When most kids his age were fast asleep before the following days’ school assignments, Jorge Fuentes was working for no pay. At 16 years old, Fuentes said he helped his mother clean the Outback Steakhouse on Montlimar Drive. As an undocumented teenager, it was the only work he could find in Mobile.
Sleeping only when he could, Fuentes’ workday started at midnight and ran to just before he had to wake his younger siblings for school. The Davidson High School student would then get himself ready for class.
“I would go back home, shower, wake up my little brother and sister and go to school,” he said.
The now 20-year-old college student admits it was a juggling act.
“It was tough,” he said following a rally in support of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, on the campus of the University of South Alabama last week. “At that time I was also trying to balance soccer — my dream was to become a soccer player. So, there was school and I tried to finish all of my schoolwork at school, train, go home, eat and then go to sleep.”
The hectic lifestyle did have some advantages, Fuentes remembered with a laugh, such as no obligation to do household chores.
“My siblings had to do all the chores, so I was pretty happy about that,” he said. “After I ate I just went to sleep.”
After graduating from Davidson, Fuentes attended a community college in Mississippi on a partial soccer scholarship. He is currently one credit away from earning an associate degree in biology, but is currently working full time in Mobile to earn money to attend a larger school in Texas. Fuentes said paying for college is hard because federal loans aren’t available to undocumented immigrants.
“Next semester, in January, I’ll be going back to school,” he said. “I took a semester off to work to save … we don’t get any benefits so I have to save up.”
Fuentes is one of more than 800,000 undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as children and were given greater opportunities when then-President Barack Obama signed an executive order DACA. The program gave them limited Social Security numbers, work permits and driver’s licenses in a renewable two-year cycle. The program also meant they would not be deported.
Since its signing, DACA has become a political lightning rod and has rallied both supporters and detractors. One of its more prominent opponents is President Donald Trump, who announced through Attorney General Jeff Sessions a little more than a week ago that he would be rescinding the policy after a six-month waiting period.
“The DACA program was implemented in 2012 and essentially provided a legal status for recipients for a renewable two-year term, work authorization and other benefits, including participation in the Social Security program, to 800,000 mostly adult illegal aliens,” Sessions said in a press conference. “This policy was implemented unilaterally to great controversy and legal concern after Congress rejected legislative proposals to extend similar benefits on numerous occasions to this same group of illegal aliens. In other words, the executive branch, through DACA, deliberately sought to achieve what the legislative branch specifically refused to authorize on multiple occasions.”
Sessions added that DACA was to blame, in part, for a surge of undocumented children coming across the border.
The Trump administration’s action means that no new DACA applications will be processed and a deadline for renewals has been set for Oct. 5. When he applied and became part of the DACA program, Fuentes said he never thought he’d face the fear of deportation again.
“They promised us we’d be safe,” he said. “I was confident the whole time.”
Fuentes said he was shocked when he heard Sessions’ announcement.
“I didn’t know what to believe at that time,” he said.
Sessions’ announcement called others to action, such as USA Latin American Student Association President Erick Romero, who helped plan a rally in support of DACA on campus.
“The idea for a rally came from [The University of Alabama at Birmingham] because they had a rally last Tuesday, I think,” he said. “We just wanted to keep the momentum going. So, we decided to get everything planned within a week.”
Romero, who was born in Maryland to parents who emigrated separately from Honduras, said he was “sick to my stomach” when he heard the announcement.
“I didn’t know what to say,” Romero said. “I mean, it didn’t affect me personally but I know people in DACA. What are they going to do?
“It was just a sad moment,” he added. “I was at a loss for words.”
The administration has opened a six-month window for Congress to act on immigration reform.
“Congress should carefully and thoughtfully pursue the types of reforms that are right for the American people,” Sessions said. “Our nation is comprised of good and decent people who want their government’s leaders to fulfill their promises and advance an immigration policy that serves the national interest. … The compassionate thing is to end the lawlessness, enforce our laws and, if Congress chooses to make changes to those laws, to do so through the process set forth by our founders in a way that advances the interest of the nation.”
Sessions’ language in the announcement makes clear the Trump administration’s attempts to argue the initial Obama action was unconstitutional and an overreach by the executive branch of government. Mat Staver, chairman of the right-leaning Liberty Counsel, agrees.
Staver said immigration laws should be addressed through Congress. He added that Obama’s action was unconstitutional and didn’t follow the rule of law. Staver said the administration would have faced legal challenges if Obama’s action continued unchanged.
