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As DACA nears its end, young immigrants wait, watch and worry

As Democrats and Republicans spar in Washington, the future of DACA, or a new program like it, has become entangled in other issues, including President Trump's demand for a Mexico border wall and Congress' need to reach a budget agreement by Jan. 19 to avert a government shutdown.

Carlos Castro Miranda, a DACA enrollee who grew up in the U.S. and graduated from college here, outside Philadelphia City Hall on Friday.
Carlos Castro Miranda, a DACA enrollee who grew up in the U.S. and graduated from college here, outside Philadelphia City Hall on Friday.Read moreTIM TAI

These days, Carlos Castro Miranda hardly can stand to watch the news.

It's exhausting, and depressing, to see politicians in Washington — people who never met him — arguing about whether he should be allowed to continue living the life he's built in this country through years of hard work.

The federal DACA program that allows Miranda and about 790,000 other young immigrants — brought here illegally as children — to live, work and attend school in the United States is deep in jeopardy. Deadlines are close and no fix is in sight, as events that began in the fall near their denouement.

On Sept. 5, President Trump ended the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, but delayed implementing his decision for six months, giving Congress a chance to craft a legislative solution. That effectively created a March 5 deadline. But as Democrats and Republicans spar, the future of DACA, or a new program like it, has become entangled in other issues, including the president's demand for a wall at the Mexico border and Congress' need to reach a budget agreement by Jan. 19 to avert a government shutdown.

For Miranda, 23, the drama in Washington could eventually end with his deportation from the only country he knows — where he was salutatorian of his class at Maple Shade High School, where he earned an advertising degree from Temple University, where he holds a good job at Publicis Health Media, a Center City ad agency.

"Everything that you work to achieve in your life could be taken away," he said. "It takes a toll on all the relationships that you have, your romantic life, your family, your work."

Miranda was 8 when his mother brought him from Honduras to the U.S. in 2002, and settled in the Cherry Hill area. His homeland had become too dangerous, with children recruited by criminal gangs.

Conditions there haven't improved. The State Department has issued a travel warning for parts of Honduras, citing high rates of murder, violence, and drug trafficking. In some places, not only are crime and drugs rampant, but "infrastructure is weak, government services are limited, and police or military presence is scarce," the State Department warned.

Miranda wonders: If DACA dies, he's supposed to go there?

He has some time to figure out a move. The government stopped accepting new DACA applications after Trump announced the program's termination, but allowed a 30-day window for renewals. Miranda was among those able to complete a final, two-year renewal, pushing their personal deadlines into 2019.

"Our only choices," he said, "are to do nothing — or make our voices heard."

Nearly 80 percent of DACA recipients come from Mexico. New Jersey is home to 22,024 participants, and 5,889 live in Pennsylvania.

"They're playing Russian roulette with our lives," said Prudence Powell, 35, a DACA recipient who lives in North Philadelphia. "It's frustrating. Stop tweeting and do your job."

Powell was 12 when she was brought to the U.S. from Jamaica. She grew up in New York, later moved to Philadelphia, and now works as office manager for the Pennsylvania Immigration and Citizenship Coalition, an immigrant-rights group.

"I just hope they come to their senses," Powell said, "and do something that is fair."

Not only her life and work are at stake, she said. Her 17-year-old son and 12-year-old daughter are American citizens by birth. Is she expected to leave her children behind if the government says she must leave?

"Going back is not an option," Powell said. No matter what, the family won't move to a Jamaica they don't know or recognize.

The DREAM Act, an acronym for Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors, gave Powell and others a nickname — Dreamers — but not much else. It was never voted into law. Instead, in 2012, Obama created DACA by executive action, a method that continues to inflame those opposed to the program.

They say DACA represents a huge presidential overreach, and rewards illegal immigration. In announcing the end of the program in September, Attorney General Jeff Sessions said DACA contributed to a surge of unaccompanied minors on the nation's southern border, created terrible humanitarian consequences, and denied work to hundreds of thousands of Americans by allowing undocumented immigrants to take the jobs.

DACA regulations allowed undocumented migrants who entered the country when they were younger than 16 to apply for protection from deportation and live something like a normal life. After passing a background check, being fingerprinted, photographed and registering with the government, those young people could get renewable two-year permits to live and work in the U.S. It initially cost $465 to apply.

Officials at HAIS Pennsylvania, which provides legal aid to immigrants, have urged DACA participants to visit its Center City office, at 21st and Arch Streets, and have their cases evaluated, in the hope that other paths to residency or citizenship might be found. That effort has helped a handful of people with viable claims for asylum or family reunification, said Philippe Weisz, managing attorney of the Philadelphia-based advocate.

For most others, the end of DACA — without a new program in place — would mean the end of their ability to legally live and work in this country.

"DACA is dead. The next question is, is there going to be something better? Or is there going to be nothing?" said Philadelphia immigration attorney John Vandenberg, chair of the local chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association.

If the answer is "nothing," he said, then that would be tragic. The DACA youths he knows are determined students, hard-working employees and eager business entrepreneurs. He wonders why the federal government would want to make those people leave, and what message that would send to the rest of the world.

"The question is, what kind of America are we? That's what it really comes down to," Vandenberg said. "It's going to take leadership to give the Dreamers a new chance, and it remains to be seen whether that leadership exists."