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Immigrant 'dreamers' fear deportation nightmare under Trump

Some undocumented immigrants brought here as kids were granted a sort of legal status by President Barack Obama. They're in a state of shock and panic now that Donald Trump has won the White House.

José Santoyo at his mother's home in Corsicana on Oct. 23, 2016.
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Of all the people worried about a Donald Trump presidency, few are freaking out more than the young undocumented immigrants who were granted relief from deportation under President Barack Obama's 2012 executive order.

Trump promised during his smash-talking presidential run to wipe away the order with a stroke of a pen, and with it the dreams of all those so-called "dreamers" who came out of the shadows under Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA.

On Wednesday, when Trump pulled off a historic upset against pro-DACA candidate Hillary Clinton, the fear that dreamers tried to push out of their minds for the last few months came spewing out. By next year, they could all be facing deportation — in some cases to countries they mostly know from pictures, if at all.

"I wouldn’t even know how to get around Mexico right now. I have no sense of how things work there, how society works there," said José Manuel Santoyo, 24, who grew up in Corsicana and hasn't been back to his native Mexico since he left as a child in 2001. "Every society runs differently, and I wouldn’t know what to do if I was there."

Santoyo wound up playing a bit role in the 2016 Republican primaries, when immigration hardliner Thomas McNutt ran against state Rep. Byron Cook of Corsicana. McNutt's family owns the company, Collin Street Bakery, that hired Santoyo even though he was undocumented and at the time didn't have DACA status — a revelation that contributed to McNutt's razor-thin loss to Cook. Santoyo was featured in news stories about the flap over undocumented workers at the bakery.

Santoyo's voice cracked when he contemplated his precarious future. He is scheduled to graduate from Southern Methodist University in December, a matter of days before Trump takes the oath of office. He has no idea if he'll be able to get a job or what his legal status will be after that.

"People are just afraid of what’s going to happen. I feel like that’s the worst thing: not knowing what’s going to happen. That’s what really kills you inside because you want things to be okay, but you don’t know what these politicians will actually do in order to maintain their power," he said. "So that’s what’s impacting a lot of people. It’s breaking them down mentally."

Santoyo joined thousands of fellow DACA beneficiaries who, in the span of a few hours, saw the unthinkable materialize into palpable fear. 

Jessica Azua went to bed not knowing who won the presidential race Tuesday night and spent Wednesday in a state of shock and worry. She came to the United States from Tampico, Mexico, at the age of 14 to be reunited with a father she hadn't seen in three years.

She graduated early from Brackenridge High School in San Antonio and got a business management degree from Texas A&M University.

“I’m sad. I’m angry. I’m scared,” said Azua, 25, a community organizer at the Texas Organization Project, or TOP, which fights for immigrants and low-income minorities. “I’m worried about what’s going to happen to my family. I’m worried about what’s going to happen to my job.”

Omar Perez, 26, who recently graduated from University of Houston with a degree in mathematics, said he was planning to go to graduate school to study engineering but now figures that's "a really far-fetched idea." He doubts Trump will actually follow through with threats to deport people like him. What he fears instead is returning to the underground economy as an undocumented immigrant with no work authorization.

"Once you’re undocumented you’re treated like a second-class citizen in this country," he said. "It looks like that’s going to be the reality.” 

Obama's 2012 order granted relief from deportation to roughly 700,000 undocumented immigrants who arrived here as children. Nearly 200,000 of them are in Texas. The recipients of the relief are named "dreamers" because they were targeted for DACA-like help by the DREAM Act, legislation that was introduced but never passed by the U.S. Congress.

DACA was restricted to immigrants without any serious criminal record and who had high school degrees, were on track to get them or an equivalent, or were honorably discharged U.S. military veterans. Besides shielding the immigrants from deportation, DACA gave recipients work permits, allowing them to leave jobs in which they often faced low wages and exploitation.

A July 2015 study published by the Center for American Progress, a progressive Washington-based think tank, found that 45 percent of DACA recipients reported a higher wage after receiving the benefit, while about 90 percent said they were able to get a state-issued ID. Another 90 percent said they were offered more educational opportunities with DACA than without.

Trump, whose hardline stance on immigration and border security became a signature issue of his winning campaign, said during an August appearance on NBC's Meet The Press that "the [DACA] executive order gets rescinded" in his presidency. 

"They have to go," he said of those who benefited from it.

It's a scary prospect for Edgar Navarrete, 22, a University of Texas at Austin student who helps other immigrants navigate their DACA cases. Navarette hasn't been to his native Coahuila, Mexico, since he was a toddler and couldn't even name the hospital where he was born. He continues to nurture hope that Trump will reverse course, but in the meantime he's had to contemplate the unimaginable: what to do if he is deported.

"I would contact a distant relative that I still have over there, and ask them for refuge for a while to figure things out," he said. "And I guess restart my life in Mexico."

Mary Moreno, another community organizer working for TOP, said revoking DACA would deal a blow not only to those who are shielded from deportation but also to the employers who are counting on them to show up for work no matter who's in the White House. She said DACA recipients are spread through the state and national economy — working as teachers, nurses and even doctors. 

"It's still going to be a painful practice to extract that many people from the above-ground economy,” she said. "They’re doing essential jobs, and if they lose their status they lose their livelihoods, and it’s going to have a significant impact on our economy and our state.” 

Despite hearing Trump's tough rhetoric for months, DACA supporters say they will fight to keep the benefit, through protests, community organizing and even direct appeals to Trump.

"Our hope is we can appeal to him to not be so cruel and callous about this and have some humanity,” said Moreno. "I haven’t seen any firm plans yet, but we are definitely going fight to preserve DACA." 

Read related Tribune coverage here:

  • Undocumented immigrants in Texas are taking a glass-half-full approach as a 2012 initiative that has benefited hundreds of thousands of immigrants marks its four-year anniversary. But will that optimism last after the November election?
  • Marcos Valencia was raised in Indiana, but in the eyes of the law, his home is the cartel-infested state of Tamaulipas, Mexico, where he was born. Now he's stuck in Mexico, unable to return to the country where he grew up.

Reporter Julián Aguilar contributed to this story.

This story is part of The Texas Tribune's yearlong Bordering on Insecurity project.

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