Emboldened by Trump, immigration authorities have arrested immigrants without criminal records at massive rate.
New York, US – Aside from a slight Spanish accent, there is little to separate Juan Escalante from many people who were born and bred in the United States. The chinos, Ray Ban sunglasses and love of coffee are as all-American as the next man.
Escalante, however, was brought to the US by his Venezuelan parents at age 11. He was undocumented, but won a modicum of security under a 2012 government deal to not deport young arrivals like Escalante and his two younger brothers.
That temporary reprieve – called ‘Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals‘ (DACA) – has helped 800,000 younger, undocumented immigrants get a legal status, work permits and driving licences, but is now in the crosshairs of President Donald Trump‘s administration.
“I feel American; all I’m missing is a piece of paper that validates that my loyalties lie with this country,” Escalante, now 28 and a rights campaigner from Tallahassee, Florida, told Al Jazeera.
“At the end of the day, when we talk about the DACA programme, we’re talking about people who have grown up in the United States who want to contribute and want to continue to make it their home.”
After months of delays, Trump – a Republican – is expected to decide within days on the fate of DACA recipients – often called “dreamers” – as he faces pressure to come good on hardline campaign pledges and meet a looming deadline.
A group of Republican state legislators, led by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, has threatened to mount a legal challenge to DACA unless the government rescinds the scheme and stops issuing work permits by September 5.
Trump’s wavering on DACA
Trump has signed tough immigration orders, such as banning travellers from six Muslim-majority countries, but he has wavered on his plans for DACA. During last year’s election campaign, he branded it an “illegal amnesty”.
Since entering office in January, the billionaire has praised the “incredible kids”, who continue to apply for, and receive, two-year, renewable work permits from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), to the dismay of immigration hardliners.
Trump’s wavering highlights how dreamers are, in many ways, poster children for undocumented immigrants – often far removed from the “bad hombres” that he promised to kick out during the campaign.
A study by Tom Wong, a scholar at the University of California, San Diego, backed by left-leaning groups, such as the Center for American Progress, showed that DACA helps the US economy as well as the scheme’s recipients.
Some 97 percent of dreamers are currently employed or in school. Permission to work has helped many climb the career ladder, meaning average pay rises of 69 percent and, thus, more tax revenue filling government coffers.
Dreamers pay rent and buy cars and laptops. The survey of 3,063 recipients found that 16 percent bought houses and five percent launched businesses; overall, they will add $460bn to the US economy over the next decade, Wong told Al Jazeera.
At least 72 percent of the top 25 Fortune 500 companies employ DACA beneficiaries, meaning that any decision to stop renewing work permits would force big corporations to spend time and money recruiting new talent, he added.
Americans are sympathetic to children who were brought to the US by their parents, often via risky land routes through deserts and ganglands. Three-quarters hail from Mexico; the average age at entry was six-and-a-half years old.
An opinion poll by Morning Consult in April found that 78 percent of voters wanted to let dreamers stay in the US; 56 percent expressed support for eventual citizenship. Only 14 percent of respondents said they should be sent packing.
DACA has its critics – not least those who accuse former President Barack Obama of acting unconstitutionally five years ago when he carved out a waiver for a whole category of people who had entered America illegally.
“While immigration always benefits immigrants – they wouldn’t come otherwise – it can have adverse consequences for others in our society,” Dave Ray, a spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, told Al Jazeera.
“It affects people’s jobs, their wages, essential public institutions, and the allocation of scarce public resources. Significant numbers of undocumented minors affects the schools they attend, which are almost always in districts where the schools are already struggling.”
Steven Camarota, from the right-leaning Center for Immigration Studies, argued in the National Review that DACA mostly hurts blue-collar Americans. Dreamers can pass background checks, meaning more competition for jobs such as security guards, truckers and delivery van drivers.
Dreamers are a “less sympathetic group” than immigration reformers make out, he added – claiming that many speak English poorly, are well-acquainted with their home countries, and in some cases, have ties with criminal gangs.
‘We’re not going back into the shadows’
Trump’s move on DACA comes amid heightened tensions over race and immigration following a violent white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, and his decision to pardon a former sheriff who flouted an order to stop racially profiling Latinos.
The president has several options. He could order the DHS to stop issuing new DACA work permits immediately, or at a future date. Or the administration could continue issuing the permits, triggering the Republican legal challenge, and then choose not to defend the measure in court.
Alternatively, he can use DACA as a bargaining chip to pressure Democrats into backing his plans for immigration, the budget, and raising the debt ceiling. Human Rights Watch has warned that dreamers are now “pawns” in a political slugfest.
This week, activists and dreamers have stepped up pressure on legislators. Angelica Villalobos, 31, a mother-of-four from Oklahoma, and other DACA-recipients who spoke to Al Jazeera, vowed to “not go down without a fight”.
Yajaira Saavedra, 28, who works in her parents’ Mexican restaurant in New York, noted that dreamers like her had chosen to reveal themselves to the government on DACA application forms. “We’re not going back into the shadows,” she said.
Scrapping DACA would not immediately trigger a mass deportation of 800,000 dreamers. Instead, they may lose that status and see work permits lapse as they revert to the undocumented status they held previously.
This offers little comfort to Escalante. His parents have no legal safeguards, and he notes the risk they take each time they drive to buy groceries. A police stop for a busted taillight could spiral into deportation proceedings back to Caracas.
“It just seems that Donald Trump is willing to go after anyone and everybody regardless of whether they have a parking ticket or committed a serious crime – they’re essentially moral equivalents,” said Escalante, a two-time graduate of Florida State University.
“Going back to Venezuela isn’t an option for me. I haven’t been back since I came to the US in 2000.”
Follow James Reinl on Twitter: @jamesreinl