Within hours of the White House decision to roll back a program built to protect children of undocumented immigrants, Lexington Dreamers and their supporters marched downtown with signs and calls for action.
Recipients of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, spoke to the crowd outside the Fayette County District Courthouse about their experiences of coming to the United States, working and contributing to their communities and then learning they could lose it all.
Noemi Lara-Rojo, a DACA recipient, organized the rally as soon as she learned about President Donald Trump’s decision to end the program.
“Thanks to DACA, I was able to pursue higher education and get the good paying job that I have now to provide for my son,” Lara-Rojo said. Her son, Arlo, is 18 months old.
Never miss a local story.
It is a misconception that DACA recipients and other undocumented immigrants do not work or pay taxes, Lara-Rojo said.
“It’s very terrifying that the country that we love and that we want to be a part of ... this is like a slap in the face for us, telling us that we’re not welcome here and they don’t want us to be here,” Lara-Rojo said. “We’ve contributed a lot to this community.”
In the hours before the rally, BCTC students including Gabriela Carreno-Serrada worked on posters for the evening.
Carreno-Serrada’s parents brought her to the United States from Venezuela as a small child. At 15, she received Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals status, which allowed her to legally pursue a political science degree at Bluegrass Community and Technical College.
Now 18, she might be facing deportation next year in the wake of the Trump Administration’s decision.
“We give so much to this country,” Carreno-Serrada said. “We are as American as anyone. Considering that one in six people in Lexington is an immigrant, not supporting us is not supporting Lexington.”
Officials estimate there are about 800,000 participants, commonly called “Dreamers,” in the DACA program.
Heather Hadi, a Lexington immigration attorney, attended the rally Tuesday night to show support for “the DACA recipients who are rightfully so freaking out at this point.”
She advised any person who is able to renew their DACA by March.
“You’ve got to do it, because that’s the window that they’re giving,” Hadi said. “If you have not applied for DACA (or it’s definitely going to expire), I urge people to see what other options are out there.”
Anyone who has been approved for advance parole, which allows DACA recipients to temporarily leave the country and return, is advised not to leave, Hadi said. “Even if it’s been approved, those people could get stuck overseas because of this.”
Created through executive order by then-President Barack Obama in 2012, the program was aimed at children brought to the U.S. by their parents illegally, but who graduated from high school or sought to enter the military, and had no criminal record. The program granted those applicants work and travel authorizations that had to be renewed by the U.S. immigration status every two years.
Sessions said the policy was an “open-ended circumvention of immigration laws” and an “unconstitutional use of executive authority.” Federal immigration officials are not accepting new applications but will continue renewing authorizations until March 5, 2018, giving Congress time to decide if the program should be replaced.
DACA does not make participants eligible for federal financial aid to attend college, and in Kentucky, Dreamers do not receive any state scholarship money, such as KEES. Colleges and universities have made their own policies about giving institutional financial aid to DACA recipients, said Charles Baesler, an attorney at Stoll Keenon Ogden who does immigration law work.
Carreno-Serrada pointed out that many Dreamers pursue college degrees even though they do not receive taxpayer-funded student financial aid. That means most must work and go to school.
“Despite all the obstacles, we continue to find a way to get an education,” she said.
Most schools do not track DACA students because of federal privacy laws. University of Kentucky officials, for example, said they don’t know how many DACA students might be on campus. Erin Howard, BCTC’s Latino Outreach Director, estimated there are fewer than 100 Dreamers enrolled there.
According to a page of frequently asked questions on the UK Dean of Students website, President Eli Capilouto talked last year to Kentucky’s congressional delegation about the importance of campus diversity, including DACA.
“One of the critical topics he addressed with members of the delegation was DACA and our strong support of continuing the program,” said UK spokesman Jay Blanton. “Now, we certainly hope that Congress will address this issue and codify these protections and the program.”
UK’s federal lobbyist is working on the issue alongside higher education groups every day, Blanton said..
“For UK, and for others, it is a question of talent — talent on our campus, talent in our classrooms, talent in our research labs, talent at our hospital and health care facilities,” Blanton said. “The question we should be asking of students — and others — is do they have the talent and capacity to succeed at UK. If they do, we should do everything we can to be supportive.”
Kentucky’s elected officials were generally split along political lines, with Democrats condemning Trump and Republicans blaming Obama for overreaching his authority.
Lexington Mayor Jim Gray released a statement saying there’s a need for “smart and clear immigration policies.”
“Tearing families apart is wrong,” Gray said. “Congress has another opportunity to deliver for everyone, including the very real people these decisions impact.”
U.S. Rep. John Yarmuth, D-Louisville, called the decision “cruel, inhumane and harmful to us all.”
“These are people who were brought here as children, played by the rules, and earned diplomas,” Yarmuth said. “They contribute to their communities and participate in a workforce that wants and needs them. Denying them the opportunity to continue to live the only lives they know and to tear them away from their families simply to placate the savage demands of political extremists is morally bankrupt.”
The Republican Party of Kentucky issued a statement calling on Congressional leaders to enact a “ permanent legislative solution for this very real issue while also securing our borders and guaranteeing a stronger system for legal immigration moving forward.”
“We are not and should not be a nation that forces children to pay for the crimes of their parents, however DACA was a clear abuse of executive authority and a violation of the separation of powers,” said RPK spokesman Tres Watson.
However, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, issued a statement that remained silent on the future of DACA.
“President Obama wrongly believed he had the authority to re-write our immigration law,” McConnell said. “Today’s action by President Trump corrects that fundamental mistake. This Congress will continue working on securing our border and ensuring a lawful system of immigration that works.”
U.S. Rep. Andy Barr, R-Lexington, said Trump was “right to rescind this program while giving Congress and the administration time to find a permanent, legal, and fair resolution for these children who were brought into this country involuntarily and at no fault of their own.”