About 200,000 people live in Colorado without legal immigration status, according to the Pew Research Center. They and others like them across the United States came for a lot of criticism during the candidacy of President-Elect Donald Trump -- a message that resonated with many of his supporters.
Now those immigrants' lives stand to change, particularly if they came here as children, because Trump has made it a top priority to repeal executive orders from President Barack Obama that benefited them.
Two attorneys from the Rocky Mountain Immigrant Advocacy Network talked with Colorado Matters host Ryan Warner about the range of actions Trump could take regarding Obama's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA. Ashley Harrington and Liz Zambrana help young immigrants obtain legal status.
Liz Zambrana on why DACA was created:
"These are individuals for all intents and purposes Americans. They have resided here since they were children. They have attended our schools. They've grown up in this country. For many, English may be their first language. They are accustomed to the culture here."
Ashley Harrington on how Trump could change DACA:
"He has promised to roll back DACA, but we don't really know first of all whether he will do that and if he does, what does that really mean? Does that mean that he will stop accepting new applications, but applications that were filed before he took office could still be approved?... Does it mean that he'll just put a full stop to the processing of all applications even if they were pending before he took office or does it mean that he could actually take some action to try to revoke DACA grants that are already in place?"
Harrington on how more deportations could affect Colorado's immigration courts, which are about 1,000 days behind already:
"In Colorado, we already have a backlog of approximately 10,000 individuals who are already in active pending removal proceedings, so adding more people to that would certainly increase the backlog."
Read the transcript:
Ryan Warner: This is Colorado Matters from CPR News. I'm Ryan Warner. The number of people in Colorado without legal immigration status is about 200,000 according to the Pew Research Center. People who are in the country illegally came under great scrutiny during President-elect Donald Trump's campaign and his message resonates with many of his supporters. Now that he's won, these immigrants' lives stand to change. That includes children. Later, we'll hear about concerns Colorado's schools are fielding from students. First, two attorneys from the Rocky Mountain Immigrant Advocacy Network join me. They help young immigrants obtain legal status. Ashley Harrington and Liz Zambrana, welcome to the program.
Liz Zambrana: Thank you, Ryan.
Ashley Harrington: Thank you.
RW: President Obama started a controversial program that has given temporary legal status to about three quarters of a million young immigrants who are in the country illegally. This is called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA. Liz, you work with applicants. What exactly does having this status do for a young immigrant?
LZ: Individuals with DACA have the opportunity to work legally over a period of two years. They have the opportunity to have protection from deportation from the country. It accords them the opportunity to obtain a social security number. For many of my clients, it accords them the ability to fund their college education, to provide for their families.
RW: The understanding is that you will have pursued or will pursue an education, correct?
LZ: Yes, they have to be enrolled in school or have graduated from school. The vast majority of my clients want to continue their education and go off to college.
RW: Again, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, so what's deferred here is deportation, correct?
LZ: That's correct.
RW: As we said, this is for young people. They have to have been under 16 when they came to the US and still be under about 35 now. How many DACA recipients are there in Colorado, Ashley?
AH: The United States Citizenship and Immigration Services estimates that there are just shy of 30,000 DACA recipients in Colorado.
RW: Just shy of 30,000. Any sense of how many pending DACA applications there are? People who are waiting to find out if they will get this temporary legal status now before President Obama leaves office?
AH: Yes, there are approximately 4,000 applications including both initial applications, people applying for DACA for the first time, as well as renewal applications, people who already have their initial grant of DACA and are up for renewal of that two-year period that Liz explained.
RW: Okay, so there can be renewals under this. The application goes to the Department of Homeland Security, correct?
RW: Let's sit back for just a moment. Liz, what is the idea behind DACA? The philosophy behind why you would afford people who are in the country illegally deferred action?
LZ: Well these are individuals for all intents and purposes Americans. They have resided here since they were children. They have attended our schools. They've grown up in this country. For many, English may be their first language. They are accustomed to the culture here.
RW: The fact is, no one knows exactly what President-elect Trump will do with this particular program when he becomes President, but he has said that one of his first actions will be to roll back President Obama's executive orders including on immigration. He's also getting advice on immigration from Kansas Secretary of State Kris Koback who sued to try to stop DACA. Given the uncertainty and the signals that the President-elect is sending, what is your role? Are you advising people not to seek DACA status anymore?
AH: No, we are not advising people not to apply. Our role as immigration attorneys is really never to tell people what to do, but to explain to them what the risks are of applying, what their options are, and allow them to make the decision whether or not to apply. So we explain to them all the risks inherent in submitting an initial application for the first time or in trying to renew their status, renew their DACA at this time and they can make the decision whether or not they want to take those risks.
RW: What do you mean by risks?
AH: For those who would be considering submitting an initial DACA application for the very first time, not only are they risking that their application is not very likely to be decided until after the new administration takes over ...
RW: Because these are decided, what, in months, not weeks?
AH: Correct. They may be putting a lot of effort into putting their applications together and sending them off and not getting their DACA approved. They also have to submit a filing fee of $465, which they could just lose. But for those who are submitting an initial DACA application, there is an additional risk just that they are putting their information into the system, if you will, for the first time and exposing themselves to the Department of Homeland Security for the first time.
RW: So information that might have been used under the Obama administration to grant them deferred action could be used in a different administration in a different way?
