For these people, Donald Trump's defeat may have changed their lives

Among other things, Trump's defeat in November means hundreds of thousands of young people in the U.S. don't live under threat of deportation. But their status will remain precarious until the U.S. achieves a long-elusive goal: immigration reform.

Hundreds of thousands of young people in U.S. have been spared deportation — for now

A U.S. program to protect young people from deportation, known as DACA, has faced several lawsuits and former president Donald Trump tried to cancel it. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

Few people were more deeply, personally, emotionally invested in seeing Donald Trump's presidency end than a group commonly referred to as "Dreamers."

The stakes of the last U.S. election, for them, were potentially life-altering.

Hundreds of thousands of young people who were living under threat of deportation under Trump were promised they'd be protected if Joe Biden won. That made for nerve-wracking election viewing. 

Marina Mahmud recalls getting little sleep during the days of vote-counting in November. She wouldn't turn the TV off until 2 a.m. every night, and then flicked it back on early the next day.

"It was, like, 'OK, this is literally kind of my fate that's going on right now,'" said the 19-year-old business student in Detroit. "It was scary."

José Arnulfo Cabrera, who is originally from Mexico and now lives in Ohio, swore he'd avoid watching the election returns to spare himself the stress — but he couldn't resist.

'Dreamer' Marina Mahmud, seen here protesting in support of DACA in Washington, recalls being pulled out of class the day after Trump was elected. (Marina Mahmud)

He, too, spent bleary-eyed days glued to multiple screens — CNN on his laptop and MSNBC on the television, his fingertips constantly Googling, refreshing web pages and running calculations about the outstanding ballots. 

"It wasn't about Biden winning," said Arnulfo, a recent college grad and immigration activist with the Jesuit-based Ignatian Solidarity Network. "It was about ending the Trump era."

Mahmud and Cabrera are among the roughly 650,000 people living in the United States under a program called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), known as Dreamers.

Obama's stop-gap solution

Back in 2012, with immigration reform efforts stalled, then-president Barack Obama created DACA as a stop-gap solution for young people in the country without official papers.

The program indefinitely delayed deportation for people who were brought to the U.S. as minors, were in school or working and had no serious criminal record. It granted them some government ID, which let them work legally, pay taxes and obtain a driver's licence.

About 90 per cent of people in the program come from Mexico and Central America, although several hundred were born in Canada.

A brief look at the DACA program, created in 2012. (CBC News)

Mahmud was born in the Golan Heights to a Syrian father and a Ukrainian mother, and said her parents were ostracized for their intercultural relationship. She was three when her family left Israel. Her father, a dentist, and her mother took the family on a trip to the U.S. in 2004 and never looked back.

Mahmud recalls the fear her family felt after Trump's election in 2016. On the campaign trail, he had promised a tough approach on immigration and said he'd cancel DACA.

The day after he won, Mahmud said she was called out of class for a meeting with her parents and a lawyer, where they strategized about what to do if Trump indeed cancelled the program.

"It came down to, 'You might just have to lay low. Not do anything,'" is how Mahmud recalled one option discussed in the lawyer's office. Another option was to leave the country and apply for U.S. status. 

Her parents suggested Windsor, Ont., right across the border, as a possibility. Mahmud said the lawyer proposed Rome, Italy.

"We were all just like, 'So you want me to go to a country I've never been to, don't speak the language and live there?'" 

Trump did end up cancelling the program in 2017, but it was kept alive pending court challenges, including a narrow 5-4 Supreme Court decision. There are now additional lawsuits seeking to strike it down.

Leaving Mexico

That has created constant tension for young people who consider the U.S. home, after their families went to great lengths to get there.

Arnulfo has seen his native Mexico only once since the day a blue GM truck arrived in his Oaxaca town of Loma Bonita. He was four years old. The truck took his family to the Arizona border, where his parents got out and crossed on foot. 

The boy was told to stay with the man in the truck. At the border, the human smuggler driving the truck presented him as his own son, and Arnulfo crossed into his new life in the U.S.

