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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Trump ends DACA program, drawing concern from Spokane-area universities

DACA supporters march to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement office to protest shortly after U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions' announcement that the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), will be suspended with a six-month delay, Tuesday, Sept. 5, 2017, in Phoenix. (Matt York / AP)
By Rachel Alexander and Chad Sokol The Spokesman-Review

President Donald Trump announced Tuesday he would undo an executive action blocking the deportation of some immigrants who came to the United States illegally as children.

Nearly 800,000 people have been given work permits and temporary legal status under the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, known as DACA.

The program was intended to protect young people who have few, if any, connections to the countries where they were born. To qualify, applicants had to be younger than 31, and they had to have entered the United States before age 16. They also had to be in school, college graduates or serving in the U.S. military. Successful applicants had to renew their status every two years.

Paúl Quiñonez Figueroa was taken across the U.S.-Mexico border as a 7-year-old and grew up in Eastern Washington. DACA status allowed him to study economics and political science at Gonzaga University and pursue a career.

Quiñonez Figueroa, 22, is now an activist with the Washington Dream Coalition and a legislative assistant for state Rep. Shelley Kloba, D-Kirkland. He said Tuesday he was frustrated, but not surprised, by Trump’s decision to end the program, which was a key promise of his presidential campaign.

“I think we’ve been expecting this, really, since the election,” Quiñonez Figueroa said.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions made the initial announcement Tuesday, saying the administration would “wind down” DACA over the next six months.

No more applications for first-time DACA status will be accepted, but current recipients will be allowed to continue working in the country until their two-year permits expire. The Department of Homeland Security said it would review pending renewal applications and accept some new renewal applications until Oct. 5.

Sessions and other immigration hardliners have criticized DACA as an abuse of executive power, and even some supporters of the policy have conceded it likely wouldn’t survive a constitutional challenge.

Trump called on Congress to replace DACA with permanent legislation, but Quiñonez Figueroa said he’s not confident that will happen. For more than a decade before President Barack Obama launched the program in 2012, some in Congress tried unsuccessfully to pass a similar policy called the DREAM Act.

“What makes President Trump think that they’re going to do it now?” Quiñonez Figueroa asked.

He said neither political party has made it a priority to permanently help people like him, who seek to work and pay taxes in the United States. Even when Obama was president and Democrats controlled Congress, he said, immigration reform took a back seat to health care.

“I think we were seen as expendable before and not really worth the political capital,” he said.

Jesus Flores is a 19-year-old Washington State University sophomore upset by Tuesday’s announcement. He hopes to one day serve in the U.S. military by is not now eligible to enlist.

“I cried a little bit, to be honest,” Flores said. “I’ve always only remembered the United States. I came over when I was two or three. I don’t remember anything from Mexico, and I haven’t traveled back since because legally I can’t.”

He believes Congress will act because of the promise and hope of young people.

“I can’t call myself a citizen, but I’d die for this country,” he said.”I want to join the military, but I can’t because of my status. I feel a little disappointed in the United Sates because we’re just here trying to contribute in a positive way.”

Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson said Monday the state would sue the Trump administration if it ended DACA. He reiterated his willingness to go to court on Tuesday but said it was too soon to know specifics of the potential litigation.

“There are some logistics to work out,” said Ferguson, whose office successfully challenged Trump’s first immigration ban in federal court earlier this year.

Washington is home to an estimated 19,000 DACA recipients, Ferguson said. The state is working closely with California and New York, which also are interested in challenging Tuesday’s decision, and other states have indicated they might join, he said.

The decision drew fresh criticism from higher education leaders. Last December, hundreds of college presidents, including more than a dozen in Washington and Idaho, signed public letters urging Trump not to eliminate DACA.

On Tuesday, the presidents of all six of Washington’s public universities, all 34 community and technical colleges and 10 other schools, including Whitworth and Gonzaga, issued another letter saying Trump’s decision disregards the valuable work that DACA students perform on campus and in the workforce.

“In Washington, all of our students, regardless of their immigration status, are invaluable to the teaching we provide in our classrooms, the research we perform in our labs, and the discoveries we make in medicine,” the letter reads. “This lamentable decision to end DACA threatens to rob us of hundreds of thousands of gifted, hardworking, and dedicated young people who are American in every way but their immigration status.”

In a separate statement, Whitworth president Beck Taylor said Trump’s decision “undercuts and ignores, in my opinion, the real stories of human beings across the country who were brought into the U.S. as undocumented children, and for whom the U.S. is the only home they’ve ever known.”

A number of schools have said they would not cooperate with immigration officials or share information about undocumented students unless compelled by court order.

Quiñonez Figueroa said he would continue lobbying for change.

“This is really the only home that we know,” he said.

With contributions from staff writers Jim Camden and Betsy Russell, and WSU journalism student Emry Dinman.