DACA Debate: ‘This is my home’
President Trump’s action Tuesday to rescind Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) is sending shockwaves through immigrant-rich Storm Lake.
“I’m very disappointed right now. I’m shocked - the discussion has been out there, but I never believed it would actually come to this,” said Ofelia Valdez Rumbo, Lakeside, a former DACA exemption holder.
Immigrants speak out
“It’s still very close to my heart,” shares Rumbo, who has since married and become eligible for citizenship. “I benefitted from DACA for four years, and I am very worried about the young people who should have the same protection. All I can see is benefits - is there something this program did to damage the United States or the economy?”
Former President Obama allowed the DACA exemption by executive order in 2012. It allows undocumented immigrants who were brought to the country as young children and grew up here an opportunity to be sheltered from deportation. It is not easy to live in that gray area, Ofelia says.
“You can never plan for the future, not knowing if you will be allowed to keep a job, to finish school or college, whether you can ever buy a house, because you may be taken away. These are hard-working people who don’t want welfare - all they want it to get an education, get a job, and contribute. They are caught in a political game, because Obama did this as an executive order and the other side wants to prove a point. It’s sad to think all these lives are being impacted and all this pain caused for no reason.”
An undocumented high school student who had not yet qualified for DACA, adds, “Storm Lake is the only home I know. We won’t give up. This is home. We’re here to stay.”
A 31-year-old medical field student, single mother and DACA holder in Storm Lake said she expected the blow. “Deep down we knew it was coming, we were just waiting for the moment. With Obama passing this by executive action, we knew it was likely to be changed no matter who the next president would be - the only question was what the terms would be.”
She was brought to the country at age 8, and has only been back to her native Mexico once. “This is my world,” she says. Her current DACA permit expires next year.
“All we can do is hope Congress or the president come through, especially for all those students who are not old enough yet to qualify for DACA.”
She recalls her excitement when the DACA program was announced. “It was a great thing. The world needed to know how many children, how many students there are out there. It let us come out of the shadows and speak. It let us show what we are capable of, not criminals, that we just want an opportunity like other Americans. It was a good beginning.”
She fears being forced to a country she doesn’t know, and where her child could not speak the language. Many of the DACA qualifiers have lived in the U.S. since they were babies and have no place now in the countries they were born, she says.
“I have faith that something positive will come from this. We have gone through struggles to get this far, we can’t give up now. There will be a lot of uncertainty in the next six months. I will try to stay calm. Everything happens for a reason.”
King: DACA is ‘Republican Suicide’
At the other end of the spectrum is the area’s congressman, Steve King, a vocal supporter for elimination of the DACA program.
“I think [Trump’s action is] a little bit of a Solomon-esque maneuver. He cut the baby in half and threw it to Congress to fight over,” King said in a CNN interview.
Although DACA is short-term shelter and does not create a path to citizenship as the original “Dream Act” debate proposed, King insists that it is “unconstitutional amnesty,” and said that with qualifiers getting a work permit, it couples a criminal intent with a reward. “The objective of their crime is to live in America without fear of the law being applied to them.”
King’s party is split on the issue. Republican Lindsey Graham of South Carolina plans to re-introduce the Dream Act to give a clear residency to DACA recipients. Others, including speaker Paul Ryan, want a compromise. President Trump indicates in a Twitter post that if Congress can’t reach a fix within six months, Trump indicated that he will revisit the issue.
King, however, suggests Congress doesn’t have to do anything to protect the estimated 800,000 DACA people, who can continue to “live in the shadows,” he said, claiming that was their objective when they came to the country. DACA recipients shouldn’t expect help from Congress, according to King.
In fact, King suggested in a tweet Sunday, that delaying the decision to end DACA and allowing proposals to let the people stay permanently to gain a political foothold, would be “Republican suicide.”
The stance has some public backing. The Pilot-Tribune Facebook page invited comment on the Trump action. “Now President Trump and his administration need to kick out all illegal immigrants and when they decide to become legal and pay taxes they can be welcomed back!! The wall needs to be built,” one man responded.
Another noted that Congressional action does not necessarily mean an end to DACA. “I hope people understand this is actually the correct way to try to save DACA and make it a law and not a program that is outside the law,” he said.
