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Nevada’s 13,000 DACA participants confront ‘limbo’

Updated September 5, 2017 - 11:09 pm

Immigrants participating in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program in Southern Nevada reacted to the Trump administration’s decision to rescind the program with anger, tears and resolve.

About 30 advocates for the DACA program gathered Tuesday at the East Las Vegas Community Center to vent and vow to fight to save it. Nevada has about 13,000 young immigrants in the program.

“We, as 13,000 DACA recipients, we need to come out,” said Astrid Silva, a vocal participant in the program who directs the pro-DACA community organization DREAM Big Vegas.

She was calm compared to other so-called Dreamers at the podium.

Alicia Contreras, state director for Mi Familia Vota, a nonprofit organization that advocates for the Latino community, heatedly challenged U.S. Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., to attend an informational event Tuesday evening for DACA participants and advocates.

“You know the address,” she said, speaking to TV cameras since Heller was not present. “We want to see you tonight.”

Advocates handed out fliers labeled “Know Your Rights” as others pulled extra chairs from behind a curtain in the East Las Vegas Community Center ballroom Tuesday night. There, hundreds listened while immigration activists, elected officials and lawyers educated DACA participants on their rights.

You’re not required to share your status with your employer, and you can’t be fired for having DACA before the work permit expires, they said.

Your Social Security number is for life.

And in Nevada, you’re allowed to drive with authorization.

‘You had this lifeline’

Erika Castro, who works for the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada, had tears in her eyes as she spoke of her DACA work permit, which is due to expire in October 2018.

“The hard part is feeling like you had this lifeline,” she said, adding that she’ll continue to work and save for a UNLV education next fall without knowing if she’ll be able to attend.

On the other side of the divide over illegal immigration, there was jubilation that President Donald Trump was finally fulfilling his campaign promise to end DACA.

“I think it’s an excellent move,” said Chuck Muth, a conservative activist and president of Citizen Outreach. “The executive order by Barack Obama was dead wrong. Congress should have overridden that a long time ago. They didn’t.”

Trump’s decision to rescind DACA was announced early Tuesday by Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Trump later tweeted that Congress has six months to pass DACA legislation or the president “will revisit this issue.”

The program, enacted through an executive order by former President Barack Obama more than five years ago, gave undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as children a work permit, a Social Security number and protection from deportation. Approximately 800,000 young immigrants have become eligible to work legally in the United States.

Program deemed unconstitutional

But their futures were thrown into question by Sessions’ announcement that the Department of Justice had determined Obama’s order was an unconstitutional violation of the separation of powers and that the Department of Homeland Security would conduct an “orderly wind-down” of DACA.

Acting Homeland Security Secretary Elaine Duke said no new applications would be accepted after Tuesday. She also said that no participants would be affected before March 5.

Las Vegas immigration advocates and lawyers have been flooded with phone calls for weeks from local DACA participants asking about their options.

“The organizations we work with are inundated,” said Martha Menendez, an immigration attorney in Las Vegas working for City University of New York’s Citizenship Now project. Menendez, who assists immigrants in applying for citizenship, said she had no answers for them, since there was never a path to naturalization under the program.

“The difficulty is being in that limbo again,” she said. “People are scared.”

The event Tuesday evening was the first informational session after Sessions’ announcement, offering participants an opportunity to discuss their futures with community leaders and lawyers.

Three local immigration lawyers took questions from the crowd.

“You’re telling me that there’s a chance after my work permit expires, immigration could knock on my door?” one woman asked. “If there are students in their senior year, what’s going to happen?”

For now, government officials have promised not to share DACA participants’ information, like home addresses, with immigration enforcement officials. Still, lawyers said Tuesday, there’s no comforting answer for the individuals who will lose their protection from deportation.

‘A very difficult issue’

Muth said he is hopeful that Congress will act before the program expires.

“This is a very difficult issue,” he said. “You’ve got not just the children of immigrants, but immigrants who have been here for 20 years. … I’m not in favor of deporting those people. But there’s a serious question that needs to be resolved about whether or not they should be able to jump into the front of the line with a path to citizenship.”

Terry Ochal, who works for the Clark County Republican Party, generally takes a hard line on illegal immigration. And he said he believes the U.S. should require that legal immigrants meet certain criteria, such as possessing needed skills and being educated and proficient in English.

He said he was disappointed that Trump passed the issue to Congress.

“I would’ve agreed more to just fully repeal it and have another executive order ready, to have a plan phasing it out, instead of putting it on Congress,” Ochal said. Still, “Our state can finally focus money on areas where it needs to be focused, instead of illegal immigrants.”

Ochal said he would have preferred that DACA never happened but, like Muth, he said he feels the U.S. now bears some obligation to the immigrants who embraced it.

“We’ve already kind of perpetuated the situation, and now we have to figure out how we would go about restoring the situation.”

Support for DREAMers

The DREAM Act, which would offer a path to citizenship, had failed to pass through Congress thus far — but state Sen. Yvanna Cancela, D-Las Vegas, said there’s more support for DREAMers now than ever before.

“It’s hard to underestimate the power of organizing,” she said. But if DACA participants are outspoken, Cancela said she thinks they can garner bipartisan support by the 6-month deadline.

Toward the event’s close, Silva took the stage.

“If you have DACA, si tu tienes DACA,” she said, “Stand up.”

They stood. And with force, the crowd chanted, “Sí, se puede.”

“Yes, you can.”

Contact Jessie Bekker at jbekker@reviewjournal.com or 702-380-4563. Follow @jessiebekks on Twitter. Review-Journal staff writer Colton Lochhead contributed to this report.

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