After years of feeling increasingly protected in their activism, young undocumented immigrants known as Dreamers have been presented with a stark choice in the hostile Trump era: Fight or flight. They’ve chosen the former.
The community has become increasingly well-organized over the past decade, emerging from the shadows to fight for legal protections and growing into a political force to be reckoned with. Many found their voices during the previous administration, when a campaign of marches, sit-ins, and other acts of civil disobedience pressured President Obama to create the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program in 2012, allowing nearly 700,000 immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children to obtain temporary legal protections.
Though federal courts have for now blocked the Trump administration from canceling DACA, and the Supreme Court refused Monday morning to overturn those injunctions, the judicial branch offers Dreamers only a temporary reprieve. Now, faced with mounting threats to their families and the chance they could soon lose their own status, many DACA recipients say they still feel they are safer in the limelight than in the shadows. They have found that the more vocal and visible they are, the harder it will be for the Trump administration to deport them and their families.
“There is no question that being public, you are way more protected,” said Cesar Vargas, an outspoken immigration advocate who became New York State’s first ever undocumented attorney in 2016. “When you get involved in the movement, you have a whole supportive community: People who will raise money to pay your bond if you’re detained, people who will connect you with reliable counsel, people who will watch your children if you are picked up. The more you hide, the more immigration can come in and make you disappear.”
Retaliation and resistance
When the Trump administration ordered the termination of DACA last year, they set a deadline of March 5 for Congress to pass a bill to codify the program and protect its roughly 700,000 beneficiaries. With less than a week to go, and after a series of failed votes in the Senate, prospects for legislative action are extremely slim. While the President, the Secretary of Homeland Security and other top officials have made vague promises that Dreamers won’t be immediately rounded up and targeted for deportation, Dreamers told TPM they are not at all reassured given the administration’s past actions.
Activists pointed to case of Ravi Ragbir, an immigrant from Trinidad and Tobago who led the immigration advocacy group New Sanctuary Coalition. Ragbir was detained by immigration agents during a routine check-in and would have been swiftly deported had a judge not intervened. Ragbir’s wife wrote in the New York Times that her husband’s arrest was not a random incident but the part of a pattern under the Trump administration:
“A week earlier, ICE agents in unmarked vans detained another immigration leader, Jean Montrevil, as he went home for lunch the day before his check-in. He has been deported to Haiti. On the same day Ravi was detained, ICE detained Eliseo Jurado, an immigrant rights leader in Colorado, and a week later, another leader, Maru Mora-Villalpando, announced that she received a notice to appear in immigration court in Seattle.”
The Dreamers who spoke to TPM pointed in particular to the case of Daniela Vargas, a 22-year-old DACA recipient in Mississippi who was detained by ICE last spring after speaking at a press conference in protest of her father and brother’s detention by immigration agents. She was released after 10 days and is currently battling in court for the right to remain in the United States.
Though the Obama administration oversaw more total deportations of undocumented immigrants than any other president, Dreamers say this type of targeting is new and terrifying.
“I’ve gotten more grey beard hairs in the past month than I have in my life,” said a 36-year-old Dreamer named Gabe, who asked that his last name be withheld out of concern for his safety and that of his family. “One of the first things I did when Trump won was set up a Google Doc with all my information and important contacts, so if anything were to happen to me, my friends and family could reach out to these folks and mobilize.”
Claudia Jimenez, a Florida-based DACA recipient who came from Venezuela when she was eight years old, agreed.
“Obviously under Trump administration I’m super afraid,” she said. “They say they’re not targeting DREAMers and that’s totally not the truth. If I even make a wrong turn driving I could get sent to a detention center. I might have to go back to a country that doesn’t have basic necessities like toilet paper.”
But that fear has not stopped them and many other Dreamers from continuing their political activism. In some cases, it has motivated them even more.
“It lit a fire,” she said. “If people believe bad things about me, let me prove them wrong. Let’s go, let’s kick ass. Because if I don’t speak out, and we all lose DACA, the guilt will live with me forever. I’ll think, ‘What if I had taken more of an activist role? Would I have made a difference?'”
Juan Escalante, a Dreamer from Tallahassee, Fla. who works for the immigration advocacy group America’s Voice, said the same dynamics that first pushed him to come out as undocumented and become politically active in the pre-DACA era continue today.
“When the DREAM Act failed [in the Senate] in 2007, I realized we were the subject of the story but we weren’t telling the story,” he said, describing how he and others first began organizing online campaigns and later held sit-ins in Senate offices and in front of the White House.
“We learned from people like [gay rights activist] Harvey Milk, who said ‘Tell your stories and shape the narrative.’ Being public gives you protection,” he said. “There is power to your narrative.”
March 5 looms
Jimenez and other Dreamers say their openness and activism has not only connected them with a supportive network and made them more difficult to target, it has shifted the needle significantly on public opinion.
Recent polling finds almost 90 percent of Americans support allowing DACA recipients to stay in the U.S., including nearly 80 percent of Republicans. In 2010, it was only 54 percent. Gabe says he has seen that shift firsthand.
“Growing up in California under Gov. Pete Wilson, back in my day, we were just called ‘illegal’ and ‘wetback’ and ‘spic,'” he said. “Now we have all these celebrities supporting us and we’re called Dreamers in the media.”
In spite of public support, it’s unlikely that Congress will come up with a solution before the March 5 deadline set by the Trump administration, and unclear how the Supreme Court or a federal appeals court will rule on the President’s decision to terminate the program. So far, other than a few isolated incidents, the Trump administration has not yet moved to deport any DACA recipients, including those whose status has expired. But Escalante and others say they’re bracing for the worst.
“There’s no telling what will happen after March 5,” he said. “I think it’ll be a vastly different universe. They’re probably salivating right now waiting for the opportunity to pounce. It could be a way for ICE to show force, rounding up as many Dreamers as they can, and John Kelly and Stephen Miller are hoping that we can deported quietly and their lives will be a lot easier.”
The DACA recipients said one of their last hopes is that an administration especially sensitive to its unpopularity and image in the press will act to avoid what Vargas called the “PR nightmare that would result from targeting Dreamers.”
“If Republicans don’t want to see kids dragged out of their home on TV, they need to intervene,” Escalante said. “And if they target a Dreamer who is known in the community, the community will rise up and do civil disobedience and try to impede the deportation.”