(TNS) — Among the many policies that will be on the ballot Nov. 3 is what will happen to the lives of thousands of undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as children.
The Trump administration has tried to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, known as DACA, which began under the Obama administration. For the past four years, Trump officials have argued that the program is illegal and should be stopped.
DACA has so far survived only through court intervention. Even after the Supreme Court issued a decision in June that it should be fully restored because it was improperly ended, the Trump administration implemented further restrictions on the program.
DACA offers temporary protection from deportation as well as work permits to this group of immigrants, often called "Dreamers," after they pass background checks and prove that they've lived in the United States since 2007. But DACA recipients have to be at least 15 years old, and those who hadn't applied for the program before the Trump administration first tried to end it in September 2017 have not been able to apply since then.
Many immigration attorneys thought that the Supreme Court's decision over the summer meant that the program should open again for first-time applicants and began preparing their clients to apply.
But toward the end of July, the Department of Homeland Security issued several new DACA restrictions, including saying it would continue rejecting people who apply for the first time. DHS officials argued that if the department rescinded previous memos and issued a new one, it wouldn't be in violation of court orders.
An accompanying memo indicated that the administration still believes the program should not exist.
Soon after, San Diego attorneys began to receive notifications that new applications they had submitted were being denied.
"It was very frustrating," said attorney James Rudolph, who filed more than 20 first-time DACA applications following the court order. "We have a president who told us we're all supposed to follow the law and obey the rules except when it comes to himself."
For the young people who were denied the chance to join the program, the results could be life-changing.
"I was really disappointed," said Francisco, a 25-year-old San Diegan whose application was among those denied. He asked not to be fully identified because of his immigration status.
He had hoped that getting DACA would help him pay college tuition. He's studying computer science and wants to be a smartphone developer.
"It's been kind of hard financially to try to pay for my school, so I'm trying to finish without needing to stop," Francisco said.
Francisco has been in the United States since he was a toddler, and though his father is a U.S. citizen, he said he hasn't had a clear way to naturalize.
He hadn't had enough money to pay the $495 filing fee for a DACA application before former Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the program's end.
But he hasn't lost hope, especially with the election looming.
"At the moment, it's postponed," Francisco said, referring to his application. "I'm not giving up."
Many of the people hoping to get DACA protection for the first time were much younger than Francisco, according to interviews with local attorneys, with the majority between 15 and 18 years old.
Leah Chavarria, director of immigration services at Jewish Family Service, said her office was contacted by around 80 families and was working with many of them to prepare the paperwork to file when the updated restrictions from DHS came out. Her office had managed to file two applications before that date, and both ended up rejected, she said.
Most of the people who contacted her office were parents, she said, and they were saddened when they found out their children's applications wouldn't be accepted.
"Parents just want their children to be safe," Chavarria said.
Maria Fernanda Madrigal Delgado, 31, a current DACA recipient and law student who interned with Jewish Family Service this summer, said that having to call families to deliver the news that their DACA applications wouldn't go forward was the hardest part of her job.
She said some younger clients didn't seem to grasp the full weight of what was happening to them. For many young people, she said, what it means to be undocumented doesn't fully sink in until it's time to apply for college.
"They're still growing into the reality that they're in," Madrigal Delgado said.
But they will feel it, she said, when it comes time to figure out how to pay for higher education. The work permit that comes with DACA has helped many fund their college dreams that they otherwise couldn't afford. Undocumented students don't have access to federal student loans, and working without a permit generally yields much lower wages.
Even for those like Madrigal Delgado who already have DACA protection, the new restrictions have ramifications.
Participation in the program, including the work permits, used to have to be renewed every two years. Now, since July, the Trump administration is requiring renewal every year, essentially doubling the cost.
But beyond the financial strain is the concern that processing centers can sometimes take a year or more to renew a DACA permit.
Madrigal Delgado said she is hopeful that a Biden administration might mean more security for people in her situation, but she's not counting on it.
"I am bracing myself for another four years of Trump," Madrigal Delgado said.
She said that even if Joe Biden becomes president, she hopes that voters will push him to work for a more lasting protection for undocumented immigrants than the DACA program has provided. She wants to see Congress create a path to citizenship.
"Had Obama and his administration done something that was more permanent like a reform, we wouldn't be where we are now," Madrigal Delgado said. "That's what people need to remember."
Dulce Garcia, a DACA recipient and Chula Vista-based immigration lawyer, is one of the plaintiffs in the case that went before the Supreme Court. She said she's working to encourage people who can vote to vote, focusing not only on the presidential race but also Congress.
"We hope the elections change all of this so that we don't have to keep fighting for our existence here," Garcia said. "It's exhausting."
She said that the legal team on her case and the cases linked to it are already planning to take the new restrictions back to court.
"If we have to take this again to the Supreme Court, we will," she said.
(c)2020 The San Diego Union-Tribune. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.