President Donald Trump’s decision to end a program that allowed young, unauthorized immigrants known as “Dreamers” to stay in the country has sparked fear in families who could be ripped apart and drawn condemnation from Hawaii leaders.
More than 60 people lined Ala Moana Boulevard near the Federal Building late Tuesday to protest the decision, holding signs saying “United we dream,” “Diversity is our strength” and “You are not alone.”
“Dumping the Dreamers is cruel, and it’s also not in the self-interest of America,” said Amy Agbayani, representing Hawaii Friends of Civil Rights. “If you want to make America strong again, let these young people continue to contribute.”
Trump announced Tuesday that the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program would end and new applications would be rejected. But he allowed existing permits to be renewed for another six months, which gives Congress a chance to craft a long-term solution.
The DACA program gave young people brought across the border illegally as children a reprieve from deportation and a chance to keep studying and working here, if they had a clean record and met various requirements.
In Kaneohe, 26-year-old Josue Fuentes is pinning his hopes on congressional action. He came to the United States from El Salvador at age 13 along with his younger brother, across the Rio Grande into Texas. They earned DACA status in 2012 when the Obama administration created the program, and now own a landscaping business.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen,” Fuentes said. “We could be deported. I know that the president has given six months for Congress to come up with something, which is actually what I’m really hoping for, for our representatives to work with the Republican Party to pass something comprehensive and fair.”
“I’m still kind of scared that I’m going to have to go back to a country that I don’t know,” added Fuentes, who is a youth pastor.
Fuentes is one of 558 people in Hawaii who had received an initial grant of DACA status by the end of March, according to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services website. Other applications already in the pipeline will be processed.
An estimated 2,000 young people in Hawaii were eligible for the program, according to the Migration Policy Institute in Washington, D.C., out of roughly 21,000 unauthorized immigrants in the islands. Nationally, 800,000 people are now covered by DACA.
Attorney Clare Hanusz, founder of the Aloha Immigration law firm, said Tuesday she was hearing from Dreamer friends and clients who are “extremely upset and concerned.”
She described one client covered by DACA who married her high school sweetheart, a U.S. soldier. They have a toddler and another child on the way, and are alarmed at what might happen to their family.
“I think what we forget is that it’s not only these 800,000 or so individuals, but many of them have spouses, many of whom are U.S. citizens; many have U.S. citizen kids,” Hanusz said. “So there’s been discussion about the negative ripple effects on the economy, but there’s also a ripple effect among their families and our community.”
She added, “There is still a great misconception that people who are here who are married to U.S. citizens can jump on the road to permanent residency. Many of them cannot due to the manner in which they arrived. Generally … there is no way of gaining legal status if you have an unlawful entry.”
Fuentes said another misconception is that undocumented immigrants don’t pay taxes. He said he and his business pay all federal and state taxes and that he is happy to do so, even though his status makes him ineligible for Social Security or Medicare benefits.
“I love this country, I love what it stands for,” he said. “I would have become a U.S. citizen if there was any opportunity for me to do so, but there is not.”
Hawaii’s congressional delegation was unanimous in its condemnation of the president’s decision. Sen. Brian Schatz called it “inhumane,” and Sen. Mazie Hirono dubbed it “cruel.”
“It doesn’t matter where you stand on immigration,” Schatz said. “We should all be able to agree that people who came here as children, who have grown up as American as anyone else’s kids, should not be stripped away from the communities they’re a part of to go back to a country they don’t remember.”
Hirono said: “They are not criminals. They are inspiring young people aptly called Dreamers because of their dream of making a better life for themselves in the only country they know.
“I reject any effort to hold these young people hostage for an unnecessary waste of money like Donald Trump’s wall.”
The Hawaii delegation called for passage of the DREAM Act to allow such people to obtain legal status. Obama created DACA through executive action after Congress failed to pass the legislation.
“President Trump’s decision to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program is wrong,” said U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, who has a staff member with DACA status. “It will break up families and punish young people who were brought to this country as minors through no choice or fault of their own.”
University of Hawaii President David Lassner reaffirmed his institution’s support for undocumented students. Four years ago the UH Board of Regents began allowing them to pay resident tuition rates.
“The University of Hawaii remains steadfast in our commitment to serve all members of our community, regardless of citizenship status,” Lassner said in a prepared statement. “Our undocumented students are an integral part of our community and will continue to be extended all the rights, privileges and services available to our students, from application through graduation.”