January 30, 2018 / 4:34 PM / 9 months ago

As U.S. immigration debate rages, 'Dreamers' await their fate

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - As U.S. President Donald Trump and congressional leaders discuss the fate of some 700,000 immigrants brought to the United States illegally as children, the young people whose lives hang in the balance fret about their future.

DACA recipient Javier Hernandez Kistte, 27, poses for a portrait outside his home in Los Angeles, California, U.S., January 24, 2018. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

Reuters spoke to five people covered by the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program. Many older members of the group, nicknamed “Dreamers,” balance college classes and jobs amid a looming March 5 deadline set by Trump to repeal the program unless Congress preserves it.

“I knew DACA was going to be rescinded, or at least I thought it was, the day he won the election,” said Javier Hernandez Kistte, 27, referring to Trump’s anti-immigration stance during the 2016 presidential campaign. Kistte arrived in the country with his family from Mexico City when he was 8 years old.

Trump wants tighter restrictions on immigration that he deems necessary to improve national security and protect the jobs of working class Americans. Supporters of the DACA program say eliminating it would punish people who were too young to know the consequences of their family’s decision to move to the U.S. and remove productive people from the economy.

DACA recipient Martha Valenzuela, 23, leaves her office at lunchtime in Orange, California, U.S., January 23, 2018. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

Last week, senior White House officials outlined a plan that would offer a path to citizenship to about 2 million young illegal immigrants. The proposal also called for a border wall and curbs on some legal immigration programs, measures some Democrats have called unacceptable.

Some DACA beneficiaries said they did not realize where their families were headed when they set off for the United States.

“My parents told me we were coming to Disneyland,” said Karla Estrada, 26. “We did not go to Disneyland.”

Living under the radar and working illegally, several of the young people recalled rough, impoverished neighborhoods, and seeing family members suffer depression or abuse drugs.

Barbara Hernandez, 26, of Santa Ana, California, said she had a brother who was fatally shot in a flurry of gang violence.

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“That threw our family into a really big depression and my mom and my dad separated,” she said.

DACA, which took effect in 2012, allowed Hernandez to work in education, but she quit her job when Trump said he was rescinding the program.

Brian Caballero, 25, lives in a converted ambulance on the campus of California State Polytechnic University in Pomona near Los Angeles, where he is pursuing a degree in electrical engineering.

Martha Valenzuela, 23, was brought to the U.S. when she was 2 years old. She has no memories of Mexico.

DACA allowed her to get a driver’s license and to leave an informal job at a taqueria where she earned less than minimum wage. Now she works for a public relations firms as an account coordinator.

Looking at the possibility of the program being eliminated, Valenzuela is balancing preparations for a possible return to Mexico with activist work aimed at preserving DACA.

“It takes guts to have a dream and it takes guts to fight for it,” she said.

Writing by Sharon Bernstein; Editing by Scott Malone and Bernadette Baum

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