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President’s promise to end DACA stuns local immigrants and their supporters

Students and other demonstrators march around the campus of Sonoma State University in protest to the Trump administration rescinding the Delayed Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, in Rohnert Park, California on Tuesday, September 5, 2017. (Alvin Jornada / The Press Democrat)

MARTIN ESPINOZA AND ELOÍSA RUANO GONZÁLEZ,

Amalia Montes was 15 when she and her 11-year-old sister illegally crossed the U.S.-Mexico border in 2007. For two weeks the girls, guided by smugglers contracted by her family, wandered Arizona’s rugged border terrain. Montes, now 26, said what she saw and experienced — starvation, injury and the deaths of three young companions — are a testament to what she and her family endured to live in America.

That sacrifice, she said, is overlooked with President Trump’s decision Tuesday to end deferred action for childhood arrivals, or DACA, the federal policy giving undocumented immigrants like her a temporary reprieve from deportation.

DACA’s demise sent political shock waves across the North Coast and the rest of the country, drawing criticism from so-called dreamers themselves, their advocates and supporters, business groups, school officials, health care organizations, and local, state and federal lawmakers.

“(The politicians in Washington) have no idea what we went through,” Montes, of Santa Rosa, said, speaking in Spanish. “It made me grow up fast. It made me appreciate all that my family, especially my mother, went through to bring us here and I think it’s one of the reasons why I value this country. “Some of my friends are scared; they say they don’t want to go to school or work. For me, it’s not so much fear but the feeling of impotence, that there’s nothing I can do about this.”

DACA shields from deportation certain young people brought to the United States illegally by their parents. The protection was temporary and required renewal every two years.

Trump said DACA protections would be phased out over six months, leaving the plight of dreamers in the hands of Congress. Only dreamers whose DACA is set to expire by March 5, 2018 would be given until Oct. 5 to reapply for a final two-year renewal. The federal government will not accept any new DACA applications as of Tuesday.

“He didn’t have to do what he did on DACA,” said Rep. Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena. “These are kids that came here as babies … They’re doing everything right, they’re productive, they’re inspirations. That’s why you’re seeing the pushback. Major companies throughout the country are saying they’re going to stand with their dreamer employees. They are as American as anybody.”

Santa Rosa Mayor Chris Coursey said during Tuesday’s City Council meeting that the board does not agree with many elements of Trump’s agenda, particularly when it “targets and scapegoats our immigrant populations.”

Steve Herrington, superintendent of the Sonoma County Office of Education, said there are an estimated 2,500 undocumented students enrolled in K-12 in Sonoma County.

In anticipation of the DACA repeal, he sent an email last week to school district superintendents across the county, warning them of the anxiety and confusion it would create for students, and attaching a letter for district officials to share with teachers, students and parents.

There are roughly 800,000 current DACA recipients in the United States, one-quarter of them in California, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. In Sonoma County, there were an estimated 6,000 youth eligible for DACA as of last year, according to the Migration Policy Institute.

Under Obama’s DACA policy, dreamers were granted work permits and given Social Security numbers, and discretion was used to temporarily defer deportation of an undocumented immigrant. DACA did not grant lawful status.

Jonathan Coe, president and CEO of the Santa Rosa Chamber of Commerce, said the local economy will likely be affected.

“The biggest concern we hear from our member businesses is finding skilled employees for the positions they have,” Coe said. “So, if this results in our losing current employees now and future employees down the road that hurts.”

College officials denounced the administration’s decision and reaffirmed their support for undocumented students Tuesday.

“I’m dismayed and really saddened by the action,” Sonoma State University president Judy Sakaki said in a phone interview Tuesday before attending a student-organized rally of about 400 people in front of the campus library protesting the president’s action. “The students that we have added value to our campus, the state and our community.”

About 180 SSU students are DACA recipients. Like other CSU campuses, Sakaki said her college also employs several DACA recipients, although she didn’t have an exact number. If Congress doesn’t act, she said SSU and the other CSU campuses will have to terminate their jobs as early as March.

SRJC president Frank Chong said many of his students have obtained degrees and launched careers, filling key roles in the county.

“The economy is booming. Dreamers are playing an important role in meeting those needs,” said Chong, who urged undocumented students to continue attending SRJC.

Earlier this year, Chong declared SRJC a “safe haven” school, which prohibits federal immigration agents from accessing its campuses and student records without approval from the college president.

It also prevents the campus from releasing personal information about students without a court order, judicial warrant or subpoena, and campus police aren’t allowed to question or make arrests solely on a person’s immigration status.

Pedro Avila, the college’s vice president of student services, estimates the majority of its 1,514 undocumented students are DACA recipients.

The repeal of DACA has some local immigration advocates scrambling to help those eligible for a renewal submit their applications by the Oct. 5 deadline.

“We are going to try to help as many people as we can,” said Kathy Differding, program manager for California Human Development, a nonprofit organization that has received state grants to provide immigration relief assistance. Differding said the cost of the renewal is $495 and includes a fingerprinting fee and the cost of filing.

She said California Human Development will be offering free assistance for DACA renewals at a location at Mendocino College in Ukiah.

The nonprofit also offers assistance at its Santa Rosa office but charges $150 for the service because it has already “blown through” its grant funding for the work.

Dina Lopez, immigration program senior manager for Catholic Charities of Santa Rosa, said her staff will focus almost entirely on helping people fill out their DACA renewals. The service, she said, is free.

Immigration advocates said Tuesday some local DACA youth are afraid federal agents will now come looking for them. DACA applications and supporting documentation went to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, a branch of the Department of Homeland Security that establishes immigration services policies and priorities.

Lopez said there is an agreement between USCIS and DHS that DACA information would not be shared with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement unless the immigrant had committed a crime.

Rafael Vazquez, an outreach coordinator at Santa Rosa Junior College, said he’s heard from students and others concerned they’re going to lose their jobs.

“Before DACA, many immigrants survived,” said Vazquez, who is organizing a forum, Life After DACA, at 10 a.m. Saturday at SRJC’s Newman Auditorium, with attorneys invited to answer immigration concerns.

Montes, the Santa Rosa DACA recipient, said her family worries about what might happen to her. She attends classes at the southwest campus of Santa Rosa Junior College and has plans to continue her education and then get a job with the government as an interpreter or maybe study law.

She said the U.S. is her home, and she and other DACA youth want to contribute. Her hope, she said, is the rest of the country will realize that.

Staff Writer Guy Kovner contributed to this story. You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 707-521-5213 or martin.espinoza@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @renofish. You can reach Staff Writer Eloísa Ruano González at 707-521-5458 or eloisa.gonzalez@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @eloisanews.