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Immigrants Prepare for Life After Obama

29 Nov

By Josh Eidelson

Gabe Belmonte showed up to his Silicon Valley engineering job the day after the election in a state of shock. He hadn’t slept, couldn’t eat, and was struggling to ward off panic. Co-workers commented on how distraught he looked, Belmonte recalls: “Initially, I just said, ‘Yeah, the election was kind of rough.’ ”

The truth is he’s one of more than 740,000 undocumented immigrants shielded from deportation and authorized to work under President Obama’s 2012 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA), which Donald Trump has pledged to eliminate. DACA is available to young immigrants known as Dreamers, after the congressional Dream Act. That immigration reform bill has repeatedly failed to pass but formed the cornerstone of Obama’s stand-in program, implemented by executive action. DACA applies to people who were born after June 1981; arrived in the U.S. under the age of 16; haven’t been convicted of felonies or significant misdemeanors; and are in school, have a high school diploma or GED, or have served in the military.

Now 34, Belmonte has lived in the U.S. since he was 7. His mother brought him from Mexico on a tourist visa, and they stayed after it ran out. Unable to take out loans, he put himself through college by working in restaurants and warehouses. He graduated in 2008 with a degree in industrial engineering but couldn’t find a company willing to sponsor him for a visa. So he spent the next four years working minimum wage jobs that he could get without one. After qualifying for DACA, Belmonte was able to land work that made use of his college degree, first in tech support and then as a quality engineer.

It’s not clear whether Trump would let workers such as Belmonte keep existing work permits until they expire or revoke them immediately if he cancels DACA. “There’s a lot of concern that a guy who says he’s going to focus on criminals is going to upend the lives of Dreamers on Day One,” says Frank Sharry, executive director of the immigrant advocacy group America’s Voice.

Canceling DACA and preventing beneficiaries from working would erase at least $433 billion in U.S. gross domestic product over the next decade, according to an analysis from the nonprofit, left-leaning Center for American Progress. “If you take hundreds of thousands of best candidates and take them out of the workforce, that’s a problem for business,” says Jeremy Robbins, executive director of New American Economy, a business-backed immigration reform group whose co-chairs include leaders of Boeing, Marriott International, and News Corp. (Backers also include Michael Bloomberg, majority owner of Bloomberg Businessweek publisher Bloomberg LP.)

Immigration advocacy groups are advising people against filing first-time applications for DACA. People in the program are required to give their addresses, making it easier for immigration authorities to find participants. If Trump just cancels DACA, “we create a terrible situation for them where they are now exposed to deportation,” says Daniel Garza, executive director of the Libre Initiative, a Latino outreach group backed by the conservative billionaires Charles and David Koch.

Anti-immigration groups say Trump should keep his promises. “What’s inhumane is to set up a contradictory system where you have a sign on the border that says, ‘Keep out,’ and then below it you have a sign that says, ‘Come on in, and if you can get over the fence, the honey pot of benefits are all yours, and help wanted,’ ” says Bob Dane, executive director of the nonprofit Federation for American Immigration Reform, which advocates restricting immigration.

While talking to lawyers about whether there’s a route for him to get a visa, Belmonte is making plans in case he gets deported. He’s paying off his credit cards, talking to his roommate about finding someone to sublet, and arranging for his U.S.-born son to stay with his grandparents. “For any other purpose than paperwork, I consider myself an American,” he says. “Having that peace of mind that DACA has brought—that’s going to be lost. And so you go back to being fearful.”