When a federal judge in California blocked US President Donald Trump’s move to rescind an Obama-era policy meant to protect undocumented people brought by their parents as children, Paul Quinonez felt some relief.
“It was a symbolic victory for us and it was great to see the courts realise that as young undocumented people we shouldn’t live in limbo,” Quinonez, an undocumented resident of Washington state who has been protected by Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) programme since he was in his last year of high school, told Al Jazeera hours after the court decision on January 9.
The Trump administration announced in September that the programme, which protects 800,000 individuals, would be phased out by March, unless Democrats could agree with Republicans to an increase in immigration enforcement, including a US-Mexico border wall.
Judge William Alsup wrote in his January decision that “DACA covers a class of immigrants whose presence, seemingly all agree, pose the least, if any, threat and allows them to sign up for honest labor on the condition of continued good behavior”.
DACA-protected immigrants, sometimes called “Dreamers” because of never-passed legislation, are often considered a benefit to the US economy. They have an employment rate of nearly 90 percent in well-paying jobs and about 75 percent are enrolled in institutions of higher education.
“This has become an important programme for DACA recipients and their families, for the employers who hire them, for our tax treasuries, and for our economy,” Alsup added.
But the ruling “shouldn’t give us false hope, we need a permanent solution,” said Quinonez, who came to the US from Mexico with his family when he was seven years old.
During Trump’s first year, life in the US for undocumented immigrants, including those protected by DACA, has “gotten much worse,” Quinonez said.
The road to a permanent solution for Dreamers has been long and convoluted. Former President Barack Obama announced DACA in 2012, after the Republican-controlled Congress voted against several immigration reform bills during his first term.
Obama’s track record on immigration is also complex. He has received credit from many for DACA, and his 2014 attempt to expand the programme to include more undocumented individuals, which was later blocked by the Supreme Court after 26 states sued over its implementation.
But Obama was also popularly called the “deporter-in-chief”, a play on the US president’s title of “commander-in-chief” of the US armed forces, for widespread removals of undocumented migrants.
Quinonez said he and his family were at first distrustful of the programme.
“I wasn’t sure if I wanted to apply. I wasn’t sure if I could trust the government,” Quinonez recalled.
Furthermore, DACA didn’t provide a permanent pathway to citizenship, making it a stopgap measure.
Quinonez said his family discussed if it made sense to spend money on a college education, when any future president could end the programme.
But Quinonez did apply, was granted protection from deportation, graduated from university and now works in politics.
Like many, especially in left-leaning Washington state, everything he knew about politics suggested that Trump would never be elected.
“None of us imagined that someone like Trump would run for president, win the Republican nomination and become president of the US,” Quinonez said.
Trump ran on a platform that many said was xenophobic and racist, allegations the now US president denies. When he announced his candidacy in 2015, the Trump infamously said that immigrants from Mexico are “bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists”, before saying he assumed that “some are good people.”
An integral part of this platform was building a wall on the US-Mexico border and initiating a crackdown on undocumented immigrants in the US.
When Trump won on November 8, 2016, Quinonez said he “was in shock for the next couple of days. I kept not realising what that meant.”
The truth settled in when his younger brother, who is studying to be an engineer and doesn’t follow politics, called Quinonez and asked about the future under the Trump administration.
The effects were felt in the Quinonez family and throughout the community. He said his “parents started talking to their children about possibly moving back to Mexico”.
It was the mirror image of what he went through at the age of seven, the children of undocumented children would have to “learn and adapt to [Mexican] society; learn a language they don’t speak”.
When Donald Trump was inaugurated as the 44th US president on January 20, 2017, he promised his presidency would favour “America first”.
His policies “on trade, on taxes, on immigration, on foreign affairs will be made to benefit American workers and American families,” Trump said during his inaugural address. “We must protect our borders from the ravages of other countries making our products, stealing our companies and destroying our jobs,” he added.
The president was quick to deliver on a number of campaign promises. On January 25, Trump signed two executive orders, the first was the “Border Security and Immigration Enforcement Improvements,” and the second “Enhancing Public Safety in the Interior of the United States”.
The orders prioritised the construction of the US-Mexico border wall and granted expanded powers to immigration authorities to increase deportations and detentions.
By February, ICE had instituted a nationwide crackdown on undocumented immigrants. Cities in Texas, Arizona, California and elsewhere were swept up in detentions, some of which took place in historically protected areas like courthouses, spreading fear and uncertainty through communities.
Trump’s crackdown prompted many cities to adopt so-called “sanctuary city” policies that limit local law enforcement cooperation with immigration authorities.
Fearing potential death if returned to their countries of origin, some undocumented immigrants have taken refuge in houses of worship, hoping ICE wouldn’t violate its own protocol to not carry out raids on religious establishments.
Juan Belman, an Austin-based dreamer and local activist that works to provide undocumented individuals with legal support, told Al Jazeera that Trump’s first year has created an environment that inspires people to get involved.
“We’ve seen a lot more people become engaged in all these issues. It’s crazy, right? We only see this increase in activism after something bad has happened,” Belman said.
