The undocumented lawyer suing Trump over DACA explains what the future holds for Dreamers

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For starters, ‘thousands will become deportable’ after today, she says.

After six months of protesting, inaction, and failed compromise, March 5 has arrived. The deadline President Donald Trump set for Congress to find a pathway to citizenship for 1.8 million undocumented immigrants is here—and there is no solution in sight.

Since Sept. 5, when Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that the Trump administration would be ending the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program—an Obama-era executive order allowing undocumented people who entered the U.S. as children to work legally—little has been done to prevent the deportation of 800,000 people with this status.

In the first 30 days after the order, only DACA holders whose statuses would expire between then and March 5 were allowed to reapply for the two-year permit, leaving an estimated 122 people to fall out of status and be vulnerable to deportation with each passing day. And while Congress has proposed multiple bipartisan bills, some with ample support, attempts to pass legislation, particularly “clean” Dream Acts, have been automatically disqualified for not meeting Trump’s demands for border wall funding and ending aspects of family migration.

DACA recipients and advocates, however, have found some success in a federal judge’s Jan. 9 injunction of Trump’s DACA order. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) under the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is now required to process re-applications from pre-existing DACA holders, thanks to a lawsuit against the Trump administration.

Dulce Garcia, a San Diego-area immigration attorney, is one of the six DACA-holding plaintiffs represented in the suit, the first of its kind to sue the administration on the behalf of Dreamers. Garcia came to the U.S. from Mexico with her family in 1987, when she was 4 years old, and grew up in Barrio Logan, a predominantly Latinx, underserved San Diego community less than 15 miles from the Mexico border. After graduating from the University of California San Diego with a degree in political science, she attended Cleveland Marshall Law School, then opened up her first law office in 2016. In 2017, she opened a second location in Barrio Logan, signing a five-year lease. And then, Trump rescinded DACA.

“The first time I realized that I had achieved my dream was when I first stepped into court and actually litigated a jury trial. I was on track to grow my business and make this practice what I had dreamed about for many years,” Garcia told the Daily Dot, detailing the sleepless nights she spent taking odd jobs between going to school and working as a paralegal full time all to pay for her tuition in cash, because she was undocumented. “Now that I’m facing deportation, everything’s in limbo. My family’s in jeopardy, so is my business. It’s terrifying because I believe I worked so hard to accomplish what I have and for someone to come and say, ‘You’re not American enough, you must go,’ and try to remove me from what I have called home 30 years now.”

While Garcia acknowledged that the injunction brought upon by her case, followed by a second injunction issued by a New York judge, is progress, she said it’s not enough. After Trump’s March 5 deadline, DACA holders whose status expires or who were unable to renew their two-year permit during the initial 30-day period will fall out of status and be subject to deportation. Even those who have reapplied and are waiting on USCIS to conduct its extensive background check will become deportable.

Speaking with the Daily Dot, Garcia detailed the ongoing nature of her lawsuit, what today’s deadline means for DACA recipients, and the chances of Congress passing a clean Dream Act.

Could you tell me a little bit about your lawsuit against Trump?

Dulce Garcia: On Sept. 5, when the president rescinded DACA, one of my first thoughts was, “We should sue.” But at that time, it seemed more urgent to get the renewals out, so for people who had DACA expiring within the 30 days that the president gave, we submitted those forms. That was the priority. But another attorney who was also a DACA recipient contacted me a few days later and proposed the lawsuit as a project. As soon as I knew what it was about, I agreed to it. 

What has the process been specifically for the lawsuit in the last six months? What has been happening?

We filed the lawsuit on Sept. 18—a lot has happened since then. We were able to win an injunction on Jan. 9 that allowed for those that have either fallen out of DACA status because they were not within the 30-day window to renew their DACA permit, or would be falling out of status, to renew. So a lot of people have now submitted their application and they’re waiting to hear back from the government, thanks to our efforts in the court.

The government obviously was not happy about that result and asked the Supreme Court to skip the Ninth Circuit and review this case. The Supreme Court denied that review, and so now it’s going to go through the normal process where we have some work still to do on the Ninth Circuit, and it’ll be calendared a few months from now. But in the meantime, people can still renew their DACA status whether it’s already expired or will be expiring.

