For a 'dreamer', the future rests on a stroke of Donald Trump's pen

President Donald Trump has decided to scrap a program shielding from deportation immigrants who came to the United States illegally as children but will give Congress six months to craft legislation to replace it.
Tomas Pendola works in his apartment in Miami, Florida on Sept 3, 2017.
Tomas Pendola works in his apartment in Miami, Florida on Sept 3, 2017.PHOTO: AFP

MIAMI (AFP) - Tomas Pendola, a chemistry teacher at one of Florida's best high schools, arrived in Miami at the age of 10 and now feels more American than Argentinian.

But his way of life and his plans for the future could vanish with a stroke of Donald Trump's pen.

The president on Tuesday (Sept 5) could scrap the so-called DACA program that has protected from deportation some 800,000 people who arrived in the county illegally as minors.

These are people who had no say in the decision to jump the border fence or overstay their visas, as Tomas's parents did.

His family emigrated in 2001, fleeing a financial crisis that at the time had pushed half of Argentina below the poverty line. Tomas was a child.

Now, 16 years later, he is a professional who educates 150 students at MAST Academy, a prestigious Miami high school dubbed "the Harvard of secondary schools". But he is living in migratory limbo.

"You feel trapped. You are free, but you have so many limitations that you basically feel trapped," he said, telling his story in the Little Havana apartment he shares with his father, a carpenter who has no papers.

 

Tomas gave the example of The Terminal, the 2004 Tom Hanks film in which the main character is trapped in an airport.

"That's kind of how people who were brought here when they were young feel. You don't feel like you belong to your country because most of us don't remember it," he said. "And at the same time you grew up in a country where they're telling you that you don't belong."

In his room, Tomas keeps a treasured Zelda sword and a Star Wars light sabre. On a shelf he has arranged about 20 Pop Vinyls collectables, including Groot, Hulk and Darth Vader.

In a fish tank there is a crested gecko, a friendly reptile given to him by a student who could no longer keep it.

In June 2012, then president Barack Obama approved the DACA program to shield from deportation undocumented immigrants who arrived before they were 16, a group who have come to be known as "Dreamers". DACA, which stands for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, gave them permission to work or study, and in most states to get drivers' licenses.

Before, the "dreamers" were raised as Americans but worked illegally and lived under threat of deportation to home countries they barely knew.

"DACA enabled me to have a new life," said Tomas.

But his permit must be renewed every two years and now he's not sure if he'll be able to pursue postgraduate studies in organic chemistry.

The president is reported to have made up his mind to end the program, while deferring enforcement for six months to give Congress a chance to come up with a replacement.

A Fox News report last week said Trump will stop issuing the work permits and won't renew the existing ones.

If that happens, DACA beneficiaries could find themselves living in fear once again of immigration roundups.

"There are some people for whom returning to their countries means death," said Tomas. That's not the case with Argentina, he says, but Honduras, Nicaragua and Venezuela are a different story.

Over the five years that DACA has been in effect, young immigrants have opened lines of credit, bought cars and houses and raised children.

If the program is eliminated, "you are losing your livelihood," he said.

"You lose your ability to pay off your loans, which not only affects you, it will affect the banks, it affects the economy. Having thousands of people defaulting on one or two loans, that's a lot of money," he said.

There is also the psychological impact.

"You feel useless. You feel like you can't do anything," said Tomas. "We feel like we don't belong, we are scared."

Amid pressure from his immigrant-bashing followers, Trump is supposed to announce his decision on Tuesday.

Democratic lawmakers, and some Republicans, have joined corporate CEOs and business associations in a coalition forcefully defending DACA.

These include House Speaker Paul Ryan and Florida Governor Rick Scott, both Republicans who say the program should be kept in some form.

"I believe this is something Congress has to fix," Ryan told local radio station WCLO.

Scott, a Trump supporter, said he opposes illegal immigration but added, "I do not favour punishing children for the actions of their parents."

Claudia Quinones, a community organiser with the group United We Dream, told AFP "there is much uncertainty".

"But I am certain that we are going to mobilise until broad measures are approved that protect us and our families," she said.

For her, as well as for Tomas Pendola, the pressure to eliminate DACA is attributable to a "fascist climate" that has followed Trump into the White House.

Tomas fears he might eventually end up on the street.

"But I've been preparing for not having a work permit, saving financially, and I'll try to figure out my life, afterwards."