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Trump once welcomed a visit from immigrant 'Dreamers.' Now, they anxiously await his next move

Trump once welcomed a visit from immigrant 'Dreamers.' Now, they anxiously await his next move
A group of "Dreamers" meet with now-President Trump at Trump Tower in 2013. (Diego Sanchez)

Gaby Pacheco strode into Trump Tower's gilded lobby on a mission to convince the businessman to back immigration reform and help young people like her who were brought to the U.S. illegally as children.

Back in that summer of 2013, Donald Trump was just beginning to flirt with a presidential run, and others warned her that he might be using the visit for publicity. But she and other Dreamers, as the young immigrants are called, coveted the star power he might bring to the cause.

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Almost an hour later, she and a few colleagues departed the surreal encounter with doubts about Trump's understanding of the issue, an inkling of his future political ambitions, and, most oddly, parting gifts of chocolates, jewelry and neckties from his famous brands.

But they also left with a reason for optimism. When Trump walked his young visitors to the elevator, he turned and nodded: "You convinced me," he said.

Soon they will know whether they did.

Of all of Trump's campaign promises, one of the thorniest to navigate will be deciding what to do with the approximately 700,000 young immigrants who are here illegally, but have been temporarily allowed to work and avoid deportation under an executive action by President Obama.

Among the first big tests of his administration will be whether to immediately cancel Obama's program, allow it to gradually expire or expend some of his political capital to help the Dreamers, who have lived in the U.S. most of their lives and whom Obama has said are essentially "American kids."

What Trump decides may provide one of the clearest signals yet of his commitment to the hard-line immigration policy he advocated during the campaign.

As a candidate, Trump repeatedly vowed to end Obama's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, threatening to deport the young immigrants along with the 11 million others who are living in the U.S. illegally.

As president-elect, Trump has softened his tone, saying he wants to "work something out" for the Dreamers, whose inspiring stories have captured public attention, including his own.

"They got brought here at a very young age, they've worked here, they've gone to school here. Some were good students. Some have wonderful jobs. And they're in never-never land because they don't know what's going to happen," Trump told Time magazine this month. "We're going to work something out that's going to make people happy and proud."

But any leniency by Trump risks blowback from those who embraced his tough stance against illegal immigration and might view such an accommodation as "amnesty." That includes top advisors and Cabinet picks, not to mention the crowds who still chant "Build that wall!" at Trump rallies, echoing his repeated campaign promise to erect a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border.

In Congress, a growing bipartisan group of senators is offering Trump a way out.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) have introduced legislation that would allow Trump to essentially keep his promise to end Obama's executive action while also creating a new, similar program that would allow young immigrants to remain temporarily in the U.S.

The so-called Bridge Act would give DACA-eligible young people "provisional protected presence" for three years, providing work permits and deferring deportations if they continue to be law abiding.

"What would make America great would be to deal with these kids humanely," Graham said.

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Theirs is a carrot-and-stick approach — nudging Trump toward a compromise while also warning him that mass deportations of Dreamers would probably be unpopular with lawmakers and most Americans. Obama, too, counseled Trump during their first meeting at the White House not to deport Dreamers.

For the young people who have gained DACA status — becoming "Daca-mented," as they call it — any disruption in the program would be devastating.

DACA provides young immigrants with temporary legal status, which allows them to work, apply for driver's licenses and travel. Many now have healthcare through their employers. All of that would be gone if DACA is terminated.

"Everything we worked so hard for," said Diego Sanchez, 26, an immigrant who was at the 2013 Trump meeting and is now in law school in Miami.

DACA permits are currently valid for two years, so every day some are at risk to expire. Many young people are rushing to get them renewed before Trump takes office, but the soonest they can apply is 150 days before their expiration date. A backlog has developed, officials said.

"It's just a matter of waiting," said Cesar Vargas, 33, an attorney in New York, who is hoping his own permit, scheduled to expire Feb. 17, is renewed before Trump's inauguration on Jan. 20. "Hopefully, it comes before."

For Maria Isabel Vazquez, it's the ordinary things, like being able to drive, that has made life so much easier since she qualified for DACA four years ago. Most weekdays, after computer science classes at community college in New York, the 20-year-old meets her sister at a bus stop and climbs behind the wheel of the family's minivan. First she picks up their younger sister from school and then she collects her mom from her work cleaning houses. Their dad comes home later from his job as a restaurant cook.

On the days she doesn't have school — Friday, Saturday and Sunday — she works 12-hour shifts earning $12 an hour as a home health aide, bathing and cooking for an elderly widow she has cared for since 2015. She earned a certificate for the job, and pays taxes.

Maria Isabel Vazquez's family depends on the driver's license that DACA allowed her to obtain.
Maria Isabel Vazquez's family depends on the driver's license that DACA allowed her to obtain. (Maria Isabel Vazquez)

But without DACA, all of that could be at risk, costing her the job and the driver's license that much of her family relies on to work and study.

Her DACA permit will expire in April, and she is already preparing the renewal — saving up the $465 application fee.

Some immigrants have been afraid to apply for DACA protection, worried about submitting their name, address and biometric fingerprint data as required for the federal government background check. They're afraid the Trump administration could use that information to more easily find and deport them.

But Pacheco, the Miami Dreamer whose 2013 meeting was arranged by an advocacy organization, hopes the impression the young immigrants made during that visit to his skyscraper will convince him to help.

She recalled being whisked into his office, where Trump showed off his impressive view of the Manhattan skyline.

To their surprise, even as they lobbied him, Trump also seemed to be pumping them for information. He peppered them with questions about the upcoming presidential campaigns — whether Latinos would support Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio for a run. He did not mention his own plans.

But as the young people steered the conversation back to immigration reform, they noticed many of his questions resembled those they'd heard from ordinary Americans at town hall meetings that summer.

Why can't they just get legal, he asked? If you have enough money, can't you just hire an attorney and file the paperwork?

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They emphasized that the U.S. was the only home most of them had ever known. And due to immigration policies that give priority to those with family members legally in the U.S. or with special skills, there was virtually no way for Dreamers to go back and wait in line because they would never meet the criteria for legal immigration, or could spend many years waiting.

Jose Machado, 21, another immigrant who was part of the group and is now a property manager in Miami studying to become a lawyer, said it was like "teaching an Immigration 101 course."

When the meeting ended, Trump rode in the elevator with them to the lobby gift shop. He told them to take what they wanted, helping pick out jewelry, ties and signed copies of his book.

Initially they were optimistic that they had won him over. But last summer when Trump announced his candidacy for president, Pacheco watched as he called many Mexican immigrants criminals and rapists.

She felt fooled. "He's a salesman," she said. "I didn't know that then, but now I see it clearly. We went in there and he sold us what we wanted to hear."

Still, she and the others remain hopeful they made a lasting impression.

"To this day, I continue to hope the conversation we had, the sharing of our stories, it penetrated, it stuck with him," Machado said. "I still continue to hope that."

Twitter: @LisaMascaro

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