Sandra Martinez was brought to the United States from Mexico by her parents when she was 5 years old. As undocumented immigrants, she and her parents lived in constant fear of deportation, but they settled into the underground economy and built a life for themselves.
The family originally lived in Alabama, then moved to Clarksville, Ind., and ultimately across the river to Louisville, where Martinez excelled at Central High School. She planned to go to college and hoped for Congress to pass the DREAM Act, which would give legal status to young undocumented immigrants brought to America by their parents the ability to find a good job and a potential path to citizenship.
The DREAM Act stalled in Congress, but during her senior year at Central in 2012, Martinez’s life was changed by President Barack Obama’s executive Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). This executive action gave immigrants like her the chance of obtaining a work permit, Social Security number and driver’s license, and it removed any immediate threat of deportation.
Martinez’s DACA application was approved in early 2013, the same year she started classes at the University of Kentucky. Now in her senior year, she already has a part-time job in her field of study and a full-time job with the same employer lined up when she graduates this spring.
“My job was a blessing, because I’m a geography major and I was able to get an internship and a really good job with my skill set,” says Martinez. “They said they would open a full-time position for me once I graduated. I had that to look forward to, but now I don’t know.”
The sudden uncertainty in her promising career and future is due to the victory of President-elect Donald Trump, who campaigned on a promise to immediately rescind DACA and create a “deportation force” to remove all 11 million undocumented immigrants from America within two years. If Trump follows through on that pledge, not only might Martinez’s work permit be revoked or not allowed to be renewed, but she could be subject to deportation – a fear made worse by the fact that she and the 741,000 young immigrants approved for DACA have given all of their personal information to the federal government through that process.
“I’ve never felt this level of fear,” says Martinez. “And the worst thing is, I’m not exaggerating, I’m not just being dramatic. It’s real.”
As of this Summer, nearly 3,000 in Kentucky have been approved for DACA benefits, and IL spoke with three who grew up in Louisville; each of them echoed the same sentiment: Optimism for the future has quickly turned into uncertainty and anxiety with Trump set to be sworn in as president in January.
‘Back to square one’
“When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best,” said Trump when first announcing his candidacy last summer. “They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”
Trump promised during his campaign that DACA would be rescinded on his first day in office, and those protected by it “would have to go,” as “we either have a country or we don’t have a country.” He often pledged to deport all 11 million undocumented immigrants, but said some who were deported would be allowed to attempt to come back in through an unspecified process.
In one of his first interviews after the election, Trump said his first priority on deportations was those with criminal records, which he said numbered 2 to 3 million – though the Migration Policy Institute estimates that only 820,000 living in the country illegally have a criminal conviction, 300,000 of whom have a felony conviction. Trump said he would determine what to do with the rest of the undocumented immigrants after the U.S.-Mexican border was “secure,” as he pledged countless times to build a border wall and “make Mexico pay for it.”
Undocumented immigrants who have been approved for DACA still don’t know if or when a Trump administration would attempt to deport them, nor are they certain about what will happen with their work permits – which currently can be renewed after two-year periods – if DACA is rescinded.
The work permit Martinez has does not expire until January 2018, but she fears that Trump ending DACA with the stroke of a pen might not just prevent her from renewing the work permit, but immediately nullify it and put her out of the part-time job she has now and her full-time job lined up next summer.
“I think it’s counterproductive because … millions of students that have been educated here and go to college here are being very productive, and suddenly they won’t be allowed to contribute, they won’t be able to work and use those skills to create businesses or to join the workforce,” says Martinez. “Not to mention, we’ve worked really hard. We’ve worked our entire lives, we’ve been fighting our entire lives to get what we have now.”
Becca O’Neill, an immigration attorney with Kentucky Refugee Ministries, says her office has been flooded with questions from immigrants about what is to come with Trump. Specifically, they question whether work permits already received through DACA will be valid until their current expiration date, even if the program is eliminated.
O’Neill is telling DACA clients that Trump likely will make good on his pledge to end the program and renewals, but she hopes current work permits will remain valid, as no longer honoring them “would be a logistical nightmare, because employers don’t necessarily know on what basis their foreign nationals are authorized to work.” She adds that no longer honoring work permits may also lead to a legal challenge, as a legal benefit granted by the government may not be taken away without a due process.