I know in both the California and New York injunctions, judges said the way that the DACA removal process was done was incorrect. Is that the basis of your lawsuit?

Yeah, that is one argument, that the government made a promise to us: “You step out of the shadows, you provide all of your information, and you will receive this status that will be renewable for a period of two years.” And so a lot of us with that promise came out of the shadows—otherwise, we wouldn’t have if we knew weren’t safe. We provided our information and started building around this idea of not being deported. For example, I opened an office last year and signed a five-year lease agreement, not knowing that my DACA status was in limbo. Thinking that we were going to be protected, some of us started families, and that was taken away from us. So we are saying that the way they went about rescinding DACA is unfair.

But there are a lot of other arguments also in the lawsuit, including an equal protection argument—and our own president is the best witness we have. We have used his comments, tweets, and public statements to show his true intentions when he rescinded the program—that it was discriminatory. Some of the statements that were provided were things like, “When Mexico sends its people, it sends…the worst.” So those kinds of comments were used in this lawsuit. One of the things that the judge mentioned when he signed the preliminary injunction was that the president had admitted [in a tweet] that everyone wants to keep Dreamers here, at home.

Do you believe you have a good chance of winning? And if you win, what will it mean for DACA recepients—will it make void the Trump administration’s actions against DACA? 

I strongly believe that we will win the equal protection argument. A good indication is that we have a preliminary injunction in place. In order to obtain that, we had to explain to the judge the likelihood of winning that argument. So we’re on the right track.
[If we win,] I think we will be able to win to bring back the program as it existed before Sept. 5 completely. I think once we have our day in court, with trial, we will be able to win the overall lawsuit, which would provide for new applicants to be processed. However, that is not the ultimate goal. We need permanent protection from deportation, which for us means a clean Dream Act, especially at the border.
The fact that DACA recipients can now re-apply for their status, what does that mean for the March 5 deadline, being that the Justice Department wouldn’t push it back? What does that mean for your case?

For the case, the March 5 deadline isn’t so important because, as a result of the preliminary injunction, now we know that people can renew their DACA status according to the guidelines that were provided before Sept. 5.  

On the movement side, it’s still a very pressing deadline because starting March 6, over 1,000 people are going to become deportable. So far, daily, 122 people on average lose their DACA status, but starting March 6, we’re going to see people, thousands per week, become deportable. 

If you’re in a city like San Diego and you have, say, a prior order of removal you can be picked up on, and if you’re from Mexico, then you’ll be in Tijuana within a couple of hours or be held in detention for days, weeks. The government itself, DHS, has told us, “Be scared. If you’re undocumented here and you’ve lost your status, you should be afraid.” And so we very much are. 

Why it is that even though they re-applied for DACA, that they can still be deportable? Is it just that they don’t have DACA yet?

Yes. As you know, everything is slow with the government, and so once you collected the $495 filing fee, and you met with your lawyer, and you submitted your application, you go through the extreme vetting process where you have to go get fingerprints done, and the government has to do a background check on you, review all of your applications, and make sure that you are still eligible for it. And if you didn’t do any mistakes at all in your application and everything is OK, you’re looking at probably processing it within three, four months. Sometimes it has taken six months, and I’ve had cases that have taken even a year for USCIS to process. So you don’t really know how long the government will take to process these applications.

It’s been hard to understand the gravity of March 5 deadline because it just seemed like a deadline for Congress. But this sheds a lot of light as to what’s really going to happen. And that’s terrifying.

It really is. And it would be different if the DHS or the president had said, “If you’re waiting for DACA, you’re not going to be deported.” That would be one thing, or if they promised us: “You’re not going to be held in detention for weeks on end until we hear from the USCIS.” But they haven’t said that. On the contrary, they said you should be scared if you’re here with unlawful status. So that’s a real, truly terrifying part.

Another indication that they really want us out of here is the fact that they even asked the Supreme Court for a review [of the injunctions], and they could’ve just let the injunction stand as is if the president really wanted to keep us here. The president is not being kind or nice. He’s very much opposing everything that we’re doing, which is contrary to what he had indicated at the beginning of last year. 

