DACA has) helped us for a long time now,” said Astrid Silva, a local Dreamer and notable activist fighting for pathways to citizenship. “We want to get everyone to celebrate it but also see what will happen next, since programs like DACA and (Temporary Protected Status) are under attack.”
DACA was initially open to undocumented immigrants under 31 who, at the time of the order, had come to the U.S. before they were 16. Prospective candidates had to be in school or had to have graduated from high school or a GED program, and they couldn’t have a felony conviction.
“DACA was created because these kids were already in limbo,” said immigration attorney Peter Ashman, who spoke at the event. “If you take that away, they go back into limbo.”
During his campaign, Donald Trump assured supporters that the executive order would be overturned on Day One of his presidency.
“But here we are, six months later,” Ashman said, offering a little hope to the audience.
Trump supports the proposed legislation known as the Raise Act, which would reduce immigration by half and prioritize “high-skill” applicants for entry into the United States. There was talk of that policy at the event, as well as Trump’s recent announcement that he might pardon former Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who was convicted of criminal contempt in July for ignoring a judge’s order to stop detaining people he suspected of being undocumented (sentencing is scheduled for Oct. 5).
“Joe Arpaio was probably the worst human rights abuser and the worst elected anti-immigrant official we had in this country,” Ashman said. “To consider pardoning him and rewarding him for disobeying a federal judge is stunning to me.”
U.S. Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, D-Nev., who also spoke at the event, said doing so would erode the rule of the law.
“This should not stand,” she said.
While Trump has said DACA beneficiaries shouldn’t worry about his plans for reform, there are other forces at work. Ten state attorneys general, led by Ken Paxton of Texas, sent an ultimatum to U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions: Rescind the executive order or face litigation. Trump has until Sept. 5 to make a decision.
“I think what they are looking at is not issuing anymore, not approving anymore or not extending anymore,” Ashman said “It would end the program. But if you have it and as long as it’s not expired, I really don’t see how they could take that away from you.”
He added that dissolving the program would harm the community.
“It’s almost cruel to give people employment authorization for five years, let them believe they have a place in this country, which they relied on, and then yank it out from underneath them,” Ashman said. “It’s inhuman. ... We won’t go down without a fight.”
He recommended any potential DACA applicant get paperwork in order as soon as possible.
Speakers expressed concern about the $500 fee to submit that paperwork, and fear about being added to a list of undocumented people. Cortez Masto said part of addressing immigration reform was breaking through the anti-immigrant rhetoric and sharing personal stories.
“They are an integral part of our community,” she said. “If people would sit down with these families, if they would sit down with these kids, they would see how hardworking they are. Some are working two jobs just to put themselves through school and then go home to help their parents.”
Their contribution to the workforce, she added, is significant: Deporting just Nevada’s DACA recipients could cut $5 million from the local economy annually.
Cortez Masto said the best way to deal with the uncertainty about DACA’s future was to replace it. Another version of the Development, Education and Relief for Alien Minors Act, or the Dream Act, is being considered. The senator said existing and aspiring Dreamers needed to know they had allies fighting to get it passed, even though it would be just one step in the campaign to overhaul U.S. immigration policy.
Potentially billions of dollars that could boost U.S. gross domestic product are tied up in the opportunities afforded people like Romero. Since applying for DACA, she has received her associate degree from the College of Southern Nevada, where she also was student body president. Now working on her bachelor’s at UNLV, she is expected to graduate in 2018.
“I always knew DACA could go away,” she said. “But it helps going to events like this, knowing there are people who are there for you and that there are communities lined up to fight alongside us.”