Although she was born in Mexico, 17-year-old Yeimi Hernandez said it’s Freehold, where her parents raised her from infancy as an undocumented immigrant, that she considers home.
“I’ve lived there my whole life,” Hernandez said yesterday after recounting an emotional story of how she eventually made it to the United States as a baby after being separated from her mother. “That’s all I know.”
Yet the high school senior and aspiring immigration attorney who at times spoke through tears is facing the threat of being returned by the federal government to her “native” Mexico after yesterday’s announcement that the Trump administration is rescinding a federal program that has shielded thousands of undocumented immigrants who were brought to this country at a young age from being deported.
Hernandez is one of an estimated 22,000 New Jersey residents who have signed up and are currently being protected through the federal Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. Established by former President Barack Obama through a 2012 executive order, DACA allows participants to legally work, purchase property, and bank in the United States without the fear of imminent deportation.
Slamming the door
But under the announcement made yesterday by U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the DACA program would largely be ended in six months unless Congress takes action to codify protections that are now provided only through the Obama executive order. The Trump administration will stop accepting new applications for the program, and applications for two-year renewals will be rejected once the six-month window runs out.
The announcement made good on a campaign promise that President Donald Trump voiced on the stump last year as he made a play for a segment of GOP voters who harbor staunch anti-immigrant beliefs. And it also follows other controversial, hardline positions he’s staked out since taking office earlier this year, including a widespread crackdown on undocumented immigrants.
But the DACA announcement also puts New Jersey’s Republican congressmen back on the hot seat as the issue now shifts to Capitol Hill, where majority Republicans earlier this year were ultimately unable to resolve their differences as they sought to repeal the federal Affordable Care Act — another signature Obama policy popular in New Jersey.
‘Dreamers’ speak out
Yesterday’s announcement, meanwhile, drew an immediate rebuke during a news conference that was led by U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone (D-6th) at Rutgers University in New Brunswick. Several of the “dreamers” — those who meet the DACA requirement of having been brought to the United States illegally under the age of 16 — spoke out during the event, sharing emotional stories about their own experiences as U.S. residents.
“We do have goals, we have goals that we want to accomplish because our parents brought us here for a reason,” Hernandez said.
In all, about 800,000 young undocumented immigrants have been given an opportunity to work and go to school under the DACA order, according to the Pew Research Center. Pew has also estimated there are 22,000 New Jersey residents who have successfully applied for DACA protections, putting the state behind only California, Texas, Illinois, New York, Florida, Arizona, North Carolina, and Georgia.
‘Dreamers’ and NJ’s GDP
New Jersey’s DACA recipients pay an estimated $66 million in state and local taxes each year, according to New Jersey Policy Perspective, a liberal think tank that is opposed to a repeal of Obama’s executive order. By NJPP’s estimates, New Jersey could see as much as a $1.6 billion shaved off its annual gross-domestic product if the order is eventually repealed.
“All the people who worry about our economy are literally knocking on the doors of Congress and saying, ‘Don’t do this,’” Pallone said yesterday in New Brunswick.
“We are going to fight this repeal,” Pallone said. “We are going to do whatever we can to stop this.”
There are approximately 500 students at Rutgers who have DACA status, according to President Robert Barchi, who also spoke during the event at the university yesterday. Barchi said his own grandparents were immigrants who “could have been deported” if the same policies were pursued by prior generations.
“We have six months to convince our Congress to fix this thing,” Barchi said. “Shame on us if we cannot convince them of the value of this approach.”
‘Dreamers’ share their dreams
But the two men eventually stepped aside to allow Hernandez and other “dreamers” to recount their own life stories. Hernandez said she was told by a peer around the age of 10 that she wouldn’t amount to anything in life because of her undocumented status. But under DACA, she has been able to dream about going to college and becoming a lawyer.
“I want to attend college and I do want to become something in life,” said Hernandez, who fought back tears at some points as she spoke.
An emotional Mariandree Reyes said a repeal of DACA could force her to return to her native country of Guatemala and leave behind her children, ages 3 and 5, in North Plainfield.
“I don’t understand why it’s such a problem for (Trump) for us to have something and better ourselves in this country,” she said. “I will be separated from my kids. It will kill me to leave my kids.”
But there are already signs that a legislative compromise could be forged in Washington, D.C. U.S. Rep. Leonard Lance (R-7th) announced yesterday that he’s signed on as a co-sponsor of a bill that would allow the dreamers to eventually earn citizenship if they can satisfy several requirements over a five-year period, including earning a degree, gaining employment, or entering the military.
“Over the coming weeks I intend to work closely with my colleagues and the administration to pass meaningful immigration reforms that will secure our borders, strengthen employment verification, and provide a workable path for ‘dreamers’ with DACA status,” Lance said.
DACA could also play a role in this year’s gubernatorial election in New Jersey as voters are just now starting to pay more attention to the major-party candidates coming out of the Labor Day holiday.
GOP candidate Kim Guadagno took to social media yesterday to urge Congress to come up with an immigration fix in the wake of the DACA announcement, saying that splitting up families is “not who we are as New Jerseyans.” And Democratic candidate Phil Murphy spoke forcefully about DACA and other protections for immigrants during a recent townhall event that was held in Elizabeth.
“Given all the chaos, and the inaction, and the wrongheadedness — and frankly un-American behavior coming out of Washington — we need to be the best we can be at the state level, and at or near the top of the list is the DACA phenomenon,” Murphy said.
Several majority Democrats in the state Legislature, where all 120 seats are up for grabs this year, also criticized Trump following the DACA announcement. That group included Assembly Speaker Vince Prieto (D-Hudson).
“Punishing young people who have spent the majority of their lives in this country, and limiting their opportunities to prosper and contribute to their communities is not only cruel, but damaging to our economy,” Prieto said.