Congress’ latest citizenship proposal failed, and then the Parkland high school shooting happened and now there’s a lot of focus on gun control—has this fallen by the wayside? Is there any sort of hope that Congress will magically come up with a clean “Dream Act” by the end of today?

No, I do not have that hope. They had six months; I thought that they would have done something about it in December, but they went on holidays without a solution. They came back this year, and they were even more apart on the issue than they were last year.

Especially because we were able to succeed a little bit on the litigation side, there’s this misconception as you mentioned—people don’t understand that there is this gap between when the DACA application is filed and when they’re going to get it. This misconception, I think, is playing into the negotiations in D.C. I don’t think right now they’re truly talking about how many people are going to be deported starting March 6. I don’t think that they have a sense of urgency anymore, which is an error.

But some of us here, we formed a group called San Diego Border Dreamers, and we’re going to go to D.C. precisely for that reason, because we want to make sure that they’re not forgetting us—not forgetting specifically border Dreamers and our reality here in a county like San Diego, where we see a lot of border patrol in our community. We want to be part of this dialog, this conversation, and more than anything, we want to make sure that they don’t forget that there’s an urgency. It’s still a crisis. 

As far as getting other people to understand the issues of Dreamers along the border, what would be in a clean Dream Act?

The Dream Act bill that was proposed was introduced last year. That had a path to citizenship, it didn’t increase the number of border agents here, and it didn’t provide money for a wall. And so that’s why we use the term “clean,” and this was referring to this specific bill, the Dream Act. In my opinion, that is already including some concessions, because it doesn’t include every undocumented person. There’s already in the “clean” bill guidelines that would exclude some people. To me, the bill was fair, and it had a lot of support from everyone, except that Speaker Paul Ryan wasn’t putting it on the floor, so the Republicans didn’t consider putting it to vote. But the word was that most people supported it. We were just nine representatives short of actually getting it through.

Now it seems like something happened over the holidays. Congress came back and the conversation is not revolving around a Dream Act anymore. The conversation is revolving around increased border security and limiting legal migration, and that is something that the president proposed. The whole world saw Trump sitting at a table and telling folks, Republicans and Democrats, “Look, you guys come up with a solution. If you’re all in agreement, I will sign it.” But really, that didn’t happen. They provided several bills to him that had bipartisan support and the president didn’t approve of that. He insists on getting $25 billion or more for his wall, the concessions that we’re talking about. Unfortunately, the conversation moved from the Dream Act to something that is terrifying for us here at the border.

Does it seem that the Justice Department will make any sort of extension after March 5, in terms of not deporting people who have already started the reapplication process?

They haven’t made a statement on that. The government, again, has the discretion to hold them in detention. They have even held DACA recipients with current and valid DACA status who have been able to show their status, but they’ve been held and questioned in detention nevertheless for hours. So what would they do with someone that doesn’t have a valid DACA status? We’re about to find out, but we know that they have already detained other DACA recipients. 

As an immigration lawyer, I would assume you have seen a lot of fear, confusion, and chaos in your field and with potential clients since DACA was rescinded.

As an immigration lawyer, things had been very difficult with the new administration from day one. As you know, the Muslim ban created a chaos, and it just terrified everyone in general. But with this DACA crisis, more than anything, it’s been creating more hostility here in our border region. Clients come in because now they’re terrified that they’re going to get deported, and even some who have already received their U.S. citizenship, they’re thinking that Trump’s going to take it away somehow.

What I have seen is an increased number of people who have received notices from ICE. People who were checking in yearly, now all of a sudden, they’re being deported. I have seen a number of people calling in because someone is about to be deported. And living so close to the border means within hours, or by the time I get the call, it’s too late—they’re already in Mexico.

There is chaos, too, even among attorneys not knowing what the new policies and procedures are because the administration is not being very transparent in their guidelines and in the way that they’re handling things. So it’s been a matter of networking and creating systems so that we’re all informed of the new patterns that we see. But things have definitely been very difficult in the last year as an attorney and as a DACA recipient. It has been a very challenging last six months.

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After six months of protesting, inaction, and failed compromise, March 5 has arrived. The deadline President Donald Trump set for Congress to find a pathway to citizenship for 1.8 million undocumented immigrants is here—and there is no solution in sight.