Community rallies behind immigrants
Many community leaders are expressing support for the DACA immigrants, and hope that Congress will take some action to protect them.
Storm Lake Mayor Jon Kruse said the Trump decision will definitely affect people in Storm Lake. “The six month delay will give Congress time to get something done, hopefully something that will benefit the majority of our folks in this predicament. But every time we try to predict what the federal government is going to do, it comes out wrong. We need a permanent solution to this uncertainty. Hopefully it will be a good solution, and it will be acceptable to nearly everyone.”
Superintendent of Schools Carl Turner said he was “very disappointed” with Trump’s action. “It is really tough for me to see young kids being punished for decisions their parents made years ago,” he told the Pilot-Tribune.
“I thought DACA was a good option. We have a lot of talented kids who may be undocumented, but they can still contribute to our society. Now they will not be given that opportunity to contribute without breaking the law and turning to false identities and so forth.”
The superintendent said his hope is that Congress can produce a moderate, far-reaching immigration package within the coming months. “I’m not too optimistic. These are scary times,” he says.
City and school officials say no one knows how many young Storm Lakers will be impacted. “We don’t ask that question, we just educate them,” Turner said of immigration status. “We don’t know unless they tell us, and that is now even less likely.”
He noted that some of the young adults who trusted the government and filled out the DACA paperwork may have put themselves at risk. “They kind of outed themselves.”
Reaching out in Storm Lake
DACA and other immigration issues are often addressed at Our Place, a multicultural community center founded several years ago in Storm Lake.
“Mind numbing,” was how a leader of that program, Di Daniels, described Trump’s action. Her first thought was to plan a vigil, but based on the immigrants themselves, the best approach seems to be calm faith.
“On Monday I called several DACA people, I wanted to see what they were feeling. They were so comforting to me - the opposite of what should happen. They say they know they are going to be okay. They are reusing to succumb to fear.”
Advocates for the local DACA people are left feeling helpless. “Whatever we do, we do with their permission, so if they don’t want me blasting around town with placards and screaming for justice I won’t, or if they do, I will,” Daniels said.
For now, Our Place will concentrate on trying to get accurate information and resources to the people. It will bring in an immigration law expert from Des Moines in November to try to help answer questions for those impacted by the DACA situation. “We need to let people know the critical thing, that if they have a DACA card, they need to renew it by the October 5 deadline. The terrifying reality is that their jobs are going to end, and they can no longer legally drive. How will they support themselves and their families?They have faith - not in the government, but in God. I hope we’re not being naive in trusting. The anxiety is going to build over the next six months,” Daniels said. “It feels like a stay of execution.”
On the plus side, the “push back” from the American people to the action is heartening, although it cannot relieve the anxiety impacted people in Storm Lake are feeling. Daniels said she will make every call, and sign every petition she can to preserve DACA.
“When this program started, it was like a wall broke, it was so significant. It seems crazy that after five years, something that has beans helpful to so many people would be taken away.”
Law enforcement sees DACAs as part of community
Local law enforcement leaders say they have not sought to flush out undocumented immigrants who otherwise obey the law.
Buena Vista County Sheriff Kory Elston told the Pilot-Tribune that immigration status seldom becomes an issue. “The only time it comes into play is if there is a hold on someone who is already in jail,” he said.
“These [DACA] people are part of our community, they have been here for a while, and I hope Congress can work something out to make them more comfortable. I think the president’s intent was to go after the criminal element and not the others, and I hope that’s the direction this continues to take.”
Storm Lake Police Chief and Public Safety Director Mark Prosser said he feels DACA has been a “great success” in the community, and said he was disappointed in the Administration’s ruling to suspend it. “I wouldn’t want to be in the DACAs’ shoes, with additional fear placed on them in an already tumultuous time,” he said.
However, instead of complaining and looking backward over the decision, Prosser suggests it is time to be proactive, and use the next six months to urge elected officials to work for a “contemporary and responsible” immigration program that he hopes will continue to include DACA protection. He is optimistic it can be done, “If we can just get our political parties to come together.”
On Wednesday afternoon, Prosser took part in a national phone conference with law enforcement, clergy and businesspeople from around the county weighing in on the impact of the DACA situation, put on by the National Immigration Forum.