Elizabeth Hernandez didn’t know her social security number.
She was a teen, just starting to apply for college. She hadn’t needed to produce it before.
But there on the financial aid form was a space for her personal nine-digit code.
She asked a school official for guidance, and “They said, ‘Oh, I’m sure you have one. Your mom probably has it,” Hernandez recalled.
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It turned out that wasn’t the case. Hernandez hadn’t known it until then, but she was undocumented.
Like thousands upon thousands of young people around the country, her family brought her illegally into the U.S. when she was a child.
Now 29 and in the Tri-Cities, she’s been able to work and feel more secure under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, an Obama-era initiative that shielded young immigrants like her from deportation.
But on Tuesday, President Trump began to shut down the program, plunging those young people— often referred to as Dreamers — into uncertainty.
“We have many Dreamers working as professionals, being productive citizens. It opened up the opportunity for us to be out there, to work for our families and ourselves, to work for America,” Hernandez said.
We have many Dreamers working as professionals, being productive citizens. It opened up the opportunity for us to be out there, to work for our families and ourselves, to work for America.
Elizabeth Hernandez, Tri-Cities
Now is a tenuous time, she said.
Calling the program illegal, the Trump administration said Tuesday that DACA’s termination would come after a six-month delay to give Congress time to pass a legislative fix that might allow Dreamers to stay in the only country many of them have ever known.
The White House also made it clear that Trump wants Congress to not just pass a bill that helps Dreamers, but a larger immigration package — which lawmakers have failed to pass for years — and that he is willing to trade protections of Dreamers for money that would fund a wall on the southern border.
Hernandez said she wants fellow Dreamers to hold onto hope.
“We have six months,” she said. “We can sit back or we can stand up” and contact lawmakers, share personal stories, take action.
Those who aren’t Dreamers themselves can speak up as allies, she said. “I encourage the community to come together in support of these students,” she said.
About 800,000 people currently are registered with DACA, including about 17,500 in Washington state. The program allows them to stay in the country and to work without the threat of being immediately deported.
In a statement, numerous state higher education leaders, including the presidents of the state’s public baccalaureate colleges and universities, community colleges and technical colleges, said the decision to phase out the program “leaves us with profound disappointment and pained yet unequivocal resolve to stand up for our students who are among the 800,000 nationwide registered under DACA.”
(The decision) 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.
Statement from numerous state higher education leaders
The decision “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. We agree with the many business leaders throughout the country who are urging Congress to pass the bipartisan Dream Act or legislation that will allow these students to continue to contribute to the global competitive environment,” the statement said.
Columbia Basin College and Washington State University’s presidents were among those who signed.
Several members of Washington’s congressional delegation also blasted the decision in a letter to Trump.
“This repeal will impose severe harm, not only on the 800,000 DACA recipients nationally, but also the broader community. We urge you to immediately work with Congress to pass clean legislation to protect Dreamers,” said the letter, signed by U.S. Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, both D-Wash., and others.
They said ending the program would cost the state an estimated $1.1 billion in annual gross domestic product, and would cost the country $460.3 billion in GDP over the next decade.
I believe that our borders must be secured, and our laws must be upheld, but we must also understand that these young people grew up in America and know no other life. They need the stability of a permanent legislative solution provided by Congress.
U.S. Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Sunnyside
U.S. Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Wash., whose district includes the Tri-Cities, didn’t sign the letter.
In his own statement, he said the decision “creates more uncertainty for Dreamers” and he’s committed to working on a legislative solution.
“The debate must now return to the people’s representatives in Congress. President Obama’s unilateral executive action was never the long-term answer, which is why Congress must now act to protect children brought here through no fault of their own,” he said in the statement. “I believe that our borders must be secured, and our laws must be upheld, but we must also understand that these young people grew up in America and know no other life. They need the stability of a permanent legislative solution provided by Congress.”
Leaders of the Tri-City-based Consejo Latino said they don’t want to see Dreamers used as bargaining chips.
“We call on the President to cease any immigration deal trading with the Congress, holding the Dreamers as hostages in exchange for congressional approval for the President’s immigration proposals. The latter should run on its own separate political track,” they said in a statement. “We also call on the Congress to adopt bipartisan legislation to preserve the DACA program, allowing Dreamers to acquire and maintain legal status in the U.S., the only country they have ever known.”
Hernandez came to the U.S. from Mexico when she was 6. Her family settled in Bridgeport, where she excelled in the classroom and out of it.
I tell them to hold on, hold onto that hope. Take it step by step, don’t stop living. Keep doing what you’re doing. We have six months to fight this. There are more allies than you imagine. With or without DACA, you’re still a human being. You’re still valued. You matter.
Elizabeth Hernandez, Tri-Cities
In high school, she was president of the National Honor Society and captain of the soccer team.
She went onto community college and then to Eastern Washington University, studying education. In May, she finished a master’s degree in educational leadership. She’s now applying to doctoral programs.
Hernandez was the first in her family to go to college. Some friends and family cautioned that even if she earned a degree, her job prospects would be limited because of her immigration status.
But, “I had faith that by the time I graduated, there would be a law or executive order to allow me to work,” she said.
She was right. She graduated from Eastern in 2013, the year after DACA was established.
Hernandez now works at Columbia Basin College in Pasco. She also leads a club there called Dream without Borders, which aims to be a voice for undocumented students.
She’s been fielding worried inquires from DACA students in recent days, she said.
She’s been telling them what she told herself for years — to keep moving forward, to persevere.
“I tell them to hold on, hold onto that hope. Take it step by step, don’t stop living. Keep doing what you’re doing,” she said. “We have six months to fight this. There are more allies than you imagine. With or without DACA, you’re still a human being. You’re still valued. You matter.”
Information from the McClatchy Washington Bureau is included in this story.