The Trump administration's announcement Tuesday that it plans to end the Obama-era DACA program has put the fate of roughly 800,000 young undocumented immigrants in the hands of Congress.
Those affected by the program -- which gave work permits and a reprieve from deportation to illegal immigrants who came to the U.S. as children -- reacted to the news with a mix of anxiety but also determination to lobby for legislation that grants them permanent legal status.
“My DACA expires next May, so I am basically done,” said Leezia Dhalla, 27, whose parents brought her here from Canada on a visa when she was 6 after economic struggles. “What will happen in March is that people will start to fall out of status."
Under the terms outlined Tuesday, the administration will stop renewing the two-year reprieve for anyone whose expiration comes up after next March.
President Trump has indicated on various occasions that he sympathizes with young immigrants here illegally through no fault of their own.
The White House made clear Tuesday that "Dreamers" are still not a target for deportation. And Trump, in a written statement, vowed to resolve the issue “with heart and compassion,” only this time working through Congress to pass legislation.
The program, known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, has allowed beneficiaries to obtain driver’s licenses and work permits, dramatically altering their lives here.
Many Dreamers, though, voiced frustration over the varying pledges from elected officials of both parties over the years. Some came out of the shadows after the Obama policy in 2012, heard assurances from Trump after he took office and now face an uncertain future.
Dhalla is a communications associate at FWD.us, an advocacy group founded by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg that pushes for more generous immigration policies.
“I worked my entire life to be a productive member of this society,” said Dhalla, who credits qualifying for DACA in 2012 with making it possible for her to buy a home and car and pay students loans. “A lot of Dreamers are upset, there’s a lot of uncertainty among people who are American in every way except through birth.”
Then-President Barack Obama’s 2012 initiative has given the renewable reprieve from deportation to about 800,000 people who either were brought illegally to the country when they were younger than 16, or entered the country legally, on a visa, and overstayed it.
Opponents of the policy say it was an unconstitutional overreach. A number of congressional Republicans support the goal of helping Dreamers, but say this can only be done through legislation.
“You have done nothing wrong,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said Tuesday, in a message to program beneficiaries, while agreeing with Trump that the Obama-era executive action was an overreach.
"It’s not cold-hearted for the president to uphold the law," White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders said Tuesday.
Cata Santiago, a Dreamer who has had DACA status since 2012, said that Congress needs to put aside partisan bickering and pass a measure that will bring a permanent solution to the broken immigration system.
She said the program “changed how the undocumented are viewed in this country.” The 20-year-old, who came from Mexico with her family when she was 8 years old, said DACA enabled her to get a job and help support her parents.
“It was an honor for me to be able to help my family,” said Santiago, who took part in a protest in favor of DACA in Washington, D.C. “I got a license, I cared for my family, I had a sense of security.”
She lamented how the debate has dragged on for so long, adding: “We want Congress to pass a law that doesn’t give us something with an expiration date and doesn’t have to be renewed.”
Many Dreamers criticized the decision to implement a hard deadline on ending DACA without a viable measure in Congress.
“When Congress [passes] a bill, it takes time for guidance to be issued,” Dhalla said. “Then changes have to be made, it has to be signed by the president, then the Department of Homeland Security takes time in coming out with guidance.”
At Trump Tower in Manhattan, dozens of Dreamers demonstrated against the plan to end DACA.
"I have built my life here in the U.S.,” said Hector Jairo Martinez, 26, who came from Colombia with his family when he was 10 and now is a student at Manhattan Community College. “For a little while I was about to breathe and move about freely. I kind of find myself as an outsider looking into my life.”
“I'm still here and I'm fighting," he said.