After the presidential election on Nov. 8, phone calls flooded the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project’s (NWIP) office with questions from worried Seattle immigrants.
“Within the first hour of opening on Wednesday, we had over 100 phone calls,” NWIRP staff attorney Michele Suarez said. “It was crazy.”
The phone calls came as thousands of Washington state applicants to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) wondered about the program’s uncertain future under Donald Trump’s impending presidency.
DACA, an executive action signed into law by President Obama in 2012, gave temporary protection from deportation to eligible undocumented immigrants who came to the United States before the age of 16. Approved applicants also receive a work permit that can be renewed every two years.
President-elect Trump promised on his campaign website to immediately terminate both DACA and the Deferred Action for Parents of Americans program, both of which he calls “illegal executive amnesties.”
As of June, 32,716 applications were accepted and 28,733 were approved in Washington state, according to data from the U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services (USCIS). The majority were initial applications.
Suarez provides direct representation to clients eligible for the DACA program who have minor criminal records. She also conducts DACA legal clinics three times a month in a computer lab where volunteer attorneys from Amazon and Perkins Coie, an international law firm headquartered in Seattle, help people apply for the program and renew their work permits. Because of DACA’s uncertain future, the last clinic was held on Dec. 15.
“We’re in limbo right now,” Suarez said. “If we hear something, like that pending applications are going to be processed, then that will definitely change things. I’m hoping that in early February there’s going to be something, but that’s a long wait.”
DACA especially benefits undocumented students, Yuriana Garcia Tellez, coordinator of University of Washington’s Leadership Without Borders, points out. With DACA’s protection from deportation, students can focus on their futures, she said.
Leadership Without Borders advises students on resources provided by Washington state, like the Washington Application for State Financial Aid. Undocumented students are also protected financially by House Bill 1079 which considers them residents for purposes of higher education. This means that students pay in-state tuition rates and not international rates as they did before the 2003 law was enacted.
But even though Washington is a progressive and inclusive state, undocumented students do not receive any special protection from deportation without DACA, Garcia Tellez said.
“They’re afraid of someone coming into their home and telling them they have to go back,” she said. “Go back to where? There’s nowhere to go back to.”
For many undocumented students, like a UW senior who asked not to be identified to protect her family from harassment, Trump’s election was an official rejection of her place in American society, she said. When she walks down the street past other pedestrians, she often wonders how they voted.
“When Trump won, I felt fear for the first time in a really, really long time,” the UW student said. “We were labeled pretty much as unwanted. How do you overcome that?”
Though she isn’t afraid of being deported to her native Mexico where she immigrated from at age 11, she said she does worry for her family members and peers who may not be safe in their countries of origin.
“What I have gained till this day — language, knowledge — that’s never going to be taken away from me,” the UW student said. “I can use it somewhere else. Wherever I go, whether it’s Mexico or somewhere else.”
On Nov. 22, NWIRP issued a community advisory stating that if a person has never applied for DACA, they do not recommend filing an initial application at this time. NWIRP also advises that DACA recipients whose work permits expire in less than 150 days should seek renewal, but would risk losing the $465 application fee.
In the advisory, NWIRP also stated that every case should be discussed with an attorney or an accredited representative, as some recommendations are subject to change depending on statements made by Trump and USCIS.
The UW student who asked not to be identified volunteers in Washington state law firms as she pursues a career in immigration and criminal law. She often helps clients fill out paperwork she has to fill out herself, she said. If DACA is repealed by the Trump administration, she could lose her work permit before she graduates.
DACA has also allowed undocumented immigrants to be vocal about their legal status in the country, the UW senior said. In some of her classes, she has been open about being undocumented so that classmates can put a face to the issue, she said.
“It took us such a long time to kind of just liberate ourselves and being vocal about who we are,” she said. “A lot of people feel like they need to go under the shadows and have to keep to themselves again.”
Nevertheless, the UW senior won’t stop being vocal to her peers, she said.
“It’s definitely going to make it harder for some people, but I don’t think we should stop,” she said. “It’s not the time to do it. This is when we really need to show who we are and what we’re made of.”