As Trump mulls end to DACA, advocates prepare to fight for immigrants

People march outside the White House Aug. 15 at a rally calling on President Donald Trump to protect the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, known as DACA. (CNS / Reuters / Joshua Roberts)

The last two weeks have been busy for Jean Stokan.

As of Sept. 1, Stokan, the immigration coordinator for the Sisters of Mercy's Institute Justice Team, was on day 18 of a 22-day vigil outside the White House, pleading for the continuation of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy, known as DACA.

DACA protects from deportation up to 800,000 people under the age of 35 who were brought to the United States as children. Begun five years ago under President Barack Obama, the administrative program allows those with DACA status to legally work in the United States, but President Donald Trump is considering ending it, possibly within days.

Nine attorneys general and one governor in 10 states have given the Trump administration until Sept. 5 to end the program or they will amend their lawsuit, which blocked an expansion of DACA, to attack the original policy as unconstitutional.

Stokan, who with 26 others was arrested in a civil disobedience action — sitting where they were not supposed to — at a rally Aug. 15, the first day of the vigil, said most of those taking part are Korean youth from the National Korean American Service & Education Consortium from Annandale, Virginia, just outside Washington, D.C.

"They were out here dancing to Korean music today," Stokan told Global Sisters Report via cellphone from the vigil Sept. 1. "There's a power and a spirit here that's beautiful and really draws people."

But there is also an undercurrent of fear, she said.

"At the vigil last night, one woman took the microphone, and it was just chilling," Stokan said. "Her best friend is a DACA recipient. She has nightmares and can't sleep at night. Their whole future is just put on hold."

The lawmakers' deadline has DACA advocates in a rush to save the program.

"It's just a million calls every day and pushing for the legislative change we need," said Sr. Bernadine Karge, a Sinsinawa Dominican sister and immigration attorney in Chicago.

The legislative change Karge and others are looking for is known as the DREAM Act, which would change DACA from an enforcement policy to written law. It has been introduced every year since 2010; this year's version was introduced July 20 by senators Lindsey Graham (R-SC), Dick Durbin (D-IL), Jeff Flake (R-AZ) and Chuck Schumer (D-NY).

"The DREAM Act is [under consideration] in both houses of Congress," Karge said. "It needs to be law instead of being subject to the whims of whatever president is in office."

Patricia Zapor, director of communications for Catholic Legal Immigration Network, said the DREAM Act has always had good bipartisan support, "but it's always been killed for reasons that had little to do with the bill.

"There's currently a massive advocacy effort directed at the White House and Congress, both to keep DACA and for a legislative fix. There are several pieces of legislation that just need to be acted on," she added.

Advocates received an ally Sept. 1, when House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) told a radio station that DACA should not be ended and that Congress should fix the issue statutorily, The Associated Press reported. Ryan, a Catholic, joins the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, bishops who have spoken out on their own, educators, women religious and faith leaders of all types who have urged Trump to continue the policy.

But advocates are preparing for the worst. Zapor said her organization is looking at different scenarios and trying to prepare for each.

"We're asking, what information do our affiliates need to share with clients? What information do we need to have available?" she said. "We're ramping up our 'know your rights' materials."

Zapor said sisters have been critical in the fight.

"They're always among the first out there and among the first at a protest or signing letters," she said. "When the rest of us were getting ready to watch the eclipse, they were getting arrested over DACA."

Sr. Andrea Koverman, a Sister of Charity of Cincinnati who ministers at the Intercommunity Justice and Peace Center in Cincinnati, said the deadline has been both a curse and a blessing.

"On one hand, it causes so much fear and increased anxiety when we're trying to keep people from going further underground and into the shadows," Koverman said. "But it also galvanizes people. The administration is giving us reasons to be motivated and take a strong stand."

Koverman said because she and others work daily with DACA recipients and people living in the country illegally, the fight becomes as much about people as it is about policy.

"We know these people. It's as personal as if they're trying to snatch your own brother or sister away. They belong in our community," she said. "What does it say about our country when we promised them, 'Come out of the shadows, tell us who you are, and we promise to help you, not target you.' Now, the objective seems to be to undo it all, regardless."

One of those living in fear is José Cabrera, a senior at Xavier University student and a DACA recipient.

"Even having DACA is like a glass ceiling," Cabrera said in a conference call with reporters Aug. 29. "You can see the outside world and get a taste of what it's like to be an American, but when you try to move upward, you're blocked and reminded it's such a fragile thing that can be taken away."

Cabrera said much of the fear is not just that the policy will end, but that it will also be used against recipients.

"Are they just going to start rounding us up and deporting us? They have all our information, and it's very detailed," he said. "We jokingly say they know when we're going to use the restroom."

Stokan said no one knows what the backlash will be if DACA is rescinded, but she expects the voice of the immigrant community will be heard.

"I don't know another community that is more resilient and determined than the immigrant community," she said.

[Dan Stockman is national correspondent for Global Sisters Report. His email address is dstockman@ncronline.org. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.]