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Obama brought undocumented students out of the shadows. Trump will decide what happens next.

In 2012, with the DREAM Act pretty much dead, President Obama signed a series of executive orders giving undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children a way to come out of the shadows without being deported.

Known as DACA, or deferred action for childhood arrivals, the orders also gave access to driver’s licenses, work permits, and higher education to the more than 800,000 teenagers and young adults who voluntarily signed up for the program.

But President-elect Donald Trump has repeatedly promised to overturn these orders on his first day in office, and this looks like a campaign pledge he plans to keep.

In Florida, that will be a big deal. We’re home to the country’s third largest population of undocumented immigrants. Miami-Dade County alone has more than 23,000 people who’ve received relief through DACA.

Although Mayor Carlos Gimenez, a Cuban Immigrant, has publicly denied Miami-Dade County’s status as a “sanctuary city,” the municipality has long been a place where undocumented immigrants can find work and educational opportunities and live fairly normal lives. The county will not hold undocumented immigrants in lockup for civil offenses – which could lead to their deportation – unless federal immigration services pick up the tab, something they rarely do.

But with Trump vowing a crackdown on sanctuary cities, that “look-the-other-way” approach may be in danger, and few have more to lose than DACA recipients, who had to disclose all their personal information when they signed up. Many are now terrified that the database with their information will be used against them.

They’re mostly young millennials like FIU students Monica Lázaro, a senior biology major; Peiro Cáceres, a computer science major; and Katerine Maradiaga, a dental student.

All of them came to the U.S. before they were 15. And all of them took advantage of Obama’s executive order to try and enter the American middle class.

“After DACA, my future wasn’t dark anymore,” says Lázaro, who came here from Honduras when she was 9. Her parents fled San Pedro Sula, the second largest city and a municipality with one of the world’s highest murder rates, after gang members threatened her father’s life.

They arrived in Miami by plane, on a tourist visa. “When we came here, I thought we were going to Disneyworld.” and settled in an apartment by the airport that Monica calls “La Cucarachera” – the cockroach house. “Back in Honduras, we were middle class. We lived in a good house, but here my father and mother had to take whatever job they could.”

While her mother worked as a housekeeper and florist, and and her father labored in construction, Lázaro grew up in the shadows.

“We didn’t know what it meant to be undocumented, but we had to follow certain rules. We couldn’t give out our phone numbers, our address, or tell our immigration status to anyone,” she recalls.

Because undocumented immigrants in Florida cannot legally obtain driver’s licenses, just getting around the city was dangerous. Like some 2 million other Floridians, they drove every day without a license.

“We used to play a game where my brothers and I would be the backseat lookouts, keeping an eye out for cops,” she remembers.

But because she grew up in Miami, a city of immigrants, Monica didn’t run up against the limits of her undocumented status until late in high school.

“When everyone was learning to drive, and registering to vote, and going to college, and I couldn’t do any of these things? That’s when it hit me.”

She decided to own her status, though.

“The day I came out as undocumented to my school’s activity director was the day that woman started trying to get me into college. She had asked me where I was applying. I was student body president, and I couldn’t find it in my heart to lie to her,” she says.

“This was right around the time my mother got diagnosed with colo-rectal cancer, so I had to also start taking care of my siblings because my father was working all the time.”

Monica’s classmates and teachers at Coral Gables high school rallied around her. They fundraised enough money to help pay for her first semester of Miami-Dade College.  (Undocumented immigrants do not qualify for federal financial assistance.) Afterwards, they helped her find an anonymous sponsor who paid for her education.

“I don’t know who it is, I’ve been trying to find out in order to thank that person,” she says.

Universities enter the fray

Institutions of higher education across the United States began accepting undocumented students in the wake of President Obama’s 2012 executive action, and are barred by federal law from disclosing that status to anyone.

Trump’s threats to repeal DACA have, however, prompted a nationwide movement among colleges and universities for the creation of sanctuary campuses, and schools such as Wesleyan College in Connecticut have barred their employees from helping federal immigration officials in any way.

FIU students have staged walkouts and are attempting to pressure their administration to make similar moves, but non-cooperation with the federal government could endanger state and federal funding – a particularly effective threat for public universities. Greg Abbott, the governor of Texas, has already threatened to cut state funds from schools that become sanctuaries.

An open letter from more than 450 college and university presidents to the incoming administration calls for the continuation of DACA, citing the program’s “highly positive impacts on our institutions and communities.” The presidents of all major Florida institutions of higher education, from Tallahassee and Gainesville to Tampa and Miami, appear as signatories on the document.

Job offers, but a dead end

A lack of papers also almost kept Piero Cáceres, who was born in Chile, out of college.

“Even though I’d lived in Florida for 16 years, I’d be paying out of state tuition because of my immigration status, which I wouldn’t be able to afford without a job, which I couldn’t get without papers.”

