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As DACA ends, young immigrants face uncertain future

Hundreds across the region - and thousands across the nation - marched in opposition to President Trump's revocation of the Obama-era program known as DACA. Trump granted a six-month delay, to give Congress time to craft a legislative solution for nearly 800,000 young people brought to America illegally by their parents.

Pro-DACA demonstrators rally outside the local Department of Justice offices at 2nd and Chestnut Streets on Tuesday.
Pro-DACA demonstrators rally outside the local Department of Justice offices at 2nd and Chestnut Streets on Tuesday.Read moreCharles Fox / Staff Photographer

Anel Medina was a girl of 5 when her mother brought her from Mexico to the United States, settling in Kennett Square with hopes that she could achieve a better life.

She has done that.

Today, at 26, Medina is a registered nurse who works with oncology patients at Chester County Hospital in West Chester.

And she is suddenly in danger of having it all taken away, after President Trump's decision on Tuesday to end a federal program that barred the deportation of young immigrants who were illegally brought into the U.S. as children.

"We want to make this country better. We're doing everything we're supposed to do, in a country that doesn't seem like it wants us here," said Medina, who took part in a rally outside the U.S. Justice Department offices in Philadelphia.

She joined hundreds across the region — and thousands across the nation — who marched in opposition to revocation of the Obama-era initiative called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA.

Trump granted a six-month delay to give Congress time to craft a legislative solution for the nearly 790,000 young people in the program. He said after the announcement that he would "revisit" the matter if legislators failed to act.

DACA allows undocumented immigrants like Medina to register with the government — and contribute to their communities, paying taxes, and holding jobs without fear of being deported.

"DACA is under attack, and we're going to keep fighting," said Olivia Vazquez, 23, of Philadelphia, who was 10 when she came to this country and now works as a community organizer for Juntos, the immigration advocacy group. "We have to remember the power and strength that we have."

In New York, activists said 34 people were arrested, including nine DACA recipients, during a sit-in Tuesday at Trump Tower, and additional rallies were planned in Los Angeles, Chicago, Washington, and other cities. About 100 supporters prayed and sang hymns outside the Statehouse in Trenton, where activists with Stand Central NJ and Princeton Indivisible merged their rallies as the DACA decision neared. .

"This is the wrong thing to do to these children," said Francesca Vollaro, 60, of the Unitarian Universalist Church in Princeton. "These kids are part of America."

"Prayer alone is not enough," said Noreen Duncan of the Anti-Racism Commission of the Episcopal Diocese of New Jersey. "Sometimes you have to walk with your feet."

In Philadelphia, the doors of the U.S. Custom House were blocked by steel fencing as more than 100 chanting, sign-waving demonstrators rallied outside. They commenced a march even before Attorney General Jeff Sessions made the official announcement at 11 a.m., moving through Center City amid a heavy police presence.

Officers in cars and on bicycles took the front, closing streets as the crowd traveled, with officers on horseback at the rear. Police counter-terrorism vehicles were on the scene, as were Homeland Security police.

In Old City, old men in white aprons stood outside restaurants, leaning on brooms to watch the procession pass. At the Independence Visitor Center, tourists in ball caps and shorts puzzled over the fuss.

The rally was peaceful. And loud. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was quoted, Trump was put down. "A bully," Democratic district attorney candidate Larry Krasner told the crowd, speaking in Spanish and English.

People of all races and ages took part, some wearing the green jersey of the Mexican national soccer team, led by voices blared through bullhorns and songs strummed on a guitar.

Some said they were weary of being called "Dreamers" — a nickname sprung from failed efforts around "Dream Act" legislation — because everyone who comes to America has a dream.

"Don't even blame our parents," said Maria Sotomayer, a former DACA recipient who recently received permanent legal status to stay in the country and  works as deputy director of the Pennsylvania Immigration and Citizenship Coalition. "They did whatever they had to do for their children."

City Councilwoman Helen Gym told demonstrators that the nation's ideals are under assault. "The immigration laws of the United States are unjust, and an unjust law is no law at all," she said.

Those opposed to DACA cheered the president's action. They say the federal government must enforce its immigration laws — equally, without special exceptions based on age. Allowing DACA to continue, they say, makes the U.S. an "amnesty magnet" that will attract more  undocumented people.

On Tuesday, Sessions said that "unilateral executive amnesty" had contributed to a surge of unaccompanied minors on the southern border, created terrible humanitarian consequences, and denied work to hundreds of thousands of Americans by allowing undocumented immigrants to take the jobs.

"To have a lawful system of immigration that serves the national interest, we cannot admit everyone who would like to come here," Sessions said. "That is an open-border policy, and the American people have rightly rejected it."

Supporters say ending DACA is an act of unimaginable cruelty, forcing hardworking young people to leave the country where they were raised. Dozens of business executives, university heads and religious leaders — including Philadelphia Archbishop Charles J. Chaput — had called on the president to continue the program.

"Jewish values, as well as our people's history, tell us about the importance of welcoming the stranger," said Rabbi Joshua Waxman, president of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops called the president's decision "reprehensible" and urged Congress to act.

The Rev. Nicole Diroff, associate executive director of the Interfaith Center of Greater Philadelphia, invoked the city's history as testament to the power of immigrant stories, embodied now in the lives of DACA recipients. William Penn envisioned the region as a "Holy Experiment," an ideal of civil and religious liberty that would be a refuge from persecution, she said.

"There is not a faith community in Philadelphia that has not suffered indignity and persecution, nor one that has not experienced the benefits of resettlement on our safe shores because of it," Diroff said.

Not all faith leaders agree.

Evangelicals for Biblical Immigration wrote to Trump saying the Bible should not be construed to support programs such as DACA. "We find that the Bible does not teach open borders, but wise welcome," the letter said.

U.S. Rep. Leonard Lance, a Republican from New Jersey's Seventh District, said President Barack Obama overstepped his constitutional authority in creating DACA and that Trump had rightly called on Congress to act. He said he was co-sponsoring legislation to "secure our borders, strengthen employment verification, and provide a workable path for 'Dreamers' with DACA status."

Roy Beck, president of NumbersUSA, an immigration-reduction group, said Trump's decision "delivered a wonderful Labor Day present to unemployed American millennials" by ending the "unconstitutional issuing of work permits."

It's time, he said, for Congress to focus on strong immigration-enforcement measures, and to reform legal immigration system in a way that puts American workers first.

Since going into effect in 2012, DACA has allowed undocumented immigrants who entered the country as minors to gain renewable two-year deferments from deportation and to be eligible for work permits. It allows recipients to live, work, and seek education in the U.S., although they do not receive citizenship or legal status.

As a candidate, Trump pledged to end the program, calling its creation an abuse of presidential authority. He also complimented DACA recipients who have gone to college and launched careers, saying only four months ago that those brought to this country as children should "rest easy."

Few DACA recipients were resting easy on Tuesday, their futures newly uncertain.

Still, Medina, the nurse, left the march feeling more heartened than frightened.

"The fight is on," she said. "Seeing all the support here has encouraged us. We're not alone."

Staff writers Kristin E. Holmes, Jason Nark, and Melanie Burney contributed to this article.