“What Trump did was give a six-month window and put pressure on Congress to get some work done,” Staver said. “The president made it clear he wanted to do something for ‘Dreamers.’ I suspect something will come out of it.”
On the other hand, Naomi Tsu, an attorney with the left-leaning Southern Poverty Law Center, said Trump’s action is unconstitutional because it interferes with DACA recipients’ liberty and property, which is protected by the constitution. Questions of whether the administration acted reasonably could also be raised, Tsu said.
“They said they don’t have the authority to run the program, but are continuing to accept applications,” she said. “It’s not reasonable to say we can’t do this and then keep doing it.”
There have already been five or six legal challenges to Trump’s actions nationwide featuring more than 20 litigants, Tsu said.
On a constitutional basis, Staver said those various challenges would fail in court.
The fix will most likely be a bipartisan effort, Staver said. Tsu agreed, but cautioned that a “clean bill” would have the best chance to pass. There might be efforts to tack border security or funding for the wall to any DACA bill that could signal its demise. There are currently four bills in congress that deal with protecting “Dreamers,” Tsu said.
Mobile immigration attorney Matthew W. Peterson is less confident Congress can act in the six-month time period. Failure to do so could lead to deportations.
Peterson added DACA recipients were coaxed “out of the shadows” and gave information to the government in exchange for DACA clearance. That same information could now be used against them if nothing is done.
Peterson questions the timing of the announcement as well. He said he’s curious why Trump didn’t simply ask Congress to act before imposing a deadline.
“I don’t understand why you would take temporary security away now,” he said. “I hope the administration would have different priorities.”
U.S. Rep. Bradley Byrne wants to see legislative text on any possible solutions, according to a spokesman. In a statement, Byrne said DACA currently has no legal basis to exist. He added that any solution to the country’s “broken immigration system” must start with increased security on the border.
Two of the three candidates remaining in the special-election race to fill the Senate seat vacated by Sessions weighed in on the controversial program. In a statement released by his campaign, Sen. Luther Strange, who is in a Sept. 26 runoff for the Republican nomination, said he fully supports the current administration’s position to end DACA in six months.
“President Trump rightly affirmed that the United States is a nation ruled by law, and that Congress, not the president, is responsible for writing our country’s laws,” Strange said. “I applaud President Trump and Jeff Sessions for stopping the overreach of President Obama and allowing Congress to lead.”
The campaign for Strange’s opponent in the runoff, former Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore, did not respond to a request for comment on DACA.
Democratic challenger Doug Jones said in a statement from his campaign he fully supports the DACA program, but added Congress should have acted on it initially.
“In that regard, let me be clear it is time for [former Gov.] Robert Bentley’s appointed Sen. Luther Strange to step up and do the right thing without someone pulling his strings,” Jones said. “He should get to work with fellow Republicans and reach across the aisle to craft a bipartisan solution that recognizes the value and contributions that these ‘Dreamers’ have made to this great and compassionate country”
The special Senate general election is Tuesday, Dec. 12.
The revocation of DACA could have a significant economic impact not only all over the country, but in the local area as well, according to numbers provided by the SPLC. Alabama stands to lose $182 million in economic impact if the administration’s action moves forward without congressional action.
Alabama Coalition for Immigrant Justice organizer Frank Barragan said undocumented immigrants, especially the roughly 5,000 DACA recipients statewide, pay taxes, he said. DACA recipients are given a limited Social Security number and pay income taxes, but they are not eligible for typical benefits given to citizens. In addition to paying income tax, they shop at local stores and eat at local restaurants, Barragan said.
“This has always been a pain in my rear end,” he said. “They’ve been paying taxes since they’ve been here.”
Local businesses, particularly nurseries in areas such as Semmes, Wilmer and Loxley, benefit from work Hispanic immigrants do on a daily basis, Barragan said. In addition, many dreamers are working through school, he said. “Dreamers” cannot have criminal records, he said.
Like many lawmakers, Barragan is confident Congress will act before the deadline.
“I think there’s an opportunity where DACA recipients are going to be OK,” he said. “I think we’re going to have to give up a lot. Is that OK? No, but we have to start somewhere. I do think it’ll be something that will work out.”
Fuentes said he currently feels angry and a little bit scared, but mostly hopeful about the future. He said he dreams of becoming a U.S. citizen one day, although he understands the task is somewhat arduous.
As for the prospect of going back to Mexico, Fuentes said the only thing he knows about his native country is the language. He came to Mobile as a small child. The Port City is his home.
“All I know is I could speak some,” he said. “I really don’t know it other than that. It’s just different.
“ I’m used to everything here,” he added. “I know all the streets here in Mobile.”