Texas congressional Democrats fear "dreamers" will lose benefits

Texas Democrats in Congress are bracing for the possibility of the Trump administration ending benefits for people who were brought into the U.S. illegally as children.

Clockwise from top left: U.S. Reps. Beto O'Rourke, D-El Paso, Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Dallas, Joaquin Castro, D-San Antonio, Marc Veasey, D-Fort Worth and Sheila Jackson-Lee, D-Houston.

Texas Democrats in Congress are bracing for the possibility of the Trump administration ending benefits for people who were brought into the United States illegally as children. Their fears come amid a Department of Homeland Security memo Tuesday outlining how the agency will implement the president’s plans to aggressively rid the country of undocumented immigrants.

In August, Trump released an immigration plan that threatened to roll back benefits awarded to “dreamers” — people who came out of the shadows under former President Barack Obama's 2012 program, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. Since getting to the White House, Trump has softened his tone on ending the DACA program. And while a Homeland Security official said that the plans unveiled Tuesday will not affect dreamers so long as they "abide by the rules of the program," many Texas Democrats on Capitol Hill are filing legislation and working with advocacy groups on plans to protect dreamers should the president follow through.

“After the presidential election, there was understandably a lot of anxiety and fear in the community generally around immigration,” said U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke, D-El Paso. “It’s so important for dreamers to know there are members of Congress who are going to do everything they can do ensure that, as a country, we’re doing the right thing.”

DACA applies to undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. before they were 16 years old and were 30 or younger as of June 2012. The program awards recipients a renewable, two-year work permit and a reprieve from deportation proceedings. Nearly 200,000 undocumented immigrants in Texas have received such permits, the second-highest number behind California, according to statistics from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. 

During a press briefing Tuesday, press secretary Sean Spicer said that "DACA, DAPA recipients are not the subject of what is being dealt with now," referencing a second, never-enacted executive order from Obama known as Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents. And although they are the minority party in a Republican-controlled government, Texas Democrats are hoping to keep a bright spotlight on the issue until the Trump administration provides a clear signal of its full intentions on immigration.

“You have to remain cautious,” U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Houston, told The Texas Tribune. “The Trump administration is off its wheels. There’s no order and there’s no leadership on these issues. We can’t count on any consistency coming from the administration. The bottom line is, we are frightened and we are prepared at the same time.”

Lee co-sponsored HR 858, the Dreamers Immigration and Refugees Legal Act. The legislation, introduced in early February by California Democrat Luis Correa, would provide funding for nonprofit legal services that offer legal assistance to DACA recipients.  

House Homeland Security Chairman Michael McCaul, R-Austin, said in late January, "I don’t think you’re going to see mass deportations" of dreamers.

But that's exactly what many Texas Democrats in Congress fear will happen, so they're working on ways to educate and protect dreamers. 

O’Rourke, for example, has orchestrated local town hall meetings and community gatherings for DACA beneficiaries. He also introduced the DREAMER Information Protection Act in mid-January to ensure that the personal information dreamers gave to the government when they registered for DACA benefits would not be used for deportation.

U.S. Reps. Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Dallas, and Marc Veasey, D-Fort Worth, said they've each worked with Proyecto Inmigrante, an advocacy group based in North Texas, to provide assistance to local immigrants and their families. In 2016, Veasey also introduced the American Dream Promise Act, which did not pass. It would've ensured undocumented students were not barred from applying to public universities that they would otherwise qualify for entry.

“At a time when the immigrant community is facing unprecedented uncertainty, communities need to be aware of their rights regardless of their immigration status,” Veasey said. "I will continue to fight for these young people who contribute their talents to the only country they’ve ever called home.”

In recent weeks, one of the most outspoken Texas Democrats against Trump’s policies has been U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro of San Antonio. During an informal community engagement event in Austin on Saturday, Castro said he was happy Trump has not yet followed through on repealing DACA benefits but is cautious in light of recent reports of immigration raids across Texas and the rest of the nation.

“We’re doing everything that we can to push back on the president so that he doesn’t repeal DACA. We’re trying to help people know their rights, especially during this time of raids,” Castro told the Tribune following the event. “We’re going to do everything that we can, with every ounce of energy, to push for a humane approach to our dreamers.”

Robert Painter, the interim executive director of American Gateways, a group that provides legal services to low income immigrant families in Central Texas, said he’s also remaining cautious while Trump is in the White House.

Painter said his organization has received support from U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett of Austin but that it temporarily implemented a complete freeze on all DACA applications because it wasn't sure whether to program would continue to exist under Trump. 

“We don’t really know what to think as far as the future of the program. There was a lot of aggressive language targeted at it before the inauguration and less after,” said Painter, who added his organization hosts weekly “know your rights” presentations for the immigrant community. “It’s still really unclear what the future will be, so we’re just trying to exercise caution.”

O’Rourke acknowledged some of the drawbacks of ensuring such benefits for dreamers with a Republican majority Senate and White House, but he said he’s not giving up on pushing for pro-immigration legislation.

“While there’s never an excuse to give up — and I won’t — it’s really hard when the rhetoric is dominated by anxiety about Mexico, the border and security, which Republicans have traditionally been unforgivably terrible about,” O’Rourke said. “Hopefully our work at some point pays off when there’s some real leadership in the House from a Speaker who will even allow an immigration bill to have a vote. ... There's some real challenges there, but that’s all just part of the job.”

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