That’s when a friend of his told him about the Honors College at MDC. “I applied to DACA, and got a part time job, and Miami-Dade paid for the rest.”

MDC is one of only two schools in the state that explicitly offers in-state tuition waivers for undocumented students.

Growing up on North Beach surrounded by immigrants from all over the world, Cáceres was completely unaware of his undocumented status until he reached the end of high school. When his parents finally broke the news to him, “It sucked. I felt like the plans I had in mind were no longer workable. What I wanted to accomplish in four years was going to take me 20.”

When a friend told him that MDC offered waivers for undocumented immigrants, he applied immediately. “I got DACA as well, so I was able to find a job and go to school.”

Now Piero is about to graduate from FIU with a degree in computer science. He was fielding job offers from Big Four account firms before Donald Trump’s election put a halt to his search.

He doesn’t see the point in applying to more jobs because he fears his applications won’t be competitive without his DACA work authorization.

“I have a friend who is here on a student visa who is applying as well, and no company wants to sponsor his H1-B work visa because it costs the company money.”

The numbers add up

Piero’s case is an example of the broad negative economic impact that ending DACA could have on the U.S. economy. The Center for American Progress estimates that ending DACA and DAPA, an associated program for undocumented parents of citizens, would cost some 600,000 jobs, and result in $433.4 billion dollars of lost growth in over a decade.

The study notes that work permits have allowed individuals to experience wage gains by helping them find over-the-table employment, and has helped people find jobs that better suit their skills.

Those who support stricter immigration controls, such as the Center for Immigration Studies, argue that undocumented workers displace legal workers and depress wages because they will work for less. Most economic analyses flatly contradict those claims. The vast majority of studies actually show that immigration has a net positive result on the American economy, and even the staunchly conservative Cato Institute has criticized the Center for Immigration Studies flawed research methodology.

But the academic and national debate surrounding immigration is far from the mind of Katerine Maradiaga, a native of Honduras who is about to graduate from FIU as a dental hygienist.

“The biggest dream my mom has is having one of her kids as a graduate. We crossed the border in Texas. We walked through the desert. We were hungry sometimes, we were cold. You can’t take a lot, just a backpack, with only a few clothes.”

Ms. Maradiaga is luckier than most. She managed to re-enter the country legally after obtaining permission from the government to visit her dying grandmother in Honduras via DACA. Because she was registered and in the government database, she was able to petition the U.S. Customs and Immigration Service for the chance to leave. The stamp on her passport, and her marriage to an American, now allow her to apply for citizenship.

‘It’s your loss’

Miami Based Immigration attorney María Mejía-Opaciuch thinks DACA is on its way out soon.

“I tend to believe that the new administration will use existing databases with the DACA individual’s information and begin ‘visiting’ the parents of those kids,” she says.

Trump’s recent nomination of Sen. Jeff Sessions, a Republican from Alabama, as attorney general sends a pretty hardline message on immigration. Sessions led the 2013 effort in the U.S. Senate to oppose bills that would grant undocumented immigrants amnesty, and has gone so far as to question the loyalty of immigrants in the armed services.

That leaves a lot of uncertainty for Miami-Dade County’s 23,000 DACA recipients.

Mr. Cáceres is looking for a way to stay in the country. He hopes to get hired by someone who will sponsor a work visa for him as a Chilean citizen.

“I’m more American than I am Chilean. I’ve always felt like I was part of this country, even though one day they may kick me out. Hopefully an employer will sponsor H1B visa for me,” he says.

Lázaro is more sanguine about her chances should she be forced to leave: “The way I see it, America, is that it’s your loss, not mine. I want to be an American doctor, but if I can’t be an American doctor, I’ll be a Costa Rican Doctor, or a Colombian one.”

Editor’s note: Lázaro’s name has been corrected since the story was published.

By Mario Ariza
Mario Alejandro Ariza is a Dominican immigrant who grew up in Miami. A Michener Fellow in poetry at the University of Miami’s Master in Fine Arts program, he is currently working on a nonfiction book about South Florida and Sea Level Rise. On a day with a good swell and northeasterly breezes, you’ll find him surfing on South Beach (yes, there’s actually surfing Miami.)

  • Sandy

    I think the last girl should be a doctor in Columbia or Costa Rica. Central America in particular has a lot of brain drain issues. It sucks for these people because they didn’t choose to do things illegally, their parent’s did. But I feel like it’s their parent’s fault for putting them in that situation, not the US’. I feel like it leaves us all sorts of open because then there can be no vetting at all if this is a simple method for people to come in.

  • Sandy

    I think the last girl should be a doctor in Columbia or Costa Rica. Central America in particular has a lot of brain drain issues. It sucks for these people because they didn’t choose to do things illegally, their parent’s did. But I feel like it’s their parent’s fault for putting them in that situation, not the US’. I feel like it leaves us all sorts of open because then there can be no vetting at all if this is a simple method for people to come in.