Erika Andiola felt uneasy as she handed over a stack of personally identifying information to the federal government back in 2012, allowing them to photograph her and take her fingerprint. As an undocumented immigrant who came to the US from Mexico when she was a kid, Andiola had been trained to keep a low profile. Now, here she was, sharing her home address, her height, her weight, and her phone number, among other details, all in order to receive protection from deportation under an Obama-era policy called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA. If she submitted her application and got accepted, Andiola would become a so-called Dreamer. And so, she took a leap of faith. What’s more, as an immigrant rights activist, she encouraged others to do it too.
“It was a different time,” Andiola says.
On Tuesday, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the Trump administration’s long-awaited decision to begin a “wind down” of DACA. This move toward expelling nearly 800,000 Dreamers is the fulfillment of President Trump’s campaign trail promise—and Andiola’s worst fears. Now, unless Congress acts to save the policy, Andiola and others worry that the same database that once secured her freedom could be used instead to take that freedom away. “It’s definitely one of the bigger fears for a lot of us,” Andiola says. “That includes not just putting ourselves in a vulnerable position, but also putting our families in danger.”
President Obama introduced DACA in 2012 through executive action. The policy advised immigration enforcement agencies not to prioritize DACA recipients for deportation and set up a framework through which they could receive work permits. But in order to qualify, potential Dreamers had to pass a rigorous application process to ensure they met the policy’s eligibility requirements with regard to their age, criminal record, and educational backgrounds. The data Andiola and others handed over helped US Citizenship and Immigration Services filter those applications.
When the Obama administration was designing DACA, privacy was a chief concern for immigration advocates, who worried about having undocumented immigrants identify themselves to the government. So USCIS vowed it would wall off that data, protecting it from other agencies, including Immigration and Customs Enforcement, that wanted to use it for deportation purposes. But because DACA was merely a policy, not a law, even the framers of this process knew full well that that promise to Dreamers was not binding.
“We knew that another administration could come in and either decide to rescind the DACA program itself or make different decisions about information sharing,” says Tyler Moran, who served on the White House Domestic Policy Council for immigration when DACA was being drafted. “I guess this is the worst-case scenario now.”
Moran and others say they’ve heard rumblings from within the administration that ICE is already seeking access to Dreamer data from USCIS. When asked for comment on this, an ICE spokesperson directed WIRED to the frequently asked questions page about DACA, which reiterates that while the data is confidential, that can change. “This policy, which may be modified, superseded, or rescinded at any time without notice, is not intended to, does not, and may not be relied upon to create any right or benefit, substantive or procedural, enforceable by law by any party in any administrative, civil, or criminal matter,” it reads.
Even if the Dreamer data remains confidential, however, immigration advocates fear that ICE already has all the information it needs to target Dreamers where they work. One reason many Dreamers applied for the program, after all, is to receive a work permit. Many employers use a system called e-verify to keep tabs on their employees’ immigration statuses. If President Trump reverses DACA protections and stops renewing those permits, there’s not much stopping ICE from showing up at an employer’s office the day after an employee’s DACA permit expires.
“Under this administration, Immigration and Customs Enforcement is solely in the business of deporting people,” says Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum. “There’s no prioritization of law enforcement resources. There’s no assessment of whether someone’s a public safety threat.”
Sessions’ remarks this morning were light on detail about how the wind down would be implemented, and he didn’t take questions from the press, but reports have surfaced indicating that the administration will immediately stop accepting new applications for DACA protection. Current DACA recipients whose permits expire between now and March 6, 2018 will be eligible to apply for a two-year renewal, according to reports, giving Congress six months to come up with a legislative solution. Andiola, whose permit expires in March 2019, would not be eligible, if that is the case.
The timing of today’s announcement is not coincidental. State attorneys general who oppose DACA have threatened to sue the Trump administration if it didn’t end DACA by September 5. At a press briefing last week, Homeland Security advisor Tom Bossert acknowledged that the attorneys generals’ timeline would hasten the administration’s decision. “We certainly have to watch the lawsuits and how they matriculate through the courts and when the deadlines would be imposed,” he said.
President Trump has repeatedly waffled on the subject of DACA, and Tuesday’s announcement is no different. It’s an attempt to appease those local officials and his own base, while also giving Congress a window in which to turn DACA into law. In an early morning tweet, President Trump not so subtly tried to offload the responsibility of rescuing DACA to Congress.
Over the weekend, several Congressional leaders, including Republicans Lindsey Graham, Paul Ryan, and Orrin Hatch, expressed support for the program and indicated a legislative solution may be possible. Some immigration advocates fear, however, that DACA could become a bargaining chip in negotiations over other less popular immigration policies, such as funding for the southern border wall. In other words, there’s no telling what exactly the next six months will bring.
President Trump has said in the past that Dreamers could “rest easy.” And yet, the latest announcement makes resting easy tough for people like Andiola.
“I feel a little bit drained,” she says. “I’ve spent so many months with the same anxiety. It’s psychologically exhausting.” For now, she’s waiting along with nearly 800,000 Dreamers—and the millions of others who just call Dreamers their colleagues, classmates, family, and friends.