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In legal limbo: DACA students reflect on a year of uncertainty

<p>Junior Axel Herrera</p>

Junior Axel Herrera

Beginning a new school year can be filled with anxiety for many, but last year two Duke students also had to grapple with the fear that they might not be allowed to stay in the country. 

Junior Axel Herrera Ramos and sophomore Salvador Chavero Arellano have protected status through the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. DACA is an Obama-era executive order that allows undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as children to remain in the United States that came under seige from President Donald Trump last fall. 

Those with the protected status, also referred to as Dreamers, can apply for forms of identification such as driver’s licenses and social security numbers that are unavailable to undocumented immigrants.

“[DACA] was definitely a game changer,” said Arellano, who moved from Mexico to the United States with his family when he was one year old. “I’ve been able to have a social security number, work, pay taxes and just be able to contribute to society.”

Herrera came to the United States from Honduras at the age of seven and received protection under the program in 2014, which allowed him get a driver's license and work during high school and college. 

'A hard day': Trump rescinds DACA

In September 2017, President Trump rescinded Obama's executive order, which protected around 800,000 Dreamers from deportation at the time. The administration argued that the initial order was unconstitutional and gave Congress until March 5 to pass legislation that would extend protections for Dreamers. Since then, the program has been the subject of a prolonged legislative and legal battle—and is still in limbo. 

Only current DACA recipients can re-apply for protection at the moment. 

Neither Herrera nor Arellano was surprised by the Trump administration rescinding DACA. 

“It wasn’t a moment of shock,” Herrera said. “It was like, sh*t, this might be happening.” 

Herrera had been well aware of the Trump administration’s crackdown on immigration, witnessing firsthand ICE raids on fellow immigrants. 

“It was definitely a hard day,” Arellano said. “It was just barely two weeks into my freshman year of college; I should be worried about my classes and my schedule and not have to worry about whether I’m going to be allowed to stay in the country or not.”

Reality soon set in for Dreamers at Duke and elsewhere: they would have to fight to protect their right to remain in the United States. Herrera remembered attending a rally in downtown Durham and witnessing fellow Dreamers' reactions.

“There were like three at first, and then the first person went up, the second person went up, and by the end I was the second to last of ten,” he recounted. “There was nothing to lose at that point.” 

Meanwhile, the Duke administration wasted no time in restating their commitment to protecting the Dreamers who study and work here. 

“We stated that we were going to do whatever we could through legislative work, through legal work, to make sure sure that [students’ and workers’] rights under DACA were held intact or reinstated,” said Christopher Simmons, associate vice president in the office of government relations. 

Simmons noted that Duke pushes for a variety of legislation in Washington, and that immigration is a particularly important part of the University’s agenda. 

President Vincent Price issued a statement in support of DACA after Trump's announcement, and administrators met with the school’s Dreamers. The University has also signed amicus briefs in support of DACA recipients at Duke who have lawsuits currently going through the courts. 

“It was all just to assure us that the University is doing everything it can both here and in D.C.,” Arellano said.

Reassurance was not all that Duke had to offer its Dreamers. Two days after the Trump administration’s announcement, the National Education Association called Herrera to offer him funding to travel to Washington and argue in favor of a legislative solution. 

Herrera took the offer and ran with it. 

Herrera—then-co-president of Duke’s Define American chapter, an organization that allows immigrants to share their stories—and 12 other members of the organization also traveled to Washington in November 2017 to meet with members of Congress with the support of University administration. The group lobbied for the Succeed Act, which would have given DACA recipients conditional permanent residence for five years and a path to citizenship after 15 years. 

“Frankly, the students telling their stories is probably some of the best stuff that we can do to further our agenda in getting bipartisan legislation,” Simmons said. “When you hear their stories, when you talk to them, I think it’s really hard for people not to want to help them.”

So far, the bill has stalled after being introduced to the Senate. 

The Battle in the Courts

Despite a number of proposed legislative solutions, no bill could garner bipartisan support last year. As 2018 began, the March 5 deadline loomed large in the minds of Dreamers and legislators alike.

At the last minute, help for Dreamers came from the courts. 

In January, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California issued a ruling that halted the end of DACA and allowed Dreamers to apply for an extension of their protected status. In February, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York issued a similar ruling. 

Now, DACA could end up before the Supreme Court, potentially reshaping immigration policy and executive power alike. The potential confirmation of Judge Brett Kavanaugh could impact the court’s decision. 

“Kavanaugh believes in an extensive executive branch, which would by and large support the way Trump has sought to redirect immigration policy,” said Gunther Peck, associate professor of history. 

Peck added that, although it does not mean that any given decision is right, “the legal footing for the executive branch to reverse policies has been there for a long time."

Arellano is similarly nervous about the court’s decision. 

“We’ll probably lose, due to the political and ideological makeup of the Supreme Court currently,” he said. “Our only hope is for Congress to act and grant us status.”

Arellano added that Define American has focused on other efforts while the legal battle continues. These include working with sanctuary churches, people in detention centers and children who came to the United States as refugees. 

According to the Duke Student Affairs website, “Duke is firmly committed to protecting the right of all students to learn and discover, regardless of their background or immigration status.” 

Duke provides full financial aid for undocumented undergraduate students with demonstrated need, a policy that went into effect in fall of 2017. 

Herrera said that Define American is ready to continue its fight for immigrants' rights at Duke and across the country. 

“If it doesn’t change, [it’s] just more mobilization, more organizing, more calling out the lack of information that exists,” he said. 

Correction: This article originally stated that Herrera received a call two days after Trump's announcement from a Duke official that led to a trip to Washington, D.C.. That call was from the National Education Association official, and the trip that resulted was separate from the group that went to D.C. from Duke. The Chronicle regrets the error.

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