Sonia Rodriguez tried Tuesday to picture a return to the country of her birth, where she spent only the first six months of her life. That morning, the Trump administration had announced it was ending an Obama program that had shielded Rodriguez and about 6,300 Minnesota immigrants from deportation and allowed them to work.
“Mexico is the country of my roots and my ancestors, but it would be hard to call it home,” said Rodriguez, an Augsburg University graduate who grew up in the Twin Cities and works as a legal assistant. “The United States has always been my home.”
With the threat of a federal lawsuit looming, the administration said it will phase out the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, for people brought to the United States illegally as children. Almost 800,000 recipients nationally will retain protection from deportation until their two-year work permits expire.
Some prominent Minnesota business leaders and politicians including Gov. Mark Dayton had pleaded with the president to spare the program, arguing it allows young people who did not choose to break U.S. immigration laws to contribute to the country where many grew up. But on Tuesday, Attorney General Jeff Sessions called DACA an unconstitutional “executive amnesty” that undermines the rule of law and takes jobs away from Americans.
In Minnesota, one of a few states to extend college financial aid and subsidized health insurance to DACA recipients, immigrants such as Rodriguez braced for the loss of their jobs and driver’s licenses. Some Trump supporters cheered the move to fulfill a key campaign promise.
A protest rally of immigrants and advocates drew about 1,000 people in Minneapolis Tuesday night.
The administration announcement ups the ante on legislative proposals in Congress to protect DACA recipients, sometimes called “Dreamers,” and open a path to citizenship for them.
Dayton decries move
Senior Department of Homeland Security officials said that first-time applications received by Tuesday will still be processed for two-year work permits, as will renewals received by Oct. 5 for those whose protections expire by March 5. Officials said there are no plans to target DACA recipients for deportation — though they would be fair game if agents encountered them in the course of their work.
Minnesota officials, including Gov. Dayton, Attorney General Lori Swanson and the mayors of Minneapolis, St. Paul and Burnsville, had urged Trump to keep the program and voiced dismay at its impending demise.
“As long as I am governor, Minnesota will stand by the commitments we have made” to those affected, said Dayton in a statement.
Hubert Joly, CEO of Twin Cities-based Best Buy, joined hundreds of business leaders at companies such as Apple and General Motors who signed a letter urging the president to save the program.
A recent study estimated that DACA recipients in Minnesota pay as much as $15 million in local and state taxes. Since qualifying for the program, Minnesota recipients have found better-paying jobs, obtained driver’s licenses, opened bank accounts, and bought cars and homes.
The 2013 Minnesota DREAM Act extended in-state tuition and financial aid to all students without legal immigration status — benefits that will continue even as the federal program winds down. About 485 students received scholarships worth almost $1.5 million last year.
This year, Minnesota became only the fourth state to offer health coverage under its plan for low-income residents to DACA recipients who qualify. State officials acknowledged the state will have to end coverage for more than 320 of them once they lose their DACA status.
As the school year got underway Tuesday, Rose Santos, principal at St. Paul’s LEAP High School, said the program gave students a powerful incentive to graduate and consider college. Now, many wonder if the end of the program might put them on the radar of immigration agents. Santos said the school will also lose staff who have served as role models.
One DACA recipient who asked not to be identified said he will lose his job assisting students of color at a Minnesota university, including some fellow recipients.
“These students are ready to hit the job market and contribute to the only nation they know,” he said. “Now they won’t have that opportunity.”
Eric Kaler, the University of Minnesota president, Devinder Malhotra, the interim chancellor of the Minnesota State system, and Minneapolis Public Schools Superintendent Ed Graff also decried the decision to phase out the program.
With a bachelor’s degree in theology, Rodriguez, a legal assistant in an immigration attorney’s office, was weighing the idea of going to law school. An earlier job at the Minnesota Legislature's revisor’s office sparked a dream of running for office. Now at 26, she finds herself at a loss as she looks ahead.
“Am I always going to be treated as a second-class citizen even though I went to school here, I pay my taxes and always try to do everything right?” she wondered.
At a news conference at the State Capitol, advocates, state legislators and others also pledged continued support to DACA recipients. Some said the state should find a way to allow them to keep their driver’s licenses.
Pleased to see promise kept
DACA critics had called on Trump to end the program, which they view as a symbol of Obama’s executive overreach and soft line on illegal immigration. Ruthie Hendrycks, a New Ulm resident who hosts a weekly radio program decrying illegal immigration, said she was pleased the president had fulfilled a campaign promise that, along with his broader stance on tougher immigration enforcement, helped him get elected.
“The deferred program was unlawful and unconstitutional,” she said. “President Trump is just restoring the balance of power and enforcing the rule of law.”
Although the program doesn’t offer a pathway to legal status for most, some who are married to U.S. citizens have been able to apply for legal permanent residence — and program critics have charged it opens a back door to citizenship that Congress never sanctioned. On Friday, some pointed to new data from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services showing almost 40,000 recipients have qualified for green cards.
“The President’s actions on DACA are reasonable, humane and ensure we are a nation of laws, not merely executive actions,” said Jennifer Carnahan, chair of Minnesota’s Republican Party, in a Tuesday statement.
Sixth District Rep. Tom Emmer called DACA a “prime example of executive overreach” under Obama.
Meanwhile, Democrats in the state’s congressional delegation blasted the administration announcement and vowed to work across the aisle to help DACA recipients. Rep. Betty McCollum called rescinding the program“a cruel betrayal.”
DACA critics and supporters now turn their attention to Congress, where several bipartisan proposals to help recipients are expected to face a difficult road.
Rodriguez says she and fellow DACA recipients have to continue speaking out and lobbying for a legislative help.
“We are not going back into the shadows at this point,” she said. “We’ll be telling our stories and marching and calling Congress.”
Immigrants take to streets
On Tuesday, hundreds of immigrants and their supporters marched from GOP headquarters on E. Franklin Avenue to downtown Minneapolis to protest Trump’s DACA announcement.
They chanted “sin papeles, sin miedo” (no papers, no fear) and held signs that said, “Dream on Dreamers” and “Thank you DACA.”
Daniel Sosa, a 19-year-old who came to Minnesota from his birth country of Mexico when he was 7 months old, wore his high school graduation cap and robe as he marched with the crowd.
Sosa, who said knows very little about his birth country, graduated from high school and is taking classes at South Central College in Mankato.
“If you believe, anything is possible,” he said. “I didn’t think I would graduate and move on to college, because I didn’t have papers. With DACA, I felt relief even though I knew it was temporary.”
Isabel Driscoll is not a DACA recipient, but joined the caravan of people because “This country wouldn’t exist without other people coming from other countries. I believe that ‘We the People’ means standing up for the people.”
Staff writer Karen Zamora contributed to this report.