José Arnulfo Cabrera was taken across the Mexican border into the U.S. when he was four. He's now an immigration advocate with the faith-based Ignatian Solidarity Network. (José Arnulfo Cabrera)

Saul Rascon Salazar was five when his parents left the northern Mexican coastal city of Obregon. They visited the U.S. on a six-month visa. 

He recalls the nervous silence in their Phoenix apartment as the six months drew to a close and his parents wrestled with whether to remain.

"[I remember] the tense energy in the room. I'd never seen my parents look so serious — and so stressed out," said Rascon, 19. "I obviously couldn't comprehend the magnitude of what they were deciding for us." 

WATCH | Barack Obama announces the DACA program:

Now a student of international relations and French at Los Angeles's Loyola Marymount University, he said his family's life is unquestionably better today. But it's complicated.

Members of his family live in the U.S. under three different legal statuses: his parents and an older sibling are undocumented; he himself has DACA; and one younger sibling was born in the U.S. and is thus American.

Cinthia Padilla was just one when her mom took her into the U.S. on foot through Texas. She was born in the region between Mexico City and Acapulco and longs to visit her native country — which she's never since seen.

A recent master's graduate with honours in law, living in New Orleans, she's grappled with the same dilemma as many other DACA recipients: Whether to set foot outside the U.S., and risk being locked out forever. 

Cheers at Trump's defeat

Mahmud said every day of the Trump presidency felt like a waiting game. 

Arnulfo recalled the stunned reaction to Trump's win: "There was a lot of crying. A lot of shock."

Rascon wasn't interested in politics in 2016, but after that election, he downloaded multiple news apps on his phone and set notifications so that he could follow news about DACA. He's now deeply involved in politics and worked on the winning Senate election campaign of Democrat Mark Kelly in Arizona.

Saul Rascon Salazar, a college student living under the DACA program, describes the relief that followed news of Trump's defeat. (Saul Rascon Salazar)

Rascon learned of Trump's defeat as he returned to his studies in California, when his plane landed on the tarmac. It was the Saturday after the election and passengers' cellphones suddenly lit up with news that Trump had lost Pennsylvania — and the election.

"The plane was clapping," Rascon said, who also recalled that a couple of passengers greeted the news with stony silence. He assumed they supported Trump.

"[I remember thinking], 'This is the highlight of 2020.'" 

The long-term headache: real reform

Biden made good on his election promise. Within hours of taking office on Jan. 20, he signed an executive order that promised to preserve DACA. Also, instead of fighting the program in court, his Justice Department would defend it in any future lawsuits.

President Joe Biden signed a stack of executive orders on his first day in office, including one preserving DACA. (Tom Brenner/Reuters)

Even so, the program remains under legal attack, including in one high-profile case in Texas. A number of critics call it an unconstitutional violation of the president's duty to enforce existing immigration law. 

The program barely survived a Supreme Court challenge, and that was before a new conservative justice was added. Plus, there's no guarantee the next Republican president won't simply cancel the program. 

Permanent relief would require an achievement that has eluded American policy-makers for a generation: a new immigration-reform law. 

Only a bill passed by Congress would guarantee some sort of long-term status to the estimated 12 million people living in the U.S. without papers, including Dreamers.

WATCH | Canadian-born 'Dreamer' Dellara Gorjian participated in Supreme Court case:

Theresa Cardinal Brown, a former U.S. Homeland Security official and now an immigration analyst at Washington's Bipartisan Policy Center think-tank, said the DACA program has helped hundreds of thousands of people, but said "it's built on sand." 

"That's what we saw under the Trump administration. That foundation is still sand. No matter how much you want to pack it down and make it firmer, it's still sand," she said. 

"The only thing that can make it firmer is Congress passing legislation. That is rock." 

Why past efforts failed

The challenge of further reforms to the immigration system was underscored last week when Biden was forced to delay a planned batch of new executive orders to next week, as they undergo last-minute adjustments.

There's near-universal consensus U.S. immigration laws badly need modernization. The decades-old system has critics on the left and right who call it confusing, outdated, inhumane or economically inefficient.

To pick but one example, while most wealthy countries seek out a large percentage of their immigrants based on skills, the U.S. system has no comparable points system. But it does allow employers to compete in a lottery for visas to hire foreigners. 

"[It's a] cockamamie [system]," said Cardinal Brown of the visa lottery.

If there's broad consensus that the system needs an overhaul, why hasn't it happened yet? In short: partisan politics.

Pro-DACA protesters are shown at a rally on Capitol Hill in Washington in January 2018, around the time the Trump administration signalled its intent to end the program that shields those who arrived in the U.S. at a young age without legal status. (Andrew Harnik/Associated Press)

Cardinal Brown describes reform efforts as a delicate balancing act. She likens it to a three-legged stool. One leg is the Democrats' priority: granting status to undocumented migrants. A second leg is new border security, the Republicans' priority. The third leg is the broad desire to reform the work-visa process.

What happened in past reform attempts is groups of lawmakers from both parties huddled together to hammer out deals achieving all three. When they presented these deals to the public, some people complained, opposition grew and the consensus fell apart. 

"It was a carefully constructed house of cards. If you peeled off one piece, the other negotiated pieces would fall," Cardinal Brown said.

Biden's strategy: Do the opposite

It's happened repeatedly. In the early 2000s, Democrats balked at the details of a bill co-sponsored by the late senators Ted Kennedy and John McCain. 

In 2013, it was the Republicans' turn. A revolt by the conservative base over mass citizenship kept the Republicans who controlled the House of Representatives from allowing a vote on a bill that had easily passed the Senate.

One person who drew a consequential lesson from that latter episode on the mood of Republican voters: Donald Trump.

The celebrity businessman had previously argued that Republicans needed to soften on immigration. But Trump rebranded himself as an immigration hawk and it arguably won him the party's presidential nomination.

Now, Democrats have another shot at reform as they, for the first time in a decade, narrowly control both the House and the Senate. Their biggest challenge is that they'll still need at least 10 Republican votes to reach the Senate's mandatory 60 to override a filibuster. 

A protest in support of the DACA program outside the U.S. Supreme Court on Nov. 8, 2019. (Susan Walsh/AP)

Biden is trying an entirely different strategy from past efforts. Instead of compromising early, he's pushing compromise to the end of the process. Biden has proposed a bill only Democrats will love, suggesting legislation that's heavy on humanitarian provisions, including potential citizenship for 12 million undocumented people.

Republicans call it a non-starter. "I think [it] will be dead on arrival," Sen. Tom Cotton told Fox News. 

Mike Howell, a former Trump administration official, said he can't imagine this mass-amnesty bill passing — especially now, at a time of economic crisis, when many American citizens are out of work. "I don't think the American people want that," said Howell. 

Cardinal Brown said Biden's strategy is clear — this is an opening bid, aimed at drawing a few Republicans to the table, and then winning enough votes to get it past the Senate.

But it won't be easy. 

'We love this country'

Whatever changes might attract those 10 crucial Republican votes in the Senate will risk antagonizing Democrats — and threaten to blow everything up again. 

So the Dreamers remain in a prolonged state of suspense. 

Cinthia Padilla left Mexico at age one, and hasn't seen it since. She just graduated with a master's in law in Louisiana. (Cinthia Padilla)

Mahmud has been riding this emotional rollercoaster for years. She recalls getting the news last year about the Supreme Court narrowly preserving the DACA program while she was parking a car.

"I got a call from my best friend saying, 'You're staying, you're safe, you're fine,'" she said. "I was sobbing. I was in tears."

Mahmud said she has faith permanent reform is within reach, but Padilla, the law-school grad, isn't getting her hopes up.

"To be honest … I don't have high expectations," Padilla said. "I'm not expecting them to fully fix the immigration system for every single undocumented person and family. Although that is what I hope for." 

Perhaps one day, an immigration bill will make them all American citizens, and they'll get to vote in elections — rather than just nervously watch the results on TV. 

"We love this country," Padilla said. "This is home. We want to be part of the democratic process." 

-With files from Sylvia Thomson


Alexander Panetta is a Washington-based correspondent for CBC News who has covered American politics and Canada-U.S. issues since 2013. He previously worked in Ottawa, Quebec City and internationally, reporting on politics, conflict, disaster and the Montreal Expos.