Kamau Chege walked confidently along downtown Spokane’s icy sidewalks Thursday evening, holding a prayer candle as he talked to a friend.
“This is how bad things are. It’s below freezing and people are marching,” he said.
Chege, a student at Whitworth University, is among the roughly 19,000 Washingtonians who are living in the U.S. without legal status and were given temporary protection from deportation under a program created by President Barack Obama.
Known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, it was intended to protect young people who have few, if any, connections to the countries in which they were born.
President Donald Trump ended the program in September, which ended new applications and halted renewals of existing work permits. However, federal courts in New York and California ordered the administration to continue accepting work permit renewals in early 2018.
Many have called on Congress to pass a permanent solution for so-called Dreamers.
About 200 people attended a vigil and march Thursday night for Dreamers and immigrant families that began at First Presbyterian Church. Faith leaders from several Spokane churches and World Relief prayed for congressional action to help Dreamers and their families stay in the U.S. without fear of deportation, then marched to the Monroe Street Bridge, forming a line on the pedestrian walkway and holding prayer candles in the icy dark.
“Touch the heart of our president and also the hearts of the people who fight against our people,” prayed the Rev. Alvaro Gomez, speaking in Spanish.
Marchers came from a variety of churches. Some said they were there because they were immigrants or knew people impacted by DACA. Others said it was just the right thing to do.
Chege came to the U.S. from Kenya legally when he was 6, he said. His father, a pastor, had a student visa and brought Chege’s mother and siblings with him.
The family applied for green cards before their visas expired, but due to a clerical error, the green cards didn’t take effect until after the visas had expired.
As soon as the visas were no longer valid, Chege and his family were in the U.S. illegally, nullifying their green cards. They’d lived in the country for several years and had a community there, so they decided to stay and settled in the Tacoma area. Chege has been undocumented since.
“Once you run out of time, you are undocumented and there’s no line to get to the back of,” he said.
DACA shielded dreamers from deportation but offered no path to permanent residency or full citizenship. 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.
Though World Relief is primarily a refugee resettlement agency, it also has staff working on providing legal help for DACA recipients. Spokane Director Mark Finney spoke at the vigil, saying the history of people as told in the Bible is a history of immigrants, from Adam and Eve, who were made to leave the Garden of Eden, to Jesus, whose family fled to Egypt to escape persecution.
“Many, many people found themselves crossing borders, sometimes safely, sometimes not safely,” Finney said of the Bible. “I can’t read the Bible without seeing stories of immigrants on almost every page.”
Chege marched next to Denisse Lopez-Arce, a 25-year-old aide working at Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center whose parents brought her to Arizona from the neighboring Mexican state of Sonora when she was 1.
She came to Spokane for work and said she’s been more vocal about being a Dreamer since Trump ended the program.
“Most of the time, people don’t know who’s affected until you say something,” she said. Her co-workers have been “shocked” in many cases, but uniformly supportive.
She wants to become a physician assistant and hopes to go back to school, though her work permit will expire in the fall if Congress takes no action before then.
Lopez-Arce said being open with people about her immigration status has helped inspire calls for action and support from colleagues.
“It becomes real for them when I pretty much put a face to a Dreamer,” she said.
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