Life has been looking up for Brentwood resident Yasser Ventura since 2012, when he was granted permission to stay in the United States under an executive action issued by President Barack Obama that has protected more than 741,000 young immigrants nationwide from deportation.
Ventura, 23, has a driver’s license, got a job at a restaurant and uses the money he makes to pay tuition at Suffolk County Community College. He was 10 when he came with his grandmother to Long Island from El Salvador on a tourist visa and stayed past its expiration.
Now he fears what Donald Trump’s presidency may mean for his future, as do many other immigrants living here illegally and shielded from deportation by temporary reprieves. The president-elect, who, once inaugurated, can rescind Obama’s actions with the stroke of a pen, made immigration enforcement a pillar of his campaign and vowed stricter application of federal laws.
“I feel disappointed,” Ventura said, “and now I feel afraid of the new president taking away what has been given to us.”
Those who were brought illegally to the country or who overstayed visas as minors, often called Dreamers, are particularly worried that the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program created by Obama’s order, known as DACA, could be revoked. They worry about losing work permits, having their driver’s licenses expire and becoming targets for deportation.
Concern and trepidation
Young immigrants across the Island who were born in Latin American nations, as well as their advocates, said in interviews there’s widespread concern and trepidation in local communities. Many said they are wondering whether to renew temporary work permits when those expire or to go into hiding, back into the shadows.
“It’s really hard for them to avoid the feeling that they need to go into survival mode and that every aspect of their lives here on Long Island is very threatened,” said Walter Barrientos, regional organizer for the advocacy group Make The Road New York, which has offices in Brentwood and New York City.
Only immigrants who entered the United States before they turned 16 and who were younger than 31 as of June 15, 2012, qualified for protection under the deferred action program.
Since DACA’s implementation, 43,753 young immigrants in New York had been processed for deferred action as of June, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, a branch of the Department of Homeland Security.
An analysis by the Migration Policy Institute found that about 14,000 such immigrants in Nassau and Suffolk counties were eligible for the protection. The institute, a research group based in Washington, D.C., estimates the population of all immigrants living in New York illegally at 850,000, out of an estimated 11 million nationwide.
Deporting the Dreamers, the immigrants and their advocates said, would be like sending them to foreign lands. Many have grown up here and are far more familiar with U.S. culture than that of their families’ homelands.
Nelson Melgar, 26, who lives in Glen Cove, is a native of Honduras who came across the U.S.-Mexico border with two younger sisters when he was 13. He said he has grown to love the United States, its history and the opportunities it offers.
He graduated from Hunter College in Queens with a degree in political science and international relations, and is asking himself if the November election’s outcome spells the end of the road for him in this country.
‘Honduras would be hell’
“Being a U.S. citizen for me would be heaven,” Melgar said. “And being in Honduras, in this nearly war-torn country with corruption and greed and corruption of law, would be hell. Purgatory for me is where I am right now. It’s foolish to presume that a man elected by a pack of hungry wolves is not going to kill something and feed it to them, and I am part of that thing that he needs to kill.”
Ventura, too, sees Long Island as home. It’s here that he and his mother found a safe place to live. It’s here where he received medical treatment to recover from an aneurysm that left him unable to move the right side of his body. It’s here where he went to school and graduated from a BOCES high school program with a culinary arts diploma.
He is studying nutrition in college and dreams of one day opening a restaurant. His future hinges on being able to stay.
“It’s like living a nightmare right now, because if he [Trump] takes it all back, we will go down,” said Ventura, who is a member of Make the Road New York. “It would mean returning to my sad reality of many years ago” in a poor, violent country.
Trump has not specified what he plans to do with the Dreamer population, but he has pledged to do away with Obama’s actions.
His press office did not respond to a request for comment. Trump, in a video issued Monday, said he will seek “a list of executive actions we can take on Day One” of his presidency. He did not mention the program for young immigrants.
‘DACA will be tossed out’
Advocacy groups on both sides of the immigration issue said Trump’s stances during the campaign should be taken seriously.
Roy Beck, founder of NumbersUSA, which wants reduced immigration, said the Washington, D.C.-based group is “aggressively against” the deferred action program.
“We are as certain as we can be that DACA will be tossed out by Trump,” Beck said. “My sense is that the Dreamers are in for a lot of uncertainty, and sometime within the next two years they will go back to the same level of uncertainty in which they were before.”
NumbersUSA’s stance, he said, is “you can’t be giving amnesty until you correct some of the problems we have now” with the large numbers of immigrants here illegally.
Royce Bernstein Murray, policy director at the American Immigration Council, a pro-immigrant think tank also in Washington, D.C., said that “DACA beneficiaries have reason to be concerned, based on not only rhetoric from the campaign trail, but on who the president-elect is nominating” to his cabinet and staff.
“The U.S. is their home and they have been fully vetted,” Murray said. “These are not people who present safety concerns.”
Study estimates $433B hit
An analysis by the Center for American Progress, a progressive think tank in the nation’s capital, concluded that taking away DACA protections from young immigrants would remove more than 645,000 workers from the economy, erasing $433.4 billion from the gross domestic product over a decade.
“We are talking about people having less money to spend in local communities, all of which adds to the impact,” said Philip E. Wolgin, the analysis’ author and immigration policy director at the center.
Immigrant advocates on Long Island and in New York City said they view the threat to the deferred-action program as a demoralizing development.
A shift in immigration policy would follow a period during which they successfully pressured government officials to help Dreamers. This year, New York started recognizing those immigrants’ qualifications to become licensed as lawyers, nurses, doctors or in other professions.
Cesar Vargas, a Mexican immigrant who lives on Staten Island, in February became the first Dreamer licensed as a lawyer in New York. He said the community is mobilizing to push back.
Vargas is among leaders of the Dream Action Coalition, which launched a “Caravan of Courage” last Tuesday to depart from Trump Tower in Manhattan to rally at the White House.
Trump’s agenda, he said, is “definitely a major setback” for immigrants. “What we want to show is we are still here and we are here to stay,” he said. “And this is our home and we are going to look for an opportunity to push for immigration reform.”
What is DACA?
The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, known as DACA, was an executive action issued in June 2012 by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security under President Barack Obama, allowing a subset of immigrants who came illegally to the United States as children, or who overstayed visas, to obtain work authorization, meaning they could stay, study and work in the country without immediate fear of deportation. The work authorization would be valid for two years and subject to renewal after that period. However, DACA did not grant those immigrants permanent legal residence or access to citizenship, as it is an exercise of prosecutorial discretion that can be rescinded by a new administration.
Who qualified for DACA?
DACA applicants are immigrants who had arrived in the United States before they turned 16 years of age; have lived in the country continuously since at least June 15, 2007, and were in the country as of June 15, 2012, by which date they had to be under the age of 31. They are also required to either be attending school, to have graduated from high school or to have obtained a high school equivalency certificate. Alternatively, they would also be accepted as applicants if they met all the age and length of stay requirements and had been honorably discharged from the Coast Guard or Armed Forces of the United States. Anyone convicted of a felony; a misdemeanor deemed significant or three or more other misdemeanors, or who is considered to pose a threat to national security or public safety does not qualify for DACA.
— 844,931 immigrants had applied nationally for DACA as of June 2016; 741,546 of those applications had been approved and others remained pending.
— 43,753 immigrants had applied in New York for DACA as of June 2016; 37,324 of those applications had been approved.
— The top countries of origin for DACA applicants across the United States are Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Peru and South Korea.
Source: U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services,
Department of Homeland Security