Hawaii ‘dreamers’ restless after DACA repeal

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Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to clarify the following: According to a UH spokesman “well over four years ago, the UH Board of Regents adopted a policy to extend eligibility for resident tuition rates to bona fide Hawaii resident students who are undocumented in regards to U.S. citizenship. This includes but is not limited to those who have filed for DACA.”

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Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to clarify the following: According to a UH spokesman “well over four years ago, the UH Board of Regents adopted a policy to extend eligibility for resident tuition rates to bona fide Hawaii resident students who are undocumented in regards to U.S. citizenship. This includes but is not limited to those who have filed for DACA.”

President Donald Trump’s decision to repeal the President Barack Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, has caused some “concern and confusion” in the Aloha State.

The program blocks young immigrants, brought to the United States illegally as children from deportation. It allows them to apply for work authorization under a renewable, two-year permit. It covers nearly 800,000 people nationally, including 558 grantees in Hawaii. There are 13 DACA recipients enrolled across the University of Hawaii system with one enrolled at UH-Hilo.

The Trump administration said Tuesday in a statement it would end the program in six months to give Congress time to find a legislative solution for people in the program.

Those already enrolled in DACA remain covered until their permits expire. If that happens before March 5, they are eligible to renew them for another two years as long as they apply by Oct. 5. But the program isn’t accepting new applications.

“I’ve been getting a lot of calls and people reaching out on social media,” Kevin Block, a Maui-based immigration attorney who said he also has clients on Hawaii Island, said by phone Wednesday. “Because there’s a lot of young people that this will affect. These young folks gave their information to the Department of Homeland Security — like their addresses, fingerprints and phone numbers — with an implicit promise that they would be protected from deportation. … Now that that’s being rescinded, there’s a lot of uncertainty about what’s going to happen to them.”

“I think every attorney who has a client who has DACA has heard from their client, and of course there’s a lot of concern and confusion over what happens next,” added Honolulu-based immigration attorney Claire Hanusz by phone Wednesday, noting she represents three DACA recipients. “… Things are changing day by day. There’s tremendous uncertainty … and total mixed messages coming from the executive branch as to what their intention is and what their plan is.”

Trump said in his statement Tuesday that past “failure … to enforce federal immigration law” has caused “lower wages and higher unemployment for American workers” along with “substantial burdens” on schools and hospitals and “many billions of dollars a year in costs paid for by U.S. taxpayers.”

Trump’s decision hasn’t come without opposition.

Hawaii was one of 15 states and the District of Columbia on Wednesday to file a lawsuit in federal court in Brooklyn asking a judge to strike down Trump’s action as unconstitutional.

The lawsuit called the move “a culmination of President Trump’s oft-stated commitments … to punish and disparage people with Mexican roots.”

New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman called the plan “cruel, shortsighted, inhumane” and driven by a personal bias against Mexicans and Latinos.

The lawsuit noted that Harvard University has more than 50 DACA students while Tufts University has more than 25. Both schools are in Massachusetts.

It also says rescinding DACA will injure state-run colleges and universities, upset workplaces and damage companies and economies that include immigrants covered under the program.

“Dreamers play by the rules. Dreamers work hard. Dreamers pay taxes. For most of them, America is the only home they’ve ever known. And they deserve to stay here,” Schneiderman said.

UH President David Lassner on Wednesday also released a statement noting UH remains “steadfast” in its commitment to serve all community members “regardless of citizenship status.”

The UH Board of Regents adopted a policy more than four years ago which extends eligibility for resident tuition rates to undocumented resident students, including DACA recipients.

Lassner said he along with “hundreds” of fellow college and university presidents who support DACA plan to urge Congress in the coming months to extend the program. Lassner said undocumented students are an “integral part of our community.”

A large number of Hawaii’s DACA recipients are from Mexico, Block said, speaking of clients in his own practice, though he said many hail from elsewhere including Tonga and the Philippines.

Block said Hawaii’s DACA recipients work an array of jobs, including tourism, law enforcement, education and the service industry.

Block said Trump’s latest action already has affected the trust level of some Hawaii DACA recipients, even if the program receives a legislative fix.

“They were given assurances it would be safe to come out of the shadows and so they did,” Block said. “And now that’s sort of backfired and blown up.”

Maui-based DACA recipient Liz Cortez said by phone Wednesday that Trump’s decision was not surprising. Cortez, 28, said she’s lived in the U.S. since she was an infant. She said she first learned of her illegal status her junior year of high school when she was unable to accept a scholarship she’d won.

She forewent the scholarship and instead worked maintenance and child care jobs until 2012, when DACA was established by Obama. Cortez said DACA allowed her to forge a new career path. She said she has renewed her permit every two years and she’s now an assistant in Block’s law office.

Cortez said leaving the U.S. would be like “being forced to go to a country you don’t know.”

“We knew someday this was going to happen, but I still never regret applying for (DACA),” Cortez said. “If DACA would have never been available to us, we wouldn’t be where we are now, so now isn’t the time to give up, it’s the time to continue fighting.

“I feel if (opponents of DACA) haven’t talked to a dreamer they should probably take some time to hear them out. Put yourself in our shoes and figure out what we’re all about. We’re fighting twice as hard to get something some people are lucky enough to be born with. We’re just part of a group that wasn’t.”

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The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Email Kirsten Johnson at kjohnson@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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