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Georgia’s DACA immigrants fight for their lives in U.S.

The freshly painted mural on a Buford Highway liquor store may seem an unlikely spot for a political statement.

But to its creator, Roberto Hernandez, the many-hued hands that reach upward along the once-drab exterior of Atlanta Package tell his chapter in a story that a gutsy immigrant generation wants the nation to hear.

Hernandez, 31, was born in Mexico and lived there until 1999, when he and his sister joined their mother in the United States. He is one of nearly 800,000 undocumented immigrants who came here as children to receive deportation protection and work permits through the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.

In early September, President Donald Trump announced a six-month phase-out of DACA. Unless he and Congress can reach a deal, DACA recipients won’t be able to legally work in the U.S. when their paperwork expires. DACA status is good for two years; those whose permits end March 6 will be the first to lose protections if there isn’t a political solution by then.

The ticking clock intensified the already vigorous activism among politically and media savvy young immigrants.

“There’s clear urgency. There’s clear support from the nation,” said Greisa Martinez Rosas, a DACA recipient and advocacy and policy director of the national organization United We Dream. “We’ve built a movement. I think we’ve come out of the shadows.”

One weapon is their story. They’re sharing it through social media, political pressure, and even art.

Take the colorful mural Hernandez designed to represent the diversity of “Dreamers” reaching for education and freedom.

“As long as we’re alive, we are coming through. We are going to find a way,” he said.

They watched with whiplash in recent weeks as Trump and Democrats appeared to reach a compromise and then sparred anew when the president issued a bevy of stiff immigration reforms he wants in exchange for extending DACA.

The 2012 immigration policy by former President Barack Obama drew opposition from conservatives who contend only Congress can take such action.

“The president doesn’t have the authority to create new immigration programs or decide on his own or her own that people can get legal status who don’t otherwise qualify,” said Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies for the Center for Immigration Studies, which supports tighter immigration rules. “This was a really radical exercise of authority, and most people think that it was unconstitutional.”

Critics argue that DACA recipients take jobs from American citizens and inspire more illegal immigration.

President Trump, in a statement announcing the program’s wind-down, said it had “helped spur a humanitarian crisis” because of a “massive surge of unaccompanied minors” — some of whom he said joined violent gangs.

Vaughan said, “People got the impression, rightly so, that they would be allowed to stay and that there might be amnesty.”

Republican attorneys general from 10 states threatened to sue if Trump didn’t end it.

A week ago, the Trump administration issued a list of immigration controls it wants enacted as part of any DACA deal. They include money for the border wall, bigger penalties for those who repeatedly enter the country illegally, and other enforcement measures.

A number of those proposals would “mitigate” the effects of extending DACA, Vaughan said, adding that the reforms “are needed to offset both the fiscal costs and the need to reduce illegal immigration.”

DACA fight

DACA recipients have redoubled their crusade around the country and in Georgia, where roughly 21,600 recipients were living as of last month.

“They are in a fight for their lives. Their future is very much at stake, and they are very much involved in determining what that future will look like,” said Jerry Gonzalez, executive director of the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials.

United We Dream is “laser-focused” on Congress, pushing for a “clean Dream Act” before the end of the year, Martinez Rosas said.

About a dozen immigrant-focused agencies and other groups formed Georgia for Dreamers, a coalition of service providers and advocates that has begun holding weekly phone conferences to organize efforts.

They want to build widespread support, including from educators, the business sector and religious leaders.

“This is a firing-on-all-fronts scenario,” said David Schaefer, advocacy director for the Atlanta-based Latin American Association, a coalition member.

He’s made two recent trips to Washington to join advocates in meetings with Georgia’s Congressional delegation and their staffs. DACA recipients have accompanied the group whenever possible, he said.

Schaefer is reviewing the handful of bills that have been introduced and said his association supports the DREAM Act of 2017.

That proposal would grant conditional permanent resident status for 8 years to those immigrants who entered the U.S. when they were under the age of 18 and have been here for four years. Up to 3.3 million young immigrants could meet those thresholds, but many would need more education to meet the criteria to apply for conditional status, according to the Migration Policy Institute.

Gonzalez’s organization is among those urging citizens to contact members of Congress and to vote in the 2018 elections.

Calls to U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson’s offices went up the week of the DACA announcement and have since tapered off. A spokeswoman said constituents offered a mix of opinions — from wanting to do away with the program to protecting it.

A spokeswoman for Georgia’s other Republican U.S. Senator, David Perdue, declined to comment on the volume of calls and letters.

Asian Americans Advancing Justice—Atlanta has connected with audiences by posting Facebook videos and organized a renewal clinic to help DACA recipients keep their status current.

It continues to translate information about the program and the rights of undocumented immigrants into multiple languages.

The organization also sped up the launch of a drive to raise money for a deportation defense fund, said policy director Aisha Yaqoob.

Rising teenage voices

Some of the youngest DACA recipients are among those finding ways to make their voices heard.

“I think, honestly, that may be the only reason we have DACA in the first place is that young people stepped up,” Schaefer said. “Any progress that’s been made, any inch of ground that has been gained is because young people took a risk.”

Mariletzy Venegas, an 18-year-old student at Gwinnett County’s Parkview High who dreams of attending Harvard University, said she has to educate some classmates about the program.

“I needed to speak up because no one else knew about it,” she said.

She joined several dozen students on a recent Saturday for a monthly session organized by the Hispanic Organization Promoting Education to talk about how they can help fellow Hispanic students excel in their respective high schools and colleges. Lately, those meetings have included discussions about their fight to stay in the U.S.

At the session, Enoc Flores Hernandez, 17, a student at Hall County’s Chestatee High, said he’s working on an email to his congressional representative.

Fatima Lozano, 17, an aspiring pediatric nurse practitioner, was trying to get an immigration lawyer as a guest speaker at her school, Riverwood International Charter Academy in Sandy Springs.

All three high school seniors were born in Mexico and brought by their families to America as young children and want to go to college.

“Sometimes, you have to go above and beyond…to let people know you’re there and you deserve to be there,” Venegas said.

Preparing for the worst

Hernandez said the ability to work legally in the U.S. helped pull him out of a dark place.

After college, he found under-the-table employment for several years as a graphic designer — a job that made him miserable. Then he returned to art, a passion first encouraged by the nuns at his elementary school in Mexico.

With DACA, he said he obtained a driver’s license which saved him from incurring more of the costly fines for driving without a license he racked up while driving to and from work sites. He also said he began to get jobs with film crews shooting in Atlanta.

The life he’s carved out here is now endangered. He said his DACA status expires in 2019.

Instead of starting a master’s degree, he’s saving money for his uncertain future.

His Buford Highway mural is one of about 10 public art pieces celebrating diverse perspectives created with support from the nonprofit organization Living Walls.

Hernandez said he’s not worrying about things he can’t control, though he would miss his family if he left the U.S. to find work elsewhere.

“At least if everything goes to hell, I want to create awareness and let people know about our stories as immigrants,” he said.

Eric Stirgus contributed to this article.

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