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Undocumented Texans grapple with DACA's end while they wait for court's SB 4 decision

Texans who benefit from the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program learned this week that the popular program will be phased out. And they have a second worry: the fate of the state's new immigration enforcement law.

Texans protest in front of the attorney general's office after the White House announced it would phase out the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.

Within hours of the Trump administration's announcement that it was ending a program that has shielded Areli Zarate and other young undocumented immigrants from deportation, the 26-year-old public school teacher was rallying a crowd gathered outside the Texas attorney general's office, vowing to "teach until the last day my permit allows." 

But despite Zarate's brave facade, the phase-out of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, wasn't her only worry.

That same day, the state's top lawyers had asked an appeals court to halt a ruling that temporarily blocked Senate Bill 4 — a hardline immigration enforcement law Texas legislators passed this spring.

“What if SB 4 comes into play?" Zarate asked? "I can be deported [easier] if I don’t have DACA." 

Zarate is one of about 124,000 Texans who have benefited from DACA, an Obama-era program that provides a two-year work permit and a reprieve from deportation proceeding for young undocumented immigrants, many of them brought into the U.S. by their parents. The program, which has existed since 2012, will be phased out by the Trump administration in six months. Though the president has charged Congress with finding a humane legislative solution, it's still unclear what — if anything — will replace it.

SB 4 — which is tangled in the courts — would require Texas jail officials to honor all requests from federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to hold inmates for possible deportation, and forbid local governments or law enforcement agencies from "adopting, enforcing or endorsing" policies that limit immigration enforcement. 

Zarate and young undocumented immigrants like her are deathly afraid of a double-whammy: the repeal of DACA without a replacement, plus a court ruling upholding the constitutionality of SB 4. 

Jose Garibay, a junior at St. Edwards University in Austin who was brought to Texas from Coahuila, Mexico, when he was 4, said law enforcement could feel emboldened if the courts unshackle SB 4 and his DACA protection expires.

“The definition of ‘crime’ is too broad,” he said. “I could one day run a stop sign and would be in really big danger" of arrest.

It’s unclear when the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals will take action on SB 4; Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton has asked the court to allow the law to stand in the meantime, arguing it is in the best interest of the state. The court has set a Sept. 22 date to hear oral arguments.

“This injunction has far-reaching public safety consequences,” Paxton said in a statement. 

Meanwhile, for undocumented immigrants, the mixed messages out of the White House are nothing short of nerve-wracking. 

On Thursday morning, Trump tweeted: "For all of those (DACA) that are concerned about your status during the 6 month period, you have nothing to worry about - No action!

But since the president took office in January, he’s made good on his promise to ramp up deportations and target immigrants who have committed crimes. The Washington Post reported in April that arrests of undocumented immigrants increased more than 32 percent from January to mid-March. While the majority were immigrants with criminal records, arrests of non-criminal immigrants more than doubled. 

During a conference call Tuesday, a Department of Homeland Security official said ICE would continue to concentrate its efforts on “high-priority” immigrants who have committed crimes. But he also said that anyone in the country illegally is subject to deportation regardless of criminal history.

Barbara Hines, an adjunct professor at the University of Texas law school and the former director of the school’s immigration clinic, said she’s not convinced of ICE’s priorities.

“I have absolutely no confidence because every day in the newspaper there are [stories about] families with no criminal records that have lived here for years that are being deported,” she said. “Everyone is at risk under this administration.”

As she wonders what is going to happen to DACA — and whether Congress will find an immigration solution by next year — Zarate said she hopes ICE will stand by its stated guidelines.

“I hope these people understand how vulnerable that is,” she said. “I have hope that they’re not that cruel.”

Despite that hope, she couldn't shake the strain of Tuesday's events. When asked by a reporter if she would keep in touch as things develop, Zarate managed a weak smile. "I'll tell you when I am packing up my classroom," she said. 

Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin and St. Edwards University have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.


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