On-again, off-again immigration reform supporter Sen. Marco Rubio, re-elected this month, said Sunday that Trump should no longer allow DACA renewals but should still honor these work permits until they expire. President-elect Trump has not yet addressed the issue.
Sagar Patagundi, a recent UofL graduate who now works as a manager at Amazon, has these same fears about his work permit granted through DACA, which he fortunately just renewed this month. His parents brought him to America from India when he was a child and have since moved back, and Patagundi recently has earned enough money at his current job to help his family there financially. However, if his work permit goes away, he says he’ll be back to where he was four years ago, “which was working at some front desk getting paid under the minimum wage, where an employer is taking advantage of me. That’s like a nightmare fear that’s always behind me.”
“Since DACA, I’ve been so successful climbing up the ladder, being able to live comfortably financially and not having to worry about a lot of things, other than not being able to see my parents,” says Patagundi. “Now I’m scared of having to go back to square one and start from scratch again, where we’re back to being undocumented.”
Leo Salinas Chacón was brought to America from El Salvador as a child by his parents in 2000, fleeing gang violence and kidnappings that targeted his family. They originally lived in Nashville before moving to Louisville, where Chacón graduated from Eastern High School. He was approved for DACA in 2013 and is now in his second year at the University of Louisville, where he majors in economics and is a fellow in UofL’s Martin Luther King Scholars Program.
Chacón says his scholarship was made possible by DACA, and his work permit allows him to work on campus, but that expires next August. Citing his major and tendency to look at things from a business perspective, he says Trump would be wise to re-evaluate his position on DACA if he wants to prevent the American economy from taking a major hit.
“If he really is this businessman that he says he is, he’ll keep DACA, because it is just more money in the system that would now be taken out,” says Chacón.
Economists and business groups from both the left and the right of the ideological divide have expressed agreement with that sentiment. The liberal Center for American Progress estimates that ending DACA would reduce the U.S. GDP by over $433 billion over the next decade. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce – far from an ally to Democrats – has long supported immigration reform allowing legalization and a path to citizenship as a win for the economy.
The conservative American Action Forum released a study this year estimating that removing all undocumented workers as Trump advocated would cost up to $600 billion and reduce the GDP by over $1 trillion. A new study by economists at the City University of New York says such a move could actually shrink the GDP by as much as $5 trillion over a decade, with one of them saying “it would be a significant hit, in the order of the Great Recession.”
The spokeswoman for the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce has not yet responded to emails from IL asking for its stance on whether Trump should follow through on his promise to rescind DACA, while Alison Brotzge-Elder of Greater Louisville Inc. says they “do not have a position for or against DACA.”
The threat of deportation returns
Kate Miller of the ACLU of Kentucky says beyond DACA recipients being in jeopardy of losing work permits and driver’s licenses, “it’s even more concerning that people who have been eligible for DACA now have submitted a lot of their personal information to the federal government, which of course is also responsible for deportations.”
DACA applications are submitted to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, an agency within the Department of Homeland Security, and applicants must list addresses for their current residence and employer, bank account information and the names of relatives who may also be undocumented. It is the current policy of USCIS that this information is protected from disclosure to Immigration and Customs Enforcement for the purpose of immigration enforcement proceedings, but this policy is not set in law and could easily be reversed.
The Immigrant Legal Resource Center released a fact sheet this month noting that those who have applied for DACA will not necessarily be targeted for deportation, as “administrative programs like this have never been used for wholesale deportation in the past,” though adding that “Trump is more unpredictable than past presidents, so we do not really know what to expect.” While ILRC recommends people renew DACA if they have already been approved, they warn that those eligible and thinking of submitting an initial application – with a $465 fee – are unlikely to have it approved before Trump is sworn in, which may simply “expose them to DHS.”
Sagar Patagundi says a Trump administration using this information to locate and deport DACA applicants is “definitely one of our fears” – the same that prevented many from applying when DACA was created in 2012, as a new president could simply rescind Obama’s executive action. Those eligible for DACA must already have a criminal record free of any felony or “significant misdemeanor,” the latter of which currently consists of crimes involving violence, drug distribution or a sentence of over 90 days, but that definition could be expanded in a Trump administration.
