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"I was counting on DACA": Some immigrants in "Dreamer" generation left unprotected from deportation after Trump move

Despite the Supreme Court's decision in June blocking the immediate end of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) initiative, tens of thousands of undocumented immigrants who qualify for the protection from deportation, including 66,000 teenagers, have been indefinitely locked out due to the Trump administration's decision last week to reject new applications.

They're teens in high school and students at U.S colleges and universities. They're young adults earning their GEDs after years of supporting their families. They're members of the "Dreamer" generation of unauthorized immigrants brought to the U.S. as minors. But unlike more than 640,000 of their immigrant peers enrolled in the DACA program, they're not protected from having their lives upended through deportations to countries they left as children.

Like those with DACA protections, these immigrant teens and young adults have attended U.S. schools, come of age in American communities and established strong social, cultural and economic ties here. Yet for different reasons, most will likely remain in immigration limbo until at least inauguration day in January 2021.

Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, has vowed to keep and expand DACA, and to work with Congress to offer Dreamers a pathway to U.S. citizenship. Though he has expressed some sympathy for its beneficiaries, Mr. Trump could make a second attempt to end the program before or after January, if reelected.

In a memo last week that also limited the protections for current DACA recipients, Acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf said his decision to permanently close the Obama-era initiative to new applicants was justified because they lacked the "reliance interests" of those who have been enrolled in the program for years.

Wolf acknowledged letters from organizations, schools and local governments that described how young immigrants have "structured their lives" around DACA, contributed to the U.S. economy, assisted efforts to fight the coronavirus and used their protections from deportation to help their families, communities and employers. But Wolf said that was not the case for immigrants without DACA.

"Whatever the merits of these asserted reliance interests on the maintenance of the DACA policy, they are significantly lessened, if not entirely lacking, with regard to aliens who have never before received deferred action pursuant to the policy," Wolf wrote.

In interviews with CBS News, however, DACA-eligible immigrants argued they also share the ties to America that are at the center of the program.

Arlette Morales, 17 — York, Pennsylvania

Arlette Morales. Courtesy

When the Supreme Court said in June that the Trump administration had violated federal administrative law in its attempted termination of DACA, legal experts expected it would be bound to fully restore the program, including by accepting new applications.

Arlette Morales, 17, a high school student who met the 15-year-old age requirement for DACA after it had already been closed, was jubilant when she learned there could be an opportunity to apply. "I was shocked. It was unreal. It's been a large and really crazy rollercoaster that I've had to go through," Morales told CBS News. "I was so hopeful and excited."

Morales submitted a DACA application in early July. But unbeknownst to the rising high school senior, her petition — like other new ones — was placed in a holding "bucket" and not adjudicated, as revealed by a Justice Department lawyer to a federal judge last month. Last week, she learned her application would not be processed because DACA would remain closed to new applicants.

"It was devastating. It was hard," Morales said, adding that she felt "heartbroken."

Morales, who came to the U.S. from Mexico when she was 2, said the administration should reconsider its position on DACA. She said being shielded from deportation would not only help her chart a plan for college and her career, but also allow her to feel "secure."

"We just want to succeed. I just want to get an education and have the American Dream," she added.

Johana Larios, 26 — Staten Island, New York

Johana Larios applied for DACA protections for the first time last month after the Supreme Court's decision. She said she has tried to explain the Trump administration's decision to indefinitely close the DACA program to new potential recipients to her 6-year-old son.

Johana Larios and her family. Courtesy

"He said, 'Mommy, I don't want you to leave, I don't want you to leave me. My little sister and I need you,'" Larios told CBS News.

"I thought of just my family in general. It's not something that is a permanent protection — but it is something," Larios said. "I could've had a little bit of safety on my side. I did feel fear."

Like her son, Larios' 2-year-old daughter was born in the U.S. Larios, however, does not have legal status. She came to the U.S. in the late 1990s when she was 2 from Jalisco, Mexico. Her sister is a DACA recipient, but Larios said the president moved to end the program two days before she was going to apply in 2017.

Allowing new immigrants to obtain DACA protections would not only help them, but the U.S. as a whole, Larios said. "They should really give people the chance to be able to have something legal and the work permits so we can provide for this country," she added. "We have been providing for this country since so long ago." 

Armando Salazar, 19 — Orange County, California

Shortly after Armando Salazar met the age requirement for DACA in 2016, Mr. Trump was elected on an immigration platform that included immediately canceling the program. Fearful that the new administration could use his application information against him, Salazar's mixed-status family urged him not to apply.

Armando Salazar. Courtesy

"The fear was that something could happen — that I could get deported essentially, that those documents, everything I would send, would end up coming back to haunt me," Salazar told CBS News.

Salazar, who currently lives in Orange County, California, came to the U.S. from Mexico as a 5-year-old. Not having DACA, he said, has affected every aspect of his life — from not being able to work, to feeling pressured to be selective about partners. 

"Whenever I want to look for somebody that I can spend the rest of my life with, DACA comes up and all these legal things come up. And I feel very overwhelmed by this," Salazar added. "What if I find the right person, and I think this is a really nice person. And I really want to spend the rest of my life with them. But unfortunately, they don't have legal residency in the U.S. I say, 'Well, I guess that's not an option anymore, realistically.' And that really hurts me." 

If DACA is opened to new applicants, Salazar said he would work towards buying his family a house.

Marilu Saldaña, 29 — Harrisburg, Pennsylvania

Marilu Saldaña, a native of Mexico, heard last week that no new DACA applications would be accepted.

Marilu Saldaña. Courtesy

"I was crying, because I feel like I will never be able to complete any of my dreams, any of my goals," Saldaña, who was brought to the U.S. as a 13-year-old, told CBS News. "There's no chances for people like me that know no other country but can't do anything because of our immigration status. I was counting on DACA."

Saldaña, who has two U.S.-born children, is slated to earn her GED this month. Because she's enrolled in a program to obtain the certificate, she would qualify for DACA if it were open. She wants to attend a nursing school to better support her family, but said it will be difficult to do so without the work authorization and deportation protection offered by DACA.

"I just want a little normal life," she said. "I want to be out of the shadows."

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