RW: What then are people tending to decide when you offer them this insight?
LZ: Generally, my renewal clients have been choosing to go forward. My initial clients are taking a lot more time to make that decision and weighing the pros and cons, conferring with their families, and then deciding, in most instances, not to go forward.
RW: What do you understand the range of possibilities to be that a Trump administration could do with a program like DACA? Could you run through those with us, Ashley?
AH: Sure, he has, as you said, promised to roll back DACA, but we don't really know first of all whether he will do that and if he does, what does that really mean? Does that mean that he will stop accepting new applications, but applications that were filed before he took office could still be approved?
RW: Right, is there some retro activity here or not?
AH: Right. Does it mean that he'll just put a full stop to the processing of all applications even if they were pending before he took office or does it mean that he could actually take some action to try to revoke DACA grants that are already in place.
RW: So in order to qualify for DACA, you need to have resided in the US continuously since 2007 though some conservatives believe that these childhood arrivals could be security risks in that they warrant more scrutiny. They point out that not all of the applicants are interviewed in person, very few of them, they say. What is the application process like, just briefly?
AH: Anyone that is submitting an application, including for DACA, to the Department of Homeland Security, goes through a fingerprinting process and an extensive background check, so they absolutely are scrutinized and not only checked for what they put on their application about any criminal history, but also run through those fingerprint checks to make sure that they don't actually have any criminal history.
RW: Would you add anything, Liz?
LZ: Yeah, beyond proving the initial eligibility, they do undergo background checks and in some instances, if there are any concerns, they do have the option to schedule an interview with the applicant.
RW: But that is not in the majority of cases, correct?
RW: Yeah. Who are these recipients? Will you tell us a little bit about the clients you work with, Liz?
LZ: Sure. Most of my clients are in high school, ranging from the ages of 15 through the ages of 20. Most of my clients do attend public high schools here in Denver, throughout the state of Colorado. I also do have some clients who are in college right now, paying their way through college. I work with small business owners who are DACA recipients as well. It's a wide range.
RW: Small business owners?
RW: Who are on the younger side, obviously?
RW: But are past their education?
RW: And have gone into starting businesses. You know, I'll say a similar type of uncertainty hung over this program back in 2012 when President Obama was up for re-election. It was unclear what would happen to DACA after the election and so some immigrants were concerned that if they gave their information to the Department of Homeland Security, they could be putting their families at risk. Do you have to put in your parents' information if you apply for DACA? I wonder if this is a concern that people bring to the table? That is, are you revealing just yourself or are you revealing your family?
LZ: So the application is for the individual. You do not have to include any information about your family. You just have to include the information that's pertinent to your own application.
RW: Again, it's not clear what a Trump administration would do specifically with DACA though he has pledged to repeal Obama's executive orders that created this temporary legal status for immigrants. This is what we know in terms of what he said most recently. This is from an interview Sunday on 60 Minutes.
Leslie Stahl: What about the pledge to deport millions and millions of undocumented immigrants?
Donald Trump: What we are going to do is get the people that are criminal and have criminal records, gang members, drug dealers. We have a lot of these people. Probably two million. It could even be three million. We're getting them out of our country or we're going to incarcerate, but we're getting them out of our country. They're here illegally. After the border's secured and after everything gets normalized, we're going to make a determination on the people that you're talking about who are terrific people.
RW: Are you open to the idea that with Trump and a new Republican Congress that immigration reform might actually pass, which most people agree is needed?
AH: Well, of course, we're open to the idea and we would be very supportive of the idea, but I think national experts on this are not very hopeful, at this point, that we will have comprehensive immigration reform under a Trump administration and a Republican Congress.
RW: What do you base that claim on?
AH: Organizations like the Immigrant Legal Resource Center who are experts on this nationally have come out and said basically that because of the anti-immigrant campaign rhetoric and the lack of support for immigrant communities that it's very unlikely that we'll have a comprehensive immigration reform under this administration.
RW: Although changes to the immigration system do appear on his 100-day plan. I want to put this into some context, because President Obama has deported more people than any other President before him. He has largely focused on deporting immigrants with criminal records and who recently crossed the border. Donald Trump, during the campaign, suggested he may enlist a deportation force that would be more aggressive in identifying people in the US illegally. They would still get a hearing though, so I wonder what the effect will be potentially on the courts? Colorado already has the highest immigration court wait time in the country, more than 1000 days is the wait time. Is Colorado prepared for what could be a big batch of new cases looking at the system as you do as ones who work with it, would you say, Liz?
LZ: I absolutely do not think that they're prepared. I think that the court system is overloaded as it is and additional cases, they're not, they don't have the resources to handle that at the moment.
RW: So there would need to be more personnel to make that happen. Would you agree with that, Ashley?
AH: Absolutely, yes. In Colorado, we already have a backlog of approximately 10,000 individuals who are already in active pending removal proceedings, so adding more people to that would certainly increase the backlog.
RW: Thanks to both of you for being with us.
AH: Thank you so much.
LZ: Thank you.
RW: Ashley Harrington and Liz Zambrana are attorneys with Rocky Mountain Immigrant Advocacy Network. They help young immigrants seek legal status in the US. We talked about the future of President Obama's executive order benefiting young immigrants in light of the election of Donald Trump. This Colorado Matters from CPR News.