“Trump is already talking about deporting 3 million immigrants who have criminal records, but the fear of that is when you say criminal activity, you could get pulled over for a minor traffic violation and get deported because they could claim that as a criminal record,” says Patagundi.
O’Neill with Kentucky Refugee Ministries says it would be “pretty outrageous” if the Trump administration used this information to target DACA recipients for deportations, adding, “I’d like to think that’s not a realistic scenario because that would be so politically unpopular. But it’s unknown.”
Leo Salinas Chacón notes that while Trump says he’ll go after criminals first, those who have been convicted of major crimes are likely living in the shadows and the hardest to find, which would be expensive and time-consuming. If Trump is not deporting such immigrants at the pace he promised during his campaign, he may feel the pressure “to look for the people who you know where they live,” such as DACA applicants with a relatively clean record.
Sandra Martinez recently attended a workshop in Lexington held by the nonprofit Maxwell Street Legal Clinic, where immigrants were told what to expect during a Trump presidency. The over 100 attendees were advised to know someone who is documented who can take care of their children and possessions if they don’t come home one day because they have been detained for deportation – all lessons Martinez learned from her parents growing up, in days she had hoped were behind her.
“If you ask anyone who is undocumented, we’ve grown up knowing those plans,” says Martinez. “For example, my parents told me if we’re not home, go here, call your aunt, go here, it’s going to be OK… It’s a strange time, because I used to think about that when I was in middle school and high school, and since I’ve been in college, I haven’t had to think about it. And suddenly I feel like a child again. I feel vulnerable because I just feel so helpless.”
Martinez notes that due to her DACA application, DHS also has the information of her parents, who remain undocumented.
Sanctuary cities, sanctuary campuses
In the wake of Trump’s election, some mayors across the country have reaffirmed their status as a so-called “sanctuary city” – a broad and often misinterpreted term generally used to describe local governments that prohibit law enforcement from asking a person about their immigration status or limit cooperation with federal immigration authorities on deportation matters.
Despite Trump threatening to block billions of dollars in federal funding to cities he deems uncooperative with federal immigration agencies, mayors and police chiefs in Los Angeles, Chicago, New York and Philadelphia all have stated since his election that their policies will not change.
Asked if the administration of Mayor Greg Fischer is considering any change in policy, spokeswoman Jean Porter stated in an email that Louisville is “a city of compassion” that “embraces our foreign-born neighbors,” adding that the city “does not enforce federal immigration laws (the Feds do that) and we do not arrest people solely for being undocumented.”
“We arrest/charge people for crimes from homicide to burglary,” stated Porter. “If they happen to be undocumented, and if a records check, which is a normal part of the arrest process, reveals a federal warrant or federal detainer for an immigration related crime, we would notify the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Office here in Louisville.”
Under ICE’s previous Secure Communities program, detainers could be issued when an immigration officer had reason to believe an individual was removable, but in 2015 the Obama administration replaced that with the Priority Enforcement Program, in which such detainers only target individuals convicted of significant crimes or who otherwise pose a threat to public safety. Along with recent federal court rulings determining that local governments and DHS may be held liable if a person is detained beyond their release date, the new policy is that detainer requests “may only be issued in limited circumstances, when ICE indicates on the form that the individual is both a PEP enforcement priority and that there is probable cause to believe that the subject is removable (such as a final order of removal).”
Current Metro Corrections policy states that “under no circumstances may any inmate be detained, pursuant to a federal immigration detainer, beyond the scheduled release date, court ordered release and/or posting of bail/bond.”
Trump campaigned on promises to restore the Secure Communities program and expand the “287(g)” program, which used to allow ICE to train local law enforcement officials and deputize them to enforce federal immigration laws, allowing officers patrolling the streets to process “removable aliens.” Responding to criticisms of discrimination and racial profiling, the Obama administration changed this aspect of 287(g) in 2012, meaning such trained local officers may now only question people about their immigration status after they are booked into jail.
