“Durham Is All I Know”: DACA Recipients, Supporters Rally in Durham | News

“Durham Is All I Know”: DACA Recipients, Supporters Rally in Durham


  • Sarah Willets
At an early age, Pam Gonzalez knew she was good at math.

"It was something I like doing. I like numbers," she says, talking excitedly with a broad smile revealing dimples in her cheeks.

A Riverside High School graduate, she's now a sophomore at Meredith College studying math. But that isn't what she wants to do with her life. As a teenager, Gonzalez enrolled in the BOOST program at Duke University, designed to bring minority students into careers in science and math. She now works for that program and hopes to make a career helping first-generation immigrants get into college.

She knows a bit about what that's like.

Gonzalez was brought to the country by her parents at age two from San Luis Potosí, Mexico. She briefly lived in Florida and Indiana before moving to Durham when she was in kindergarten, and it's been home since.

"Basically, Durham is all I know," she says.

When President Obama rolled out a program to allow unauthorized immigrants who came to the U.S. as minors to stay here, study, and work, she didn’t know how much the program would change her life or how much she needed it.

"In middle school, I had no idea how being undocumented would affect me," she says. That revealed itself over time.

She learned she could go on a BOOST trip to Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory, but not travel to Mexico to visit her grandparents. She found out she couldn't have a driver's license. And she realized she'd have to pay higher out-of-state tuition if she went to a state college.

Gonzalez began receiving benefits from the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program at age sixteen, and her status will soon expire. With the news today that the Trump administration is rescinding DACA, she says she will apply for a renewal so that she can keep working and saving for her future. The program allowed her to get a driver's license and a work permit, opening the door to an education at Meredith.

"The economy is going to do better if you have people who are working and have college degrees," Gonzalez said via a megaphone during a Tuesday rally in support of DACA and its recipients.

DACA recipients and others who came to the country illegally as children took turns telling their stories this way in Durham's CCB plaza, just hours after it was announced that the program would be rolled back. They were nursing assistants, college students studying engineering, art, and other subjects, recent college graduates, and even a few high schoolers. A few had never publicly shared their immigration status.

After speculation about his intentions over the weekend, Trump didn't make the announcement himself, instead letting Attorney General Jeff Sessions deliver the news that no new applications for protection under DACA would be approved after today and, unless Congress steps in, the program would be phased out in six months.

Trump later released a statement calling the program, which was created by President Obama via a 2012 executive action, "unlawful and unconstitutional."

“I do not favor punishing children, most of whom are now adults, for the actions of their parents,” Trump said. “But we must also recognize that we are nation of opportunity because we are a nation of laws.”

But for many who spoke Tuesday, the fate of DACA has been uncertain since Trump’s campaign for the presidency. Jose Espinosa says he's been working on a plan B that long. He's considered returning to his native Mexico, which he left twelve years ago at age ten, or pursuing a master's degree at a school abroad.

"I've depended so much on this," he said. "I got my job because of this. I went to school because of this."

Trump campaigned on hard-line immigration policies like ending DACA and building a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. His waffling statements on the program have provided little solace (not that much of what he says is coherent enough to evoke any comfort).

An N.C. Central graduate, Espinosa has been protected by DACA for years and just today submitted to the biometric screening required to renew his permit. "At first I was skeptical that they would continue it, just take my money and not communicate," he said.

A reversal of DACA protections would be significant in North Carolina. According to the Pew Research Center, as of March, North Carolina was home to the seventh largest population of Dreamers in the country, about twenty-seven thousand. (California is home to the most at about 223,000—more than a quarter of all DACA recipients in the country).

The left-leaning Center for American Progress estimated early this year that eliminating DACA would cost North Carolina about $10 billion over the next decade. The NC Justice Center's Budget & Tax Center says North Carolina applicants who have been approved have spent $14 million in application fees alone, not taking into account the economic benefits the program conveys to recipients and their families.

"The average hourly wages of beneficiaries increased by 45 percent after receiving DACA status," the Budget and Tax Center said in an August report. "Sixty-nine percent of those surveyed obtained a job with better pay, and 57 percent of respondents were able to help their family financially as a result of receiving higher wages. "

In a memo to the Department of Homeland Security, Sessions advised that existing recipients whose status expires in the next six months will be able to apply for a two-year renewal but must do so in the next month. Theoretically, this gives Congress time to preserve the program before anyone currently protected by DACA loses their status.

"Congress, get ready to do your job—DACA!," Trump tweeted at nine this morning, before Session's announcement.

Clemente Zamudio, who left Michoacán, Mexico, when he was two, just renewed his DACA permit in March and hopes there will be "another option" in place when his two-year protection expires. Moving to Mexico would be like "restarting my life."

From an early age, Zamudio says he father told him his life would be different from his American classmates—he would not be afforded the same opportunities. “I always had the mindset that I need to work harder,” he says.

Throughout Trump's campaign, he was optimistic that DACA would remain, but with today's news, he says he is devastated.

"I've lived with this terror of my parents being deported, and I don't want to put that on anybody," he says.

The decision has prompted many statements of support for people like Zamudio.

"We shouldn’t be hurting productive members of our communities who were brought here as innocent children," Governor Cooper said in a statement. "Congress needs to pass common sense immigration reform that will protect our borders, keep families together, and let these young people remain in the only place they’ve ever known as home."

In a statement, North Carolina attorney general Josh Stein said he was "keenly disappointed" by the decision to rescind DACA: "Investing in these people benefits all North Carolinians through a stronger economy and stronger communities. ... My office is assessing various ways to take action to protect North Carolina's 27,000 Dreamers as well as to defend our American values.”

U.S. Senator Thom Tillis says he will be filing legislation that would "provide a fair and rigorous path for undocumented children to earn legal status" that would "require them to be employed, pursue higher education or serve in our military." Immigration policy should be crafted through legislation, not executive actions, Tillis said, echoing a frequent criticism of DACA.

"POTUS is giving Congress time to fulfill its responsibility & take long-term action on the uncertainty for undocumented children," Tillis tweeted.

In announcing the rollback, Sessions questioned the legality of the program, referring to it as an “unconstitutional exercise of authority by the executive branch.”

“We are people of compassion and we are people of law, but there is nothing compassionate about the failure to enforce immigration laws. Enforcing the law saves lives, protects communities and taxpayers and prevents human suffering," Sessions said. "The compassionate thing to do is end the lawlessness, enforce our laws, and, if Congress chooses to make changes to those laws, to do so through the process set forth by our founders, in a way that advances the interests of the American people."

Top lawmakers in Texas, Louisiana, Alabama, Nebraska, South Carolina, Tennessee, Arkansas, Idaho, West Virginia, and Kansas had threatened to challenge DACA's constitutionality. Last week, Tennesse dropped out, joined by South Carolina today.

"Let’s be clear: the action taken today isn’t required legally," Obama said in a statement. "It’s a political decision, and a moral question. Whatever concerns or complaints Americans may have about immigration in general, we shouldn’t threaten the future of this group of young people who are here through no fault of their own, who pose no threat, who are not taking away anything from the rest of us."

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