Not so long ago, Susana Terrones labored in the underground economy for a boss she said treated her poorly and paid her $7 an hour.
What choice did she have, she said, having been brought to the United States illegally by her mother from Mexico when she was but six-months old.
That changed the day her work permit and Social Security card arrived under Obama’s signature immigration program granting people like her temporary immigration relief. An unfamiliar sense of freedom washed over her as she got work with a real social security number, under her real name and for an employer who treated her well and paid her fairly.
“I finally had the courage to say where I came from. I was finally open and not afraid to say ‘I’m undocumented,’” the 24-year-old college student from Los Angeles recalled.
Now Terrones and hundreds of thousands of immigrants confront the possibility having their immigration relief stripped away and returning to the more unsettled rhythms of their former lives when President-elect Donald Trump takes the reins of the White House on Jan. 20.
During the campaign, Trump vowed to do away with Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals — better known as DACA — an executive action that provides a work permit and deportation reprieve to people who were brought to the U.S. as children and stayed illegally.
An estimated 742,000 so-called Dreamers — those given protection under the program — live in the U.S. Roughly one out of three lives in California.
Tuesday night and in the days following Trump’s win, the program’s recipients filled social media groups to express their fears that the president-elect would do away with the protection. And they wondered if the system that once gave them relief could now make it easier for immigration authorities to track them down and deport them to countries that most never called home because they left when they were just children.
“For some of us, America is all we’ve ever known,” Terrones said. “I love America. We want to stay here. We want to be successful here.”
During his campaign, Trump talked about building a massive wall along the border with Mexico and even suggested creating a deportation force to remove immigrants in the country illegally. But doing away with Obama’s program would be relatively low-hanging fruit — an executive action that can be easily reversed without much expense and without the need of congressional support.
It would be the easiest way for him to immediately appease his base and show he’s going to be as tough on immigration as he said he would be.
While it remains unclear just how much Trump will commit to his promises and rhetoric on illegal immigration once he becomes president, he named Kris Kobach, a well-known anti-illegal immigration politician from Kansas, to his transition team to help tackle the issue. Kobach has already told the media that the wall Trump promised would get built and said that president-elect could easily boost deportations by more than 75% in his first year in office.
That would meet the record set in 2012, at the end of President Obama’s first term, a number that declined significantly after illegal immigration fell, and after agents were ordered to focus first on deporting criminals, repeat immigration violators and recent arrivals.
To make DACA vanish, Trump likely wouldn’t have to do much but just direct U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to stop issuing work permits to the program’s applicants and stop renewing applications, said Roy H. Beck, who heads NumbersUSA, an influential national advocacy group that opposes illegal immigration and believes in curtailing legal immigration. As for the work permits already out there, Trump is likely to just let them expire and have the program fade away, he said.
Beck, who has been in close communication with the Trump campaign on immigration issues, said he advised against going after the work permits that have already been issued. It would be too time-consuming and expensive to do such a thing, he said. It would also be too disruptive to many people’s lives and possibly lead to bad public relations and social unrest.
“Instead, they would all have a couple of months to a year and a half or so, so they can have time to plan for this,” Beck said. “Many groups, like ours … we’re more in favor of incremental and steady kind of change.”
When immigrants submitted to background checks under DACA, the paperwork assured them their information would not be used to deport them later. But the assurances are not legally binding — something that has provoked fear in immigrant communities.
In California, where immigrant rights groups are fielding an unprecedented number of calls, many advocates are urging program recipients set for renewal of their work permits to do so as quickly as possible.
Karla Navarrete, a staff attorney at the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, said all they stand to lose is perhaps the application fee if the paperwork doesn’t get processed in time before Trump takes office.
“Those people are already in the system and Homeland Security already knows about them,” she said.
However, her group isn’t accepting new DACA applications. The processing would take too long and it’s still up in the air whether the government will end up going after and deporting applicants if the program ends.
Mario Perez, a 28-year-old recipient of the program, said he renewed just a month ago and now has a permit for the next two years. Although he was initially upset about Trump’s victory, Perez said he realizes his situation may not be as dire as someone who lives outside of California—a fairly progressive and immigrant-friendly state where he can easily tap into a network of people who are living in a similar situation.
“We’re definitely super privileged being here in California. I can only imagine the racism and anti-immigrant sentiment in some other places,” he said.
Outside of California — especially in rural America and places where there are very few immigrants — being a Dreamer can be very isolating, said Roberto Gonzales, a Harvard University sociologist who has been studying DACA and its recipients throughout the nation.
“In the absence of federal immigration reform states, counties and municipalities have been left to craft local solutions to a broken immigration system,” Gonzales said. “As a result, now, more so than ever before, where one lives is consequential to one's experience of integration or exclusion. If DACA goes, hundreds of thousands of families will be impacted, to be sure. But some will experience the pain and suffering more acutely.”
He added that “while mayors in cities like New York, Los Angeles, and Seattle have pledged to remain sanctuaries for undocumented immigrants, smaller rural areas will not be able to shield young people. And in less populated areas, young immigrants may be more vulnerable to apprehension and hate crimes.”
Monserrat Ramirez-Perez lives in a small, conservative town in North Carolina. DACA gave her a sense of security in a place where people who looked like her were not as numerous as in other parts of the country. She’s able to work legally and drive without major worries.
The 20-year-old was brought to the U.S. illegally from Mexico City when she was 5. Almost no one in town knows that she’s in the country illegally, and she feels as American as anybody. Now she worries about just how far Trump will go to fulfill promises he made.
“Ever since I’ve had DACA, I feel safe,” Ramirez-Perez said. “To me, DACA is a very important part of my life.”
Eileen Truax, a writer who has researched the Dreamer movement since 2011, said that, as with other immigrants, it’s a resilient and resourceful population. But she said she is more concerned for those who benefited from DACA at a very young age.
“We have many kids that are very young when they applied for DACA, so this may be their very first encounter with a real chance to be deported,” Truax said. “DACA gave this generation the opportunity to actually have a [Social Security] number and feel they belong. They’ve never really had the chance to organize and have something to fight for before. So they’ll have to learn how to do that.”
Though Terrones was initially in a devastated daze by Trump’s win, by Thursday she had convinced herself everything would be OK.
“When I woke up this morning, I told myself ‘Why am I worried? There was a point where I didn’t have DACA. I survived.’”
Her mother suggested returning to their home state of Guanajuato, Mexico. Terrones quickly shut the idea down, telling her mother she wasn’t raised to give up.
“Getting our things and leaving, that’s the easy way out. We could have done that a long time ago,” she told her mother. “We’re going to find a way. I still believe in the American dream.”
Terrones plans to graduate from Cal State Los Angeles in May but will likely have to postpone graduate school for a year so she can take advantage of her work permit and put in as many hours as possible to save up money.
After, she said she’ll just go back to working under the table so she can provide for her family.
Follow Cindy Carcamo on Twitter @thecindycarcamo