Miller of the ACLU of Kentucky says there are constant complaints in Louisville about insufficient resources for law enforcement, “so it would be a pretty outrageous undertaking to force them into serving as immigration agents, especially without any additional funding.” Additionally, since the jail in Louisville is now regularly well over capacity, she adds that going back to honoring every single ICE detainer no matter the circumstances would be counterproductive to public safety.
“If you want someone in jail who isn’t accused of a serious crime, that means somebody else is going to be out on the street who shouldn’t be, and that’s what people should think about,” says Miller.
In addition to officials in cities with large undocumented populations reaffirming their “sanctuary” policies since Trump’s election, students have held rallies across the country calling for their school to be a sanctuary campus that protects undocumented students from deportation, with Martinez recently attending one such rally at UK.
Spokesmen for the University of Louisville, Bellarmine University and Spalding University told IL they are not considering any change in policy for undocumented or DACA students. Ben Jackey, the spokesman for Jefferson Community and Technical College, did not directly address the question but stated in an email that JCTC is “an open admission college and we support all of our students — from all backgrounds — in whatever way we can to ensure their success.” Jackey also forwarded an email President Ty J. Handy sent to students after the divisive election stating their commitment “to providing an atmosphere of respect and inclusion” that “will not tolerate hate speech or intimidation in an environment that values diversity of opinions, identities and experiences.”
As of Thursday, 426 college presidents around the country have signed an open letter clearly intended for Trump and Congress, calling for DACA to be “upheld, continued and expanded” and saying they are “prepared to meet you to present our case,” as “this is both a moral imperative and a national necessity.”
“America needs talent – and these students, who have been raised and educated in the United States, are already part of our national community,” states the letter. “They represent what is best about America, and as scholars and leaders they are essential to the future.”
Only two college presidents in Kentucky — from the private Transylvania University and Berea College — have signed the letter.
‘I’m here to stay. I’m not going anywhere’
“Electing Trump makes it seem like we’ve stepped back 10 years in the progress we’ve made,” says Patagundi, adding that — unlike most people — he was not surprised by the election results. “I wouldn’t say Americans showed their true colors, because not everyone is like that. But you can tell what people really think of immigrants.”
Right after Trump was declared the winner, Patagundi says his mother sent a text urging him to “just go to work and come home, be safe, don’t go to any protests.” But he attended a protest in downtown Louisville the next night. While he regrets that any immigration reform progress is unlikely over the next four years — and he likely won’t be able to visit his parents in India — he adds that “right now people are coming together and starting to organize, which is what we always needed.”
Chacón says that while minorities often tend to organize among themselves to solve their own problems, “I think that these next four years are going to have to be another civil rights movement, where all of us have to come together to push through the struggle. So I think that we have to make friends and promote unity within the next four years.”
Martinez has been a vocal advocate for immigration reform on UK’s campus and felt safe sharing her story because of DACA, but since the election — for the first time — she says a person “felt entitled to tell me that I need to be removed immediately because I’m ‘illegal.’ That’s something I’ve never had to deal with.”
She says she was shocked and devastated by Trump’s victory, recounting how she had studied long hours for a computer science test coming up the day after the election, which suddenly seemed pointless.
“Right after the results, I was like ‘Why am I studying so hard? I’m not going to be able to use this. Why am I working for a country that doesn’t want me here, if it’s always going to be like this, I’m always going to be an outsider. I’ll never be accepted here.’ It was really depressing.”
In retrospect, she seems less surprised by the results, saying, “In a way, I can understand why some people voted for him, because he did appeal to working-class white people who are also struggling. And as undocumented people, we understand struggle, we understand what it’s like to go through that. But at the same time, they voted for someone who spews hate and is very, very racist. And I know a lot of people are like ‘well, I’m not racist,’ but you voted for him. You might not be a racist, but you’re OK with racism.”
Despite her old fears returning and her future less certain, Martinez says she is not giving up hope — especially for her parents and the many undocumented students she spends time mentoring.
“My parents worked really hard to get me here, and they’ve gone through a lot to put me through college and allow me to be where I am,” says Martinez. “And if I gave up now it would be like a slap in the face to them… I don’t want to do that to them. I have to keep a strong facade so I can make it easier for them. So no, I can’t give up, I have to have hope. I’m not leaving. I’m here to stay. I’m not going anywhere.”