South Florida’s robust community of immigrants brought into the country illegally as children decried President Donald Trump on Tuesday for calling for an end to an Obama-era program that for five years has protected them from deportation, saying the White House has clouded their futures with uncertainty.
They were joined by local politicians — including Republicans vocally opposed to Trump’s decision — who clamored for quick congressional action before a six-month grace period expires for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, known as DACA.
“It’s the only real protection I have right now,” lamented 20-year-old Javiera Garate, who came to the U.S. from Chile when she was 4. “There’s literally nothing you can do without that.”
Attorney General Jeff Sessions made the expected announcement Tuesday morning that the government would stop expanding DACA, which then-President Barack Obama created under executive action in 2012. A group of 10 conservative states challenged the program in court, and Sessions’ Justice Department refused to defend it.
“I have a great heart for these folks we’re talking about,” Trump said Tuesday afternoon. “A great love for them.... And hopefully now Congress will be able to help them and do it properly.”
Obama took the rare step Tuesday of commenting on the decision, which he called “cruel.”
“Ultimately, this is about basic decency,” Obama said in a statement. “This is about whether we are a people who kick hopeful young strivers out of America, or whether we treat them the way we’d want our own kids to be treated. It’s about who we are as a people — and who we want to be.”
Garate said she called her paralegal before Sessions’ speech to double check that her renewal paperwork was properly filed to extend her DACA protection as far as it will go: 2020.
She thought the program would grant her enough time to become a nurse anesthetist. Now she’s just glad she’ll be able to graduate from Miami Dade College and complete at least one year of a nursing program.
Garate is counting on a permanent solution from Congress in the next few months. So’s her older brother, who’s training to become a firefighter. She said no one will offer him a job because he’s on DACA and doesn’t have a green card, issued to permanent U.S. residents.
“If they take DACA away, I hope they do something permanent for us,” said Garate, who received DACA protection as a high school freshman. “Not just take away the entire opportunity. If they do that, what do we do?”
Nationally, Trump’s decision was met with similar outrage from pro-immigrant activist groups. Immigration hawks, however, said DACA’s demise at the hands of a lawsuit was inevitable, and the president actually did the program’s beneficiaries a favor by giving Congress time to work out a compromise law.
But in immigrant-rich Miami, that offered only slight solace to DACA recipients and their families. About 100 people from labor and immigrant-rights associations gathered in front of downtown Miami’s Freedom Tower in protest.
“I haven’t lost hope because I see this as an opportunity for people to unite and fight for our families together,” said Armando Carrada, a 27-year-old DACA recipient from Homestead who immigrated as a child from Mexico and now studies hospitality at Florida International University.
They were joined by a group of Florida Democratic politicians. From Sen. Bill Nelson to local members of Congress, Democrats across the state slammed Trump — and implored lawmakers to give DACA bipartisan support.
Maria Ramirez, a 30-year-old who immigrated from Colombia at 14, said DACA helped her get a job as a fellow at the Florida Latina Advocacy Network and start a family. She lives with her mother and has a 3-year-old son.
“I don’t feel surprised,” she said of the Trump administration’s decision. “But it’s heavy.”
Ramirez said her DACA protection extends through 2019.
“I’ve still got some time,” she said. “During that time, I’m going to continue fighting for something bigger, something better, something permanent.”
House Speaker Paul Ryan called on Tuesday for “consensus on a permanent, legislative solution.” Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi endorsed a vote “without delay.”
Miami Republican Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, a veteran legislator on immigration issues, said he “strongly” disagreed with the decision to end protections for so-called “Dreamers.”
“We should not punish these young people for a decision that was never theirs to make,” he said in a statement. “I have said time and time again that our country’s immigration system is broken, and I remain committed to working with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to obtain a legislative solution that will permit Dreamers to legally continue to contribute their talents and abilities to our great nation.”
Another Miami Republican, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who spent the long Labor Day weekend criticizing the White House over its plans, called the administration’s decision “heartbreaking, reckless and wrong.”
“For too long, Dreamers have been living with fear and unable to plan for their futures,” she said in a statement. “DACA was necessary to provide a migratory safe harbor and it is cruel to take away the opportunities to work and go to school currently afforded to them.”
Among the legislation for House Republicans to consider is a bill filed earlier this year by Miami Republican Rep. Carlos Curbelo. His “Recognizing America’s Children Act” would give Dreamers a path to U.S. citizenship. On Tuesday, he urged voters who favor the proposal to ask their lawmakers to support it.
“I encourage the president to focus on deporting criminals, not enforcement that divides families,” Curbelo said in a statement. “But more importantly, I urge all my congressional colleagues who want to help these young people — all thoroughly vetted — to support responsible immigration policies like the RAC Act, and I call on leadership to bring it to the floor for a vote.”
The problem for lawmakers is that Trump has yet to indicate what legislation — if any — he’d not only sign but also wholeheartedly support, so Republicans who control Congress can act, said Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who worked on immigration reform in 2013 and on a never-filed bill to protect Dreamers in 2012.
“If they’re going to veto whatever we pass, then we’ve wasted a lot of time,” he said Tuesday in an interview with the Miami Herald. “If there’s something they’re willing to sign, then that’s what I’m hoping to advocate for.”
Miami Herald staff writer Glenn Garvin contributed to this report.