Liz Cortez hasn’t known any other country but the United States. Her mom crossed the border from Mexico with her when she was just 6 months old.
Maui is where her family and friends are, where she graduated from high school and where she works as a legal assistant. But now that Donald Trump has been elected president, she fears that her future in this country is in jeopardy and that her family could be torn apart.
She is one of 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States who Trump threatened with swift deportation during his campaign for president. As voters across the country fanned out to polling places on Tuesday, Cortez, who isn’t permitted to vote, says she was gripped with anxiety.
“That day was very emotional and very heartbreaking,” she said, choking up with tears. “Once the results were out, God, I could not sleep. I woke up every two hours. I made a prayer every two hours that I woke up.”
Cortez, 27, is among hundreds of immigrants in Hawaii known as the dreamers — undocumented immigrants who were brought to the United States as children and often have few if any ties to the countries where they were born.
After Congress failed to pass the Dream Act, which would have afforded undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as children a path toward legal residency and possibly citizenship, President Barack Obama implemented a program in 2012 to give them temporary protections.
His executive policy, called the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, often referred to by its acronym DACA, allows immigrants who came to the U.S. before age 16 and were under age of 31 on June 15, 2012, to legally work in the United States without the threat of being deported. After two years, they can apply for a renewal.
The program is restricted to immigrants who don’t have significant criminal records and who have graduated from high school, obtained an equivalent diploma or are currently in school.
The program provides limited protections and no path toward becoming a legal resident or citizen. But for Cortez, it was transformational.
It wasn’t until she was a sophomore at Maui High School that she realized that she wasn’t a U.S. citizen, afforded all the rights and opportunities of her classmates.
She had hoped to go to college and enter the medical field, perhaps become a maternity nurse or midwife. Her mom had to explain to her why that wasn’t possible.
“It was heartbreaking. I felt like it wasn’t fair. It is the only country I had ever been to. I was like, no, it is just impossible. How am I not from here?” she said.
“To come and realize that everything you have planned for yourself, there is a document or two that are preventing you from pursuing that — that is when you realize you have to be living in the shadows.”
Instead of going to college after high school, she worked long hours with her family, getting paid cash under the table. At night she would clean a restaurant and do maintenance work at a golf course. That was from 2 a.m. until 7 a.m. She would then babysit up to six kids from 8 a.m. until 5 or 6 p.m., making sure she was in bed by 8 p.m. so that she could be at work again six hours later.
“Imagine what I could have done by my 22nd birthday if I had had some sort of status,” she said. “I wanted to go to school.”
Cortez has now been covered under the DACA program for about four years and currently works as a legal assistant for Maui immigration attorney Kevin Block.
Hard line promised
Local immigration attorneys say the DACA program was intended to be a temporary stopgap measure to make sure these immigrants who grew up in the U.S. weren’t deported and could work legally. The hope was that Congress would soon pass comprehensive immigration reform.
But that hasn’t happened and Trump has promised to take a hard line on immigration.
During his campaign, he vowed to immediately terminate the DACA program through an executive order, as well as a similar program for parents that has been hamstrung due to court challenges. He’s also vowed to deploy a deportation force to help rapidly remove undocumented immigrants.
“All immigration laws will be enforced — we will triple the number of ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) agents. Anyone who enters the U.S. illegally is subject to deportation. That is what it means to have laws and to have a country,” according to Trump’s 10 Point Plan to Put America First on his campaign website.
Immigration attorneys say they have been flooded with calls and emails from immigrants worried about what to do since Trump’s election.
“Generally, I would say people are feeling terrified,” said Clare Hanusz, an immigration attorney at Damon Key Leong Kupchak Hastert in Honolulu. “They feel like their world is being turned upside down and they don’t know how quickly or how and when things are going to change.
“If Trump makes good on his promise to repeal DACA, that not only sends all those people’s lives back into limbo, but it puts them at risk of targeted deportation.”
Nationally, there are about 800,000 immigrants covered under the DACA program. In Hawaii, an estimated 2,000 immigrants qualify for the program, but only 405 had filed accepted applications as of June, according to the Migration Policy Institute. Hawaii has had a lower rate of participation than other states.
Advocates for immigrants have speculated that the low participation rates could be due to cultural reasons, such as more shame among Asian immigrants about being undocumented. But the program has also carried a risk.
In applying for the program, applicants had to essentially out themselves as undocumented, turning over personal information to immigration officials, raising fears among some immigrants that they or unprotected family members could be targeted for deportation in the future if there were a change in policy or administration.
The Obama administration promised not to use the information for deportation, but Trump’s election has undermined that sense of security.
Hope for softer stance
While advocates for immigrants are taking Trump’s vow to cancel the DACA program seriously, they are still hoping that the president-elect’s more aggressive stances toward deportation will soften once he takes office.
“Naive or not, I do find some hope of some signs of softening,” said Stan Bain, a co-founder of Faith Action for Community Equity and a coordinator for the Hawaii Coalition for Immigration Reform. “Of course, it will be difficult for him to not carry through with some of his campaign promises. But I also sense a recognition of the importance of immigrants to our society.”
Block, the Maui immigration attorney, said that even for Republicans who have more conservative views on immigration policy, deporting the DACA immigrants to countries where they often have no roots and don’t always speak the language could prove politically unpalatable.
“It would be inhumane,” he said.
There are also major impediments to trying to significantly increase deportations, which were already on the rise under the Obama administration.
“The courts simply cannot handle processing or adjudicating all of these cases, so the practical reality of Trump’s campaign promises coming true are very, very procedurally complicated and the system is already very, very stressed,” Hanusz said.
Rights still afforded
Even if an immigrant entered or resides in the country illegally, he or she is afforded due process rights. Immigration officials can’t just round up hundreds of thousands of DACA immigrants and summarily deport them, Hanusz said.
She said in a worst-case scenario, the government would initiate removal proceedings against all of the DACA applicants and they would receive notices to appear in immigration court.
But it can take three to four years for the courts to schedule a hearing because they are so backed up, Hanusz said. There are also grounds by which some immigrants can fight a deportation, such as showing extreme hardship to a family member.
For now, local immigration attorneys and advocates are urging those affected not to panic, and are taking a wait-and-see approach to find out what Trump does once he assumes office.
Bain said his focus right now is on assuring immigrants that they are not alone.
“I think that is the main assurance that immigrants need, for the surrounding community to assure them that they will be right there with them,” he said.