The 25-year-old dreamer, who was brought to the US at the age of 10, said the “bad” he’s referring to is an “increase in interior enforcement”.
The number of deportations under Trump was lower than any from Obama’s last years in office, but the decline comes because US Border Patrol are apprehending “fewer people trying to cross the US-Mexico border”, Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies at the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS) told Al Jazeera.
CIS, which is supportive of Trump’s immigration policy, was labelled a “hate group” last year by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) for its ties to John Tanton, the “father of the modern nativist movement” which is “anti-immigrant”. The group describes itself a “low-immigration”, but “pro-immigrant”, nonprofit.
Vaughan said lower border detentions are “a sign that fewer people are trying to cross illegally, most likely because they are deterred by Trump’s promises of more serious enforcement”.
Inside the US, Trump has increased detention and deportation of undocumented immigrants both with and without criminal records.
Although total deportations have decreased, detentions of undocumented immigrants increased to 143,470 in 2017, up from slightly over 110,000 in 2016.
Many of those detained are required to stand before a judge in an immigration court.
These courts decide the status of the undocumented and face a backlog of over 500,000 cases. This number began building under the Obama administration and steadily increased in Trump’s first year.
Even though many in Belman’s community have become more involved in the pro-immigrant fight, finding legal support is still difficult, he explained.
“In Austin, we have developed a community hotline so we can help people with legal support,” but “trying to find legal representation for everyone is very difficult,” Belman said.
It’s not only lawyers, but also immigrant judges who preside over these courts that face a shortfall.
There are currently about 300 immigration judges, and New York-based watchdog group Human Rights First says an additional 120 are needed to handle the current backlog.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the official who announced the rescinding of the DACA programme in September, is considering ending “administrative closures”. He launched a review of the practice this month.
Administrative closures allow undocumented individuals to stay in the country while their petitions are vetted by parties outside the immigration courts.
If Sessions ends the practice, an additional 350,000 cases will be re-opened in immigrant courts.
This would “flood the courts”, Belman said. “I don’t know what we would do handle an increase like that.”
While the Trump administration has held the status of Dreamers hostage for Trump’s border wall, Democrats are using the US federal budget to push immigration protections forward.
The deadline for a spending agreement to avert a government shutdown is January 19, the day before the first anniversary of Trump’s presidency. Any US budget agreement will require Democratic support to pass the Senate, and the Democratic leaders – with newfound leverage from a Senate seat gained in the recent Alabama special election – have said that the budget and DACA protections are linked.
On January 11, a bipartisan group of legislators announced they reached a deal on DACA protections, the US president rejected it and his congressional liaison Marc Short said, “There’s still a ways to go.”
Trump is pushing for increased border security, an end to both “chain migration” – a process that allows immigrants to apply for their family to come to the US – and the diversity visa programme that allows for people from countries with a small presence in the US to apply for visas.
The Trump administration has also said it was ending “Temporary Protected Status” (TPS) for Haiti, Nicaragua and El Salvador.
TPS grants individuals fleeing specific crises, like natural disasters or conflict, visas to live and work in the US. The move to end the status for the three countries affects hundreds of thousands of people, many of whom say they fear to return to their home countries.
Democrats, during negotiations with Trump and congressional Republicans on continued protections for Dreamers, reportedly offered an end to the diversity visa programme in exchange for continuing the TPS programme.
These negotiations prompted the now infamous comments from Trump, in which the US president reportedly questioned why the US should take immigrants from “shithole countries” like El Salvador, Haiti and some African countries.
The fallout, including renewed accusations of racism on the part of the president, have prompted Trump to say a DACA deal is unlikely.
Even if it does happen, “Trump is asking undocumented young people to make a deal with the devil: Protect their futures in exchange for sacrificing their parents and other community members by supporting increased funding and resources for detention, deportation, and border militarisation,” Alisa Wellek, the executive director of the Immigrants Defense Project, told Al Jazeera.
The idea of being leveraged to further militarise the US border and stop other immigrants from coming to the US doesn’t sit well with many Dreamers, including Belman, who remembered his father being detained by immigration authorities.
But Belman said he’s optimistic: “It won’t be a one-party solution. Both parties can be doing more and supporting these efforts. I’m hopeful that something positive is going to come out of the talks.”
Reflecting on a year of Trump’s presidency, Quinonez explained that many felt a sense of complacency before the election, even though DACA was a temporary solution. “We should have prepared more.”
Quinonez said he hopes Trump’s first year is a wake-up call for those who aren’t yet involved with the pro-immigrant movement. It’s imperative for activists and citizens to keep pressuring the Democrats, who haven’t always supported their cause as strongly as they could, Quinonez said.
“We’re fully aware that 2018 is an election year,” Quinonez said, referring to 2018 midterm elections that could see Democrats making gains over Republicans after a routing in the 2016 elections.
The Dreamer movement is mobilised and holds sway in progressive communities across the US, the activist warned.
Democrats “will feel the consequences if they don’t do more” for immigrants, Quinonez concluded.
This article is part of a multipart series examining the State of America Under Trump. Also read: