Donald Trump once welcomed these undocumented Dreamers, but now a deportation choice looms

U.S. President Donald Trump is expected to end an Obama-era program this week that shields 800,000 undocumented immigrants from deportation, reawakening anxieties for many so-called Dreamers brought to the U.S. illegally as children.

'You've convinced me,' president told undocumented activists in 2013. Will he end DACA relief?

Donald Trump, centre, is flanked by Dreamers in this August 2013 photo snapped at Trump Tower in Manhattan. Estuardo Rodriguez, in the grey suit, stands to the far left. Gaby Pacheco, an immigration rights activist, is left of Trump. (Courtesy Estuardo Rodriguez)

Gaby Pacheco, a Miami activist who has spent most of her life fearing deportation, noticed an awkward Facebook anniversary last week: A group photo marking four years since she visited Trump Tower in New York City to meet Donald Trump.

At Trump's invitation in August 2013, the then 28-year-old undocumented resident joined fellow activists to promote immigration reform. The group of so-called Dreamers — the name often given to individuals who were brought into the U.S. illegally as children — gathered in Trump's office overlooking Central Park. They found him to be gracious and inquisitive, even receptive about a push for legal status. He listened to their stories.

"You've convinced me," the billionaire assured his guests. They beamed, believing they had broken through to him, as he escorted them to the lobby to pick souvenirs.

Today, as president of the United States, Trump doesn't seem so convinced. He's considering ending the very program that gave deportation reprieve to Pacheco and the three other undocumented activists who apparently won his sympathies in Manhattan.

"We love the Dreamers," he said from the Oval Office on Friday.

But as soon as Tuesday, the White House said, Trump will announce plans on whether to revoke DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals). Implemented by his White House predecessor, Barack Obama, in 2012, the policy shields people who were brought over illegally as children so they can work and study without fear of deportation.

Undoing Obama's executive order would leave some 800,000 DACA recipients vulnerable to being rounded up and sent away to countries they barely know.

One governor and 10 ultra-conservative state attorneys general have threatened in a letter to sue him unless Trump rescinds DACA by Sept. 5, arguing the program "amounts to an unlawful use of executive power."

Trump has seemingly agonized over what to do, alternating between hard-line rhetoric against illegal immigration and expressions of compassion. In February, he pledged to treat Dreamers "with heart." In April, he said they should "rest easy."

He's now reportedly leaning towards rescinding DACA.

Anxiety about deportations stayed with Pacheco even after she received her green card two months ago. The 32-year-old immigration rights activist, who is originally from Ecuador, feels responsible for the young people who signed up despite feeling skeptical about the government now having their records. She was part of a team that negotiated for DACA years ago. But how can she trust anything Trump says after that meeting in 2013?

"Trump was Trump," Pacheco recalled about her Manhattan visit. "I think he's a man who wants to be well liked."

Then a reality TV star, Trump's guests spoke of growing up amid the perpetual threat of deportation. In an apparent bid to connect with his Hispanic guests, he praised "immigrant" labour for keeping his golf courses "so beautifully green," Pacheco said.

"He didn't say 'undocumented' immigrants, but he hinted at it. We were like, 'Are you admitting something?'"

Nevertheless, the four Dreamers felt their message had reached the billionaire.

Estuardo Rodriguez, a Peruvian-American lawyer and activist who facilitated the 2013 meeting, was also encouraged. He left with a souvenir Trump tie.

"He gave the full show of attention, compassion, reaching out," Rodriguez said. "So the hypocrisy is that much more hurtful if he comes tonight, tomorrow, next week, he just rips that out" by terminating DACA or refusing to grant renewals.

Enrollees are eligible if they entered the U.S. before age 16 and lived in the country continuously since 2007 without having committed serious crimes. The protection lasts for two years, then must be renewed.

Marketing specialist Ivy Teng Lei, whose parents brought her to New York City from China when she was seven, received her deferred status in 2013, permitting her to get a driver's licence, travel outside the continental United States and find employment. Had the program existed sooner, she could have qualified for internships and financial aid for college. DACA was a godsend. When it was first announced, her father cried.

"It's changed my life, given me a number that gave my existence here meaning," the 26-year-old said, calling it "the first time I had a chance at this American Dream."

It was also the first time Lei felt safe being open about her immigration status.

Up until then, it was a more common experience for undocumented immigrant children to live under the radar. Jumping a subway turnstile or getting a speeding ticket could draw attention from authorities demanding immigration papers.

Even after she became a DACA beneficiery, Olivia Vazquez, a 23-year-old community organizer in Philadelphia, said she still went into "panic mode" when a police cruiser entered traffic behind her while she was driving.

"I had my licence, I had my car, but I would get short of breath. I'd have to remind myself to calm down."

Rescinding DACA would awaken "a second wave" of those kinds of anxieties, said Roberto Gonzales, a Harvard University professor who has carried out hundreds of in-depth interviews with DACA recipients.

"Of course there were many young people who were skeptical and either didn't come forward, or it took them awhile to come forward. Now we're facing the very real possibility that if DACA ends, these young people could be priorities for removal."

Lei says revoking DACA now would amount to a "betrayal" of people's trust in the government.

"If you rewind back to the promise of DACA, it's that if you give us your information, we make a promise to you that you will not be deported."

An estimated 700,000 jobs would also be lost, costing billions in lost economic output, according to a report by the Center for American Progress. Top CEOs already angered by Trump's Muslim travel ban might express outrage over the impact to company workforce.

Unlike with other immigration debates, "almost all agree the people brought to the United States were children with no moral culpability to come here," says Stephen Legomsky, who teaches immigration law at Washington University in St. Louis.

He notes that even immigration hawks such as Trump's chief of staff, John Kelly, who took a hard line on illegal immigration as Homeland Security secretary, like DACA as an institutional compromise.

And on Friday, Republican Speaker of the House Paul Ryan urged Trump to keep the program, telling a Wisconsin radio station that doing so would affect "kids who know no other country" who are living "in limbo." A legislative fix is needed, Ryan said.

Whatever the president decides, Rodriguez, the lawyer who took a souvenir Trump tie in 2013, agrees a permanent immigration solution will fall to Congress. He believes Trump's meeting with the Dreamers years ago at least made some difference.

"The fact he hadn't repealed it outright makes me think that maybe there was something he recognized in them," he said. "I'm just hoping that whatever the president does, those amazing kids he met with back in 2013 lingered enough in his mind to make him think through this carefully."


Matt Kwong


Matt Kwong was the Washington-based correspondent for CBC News. He previously reported for CBC News as an online journalist in New York and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at: @matt_kwong