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For much of this year, Shingai Masiya has been holding his breath.
Five years ago, the Zimbabwe native was among the first batch of young, undocumented immigrants who received temporary legal status under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, the Obama-era program that made them eligible for Social Security cards, driver’s licenses and two-year renewable work permits.
But, since January, the fate of so-called “Dreamers” like Masiya has been on an uncertain path — resting in the hands of President Donald Trump, who campaigned on a promise to end DACA on “day one” of his presidency.
Despite his harsh campaign rhetoric, Trump has so far opted to continue DACA — but he’s been under mounting pressure in recent weeks from immigration hardliners to make good on his promise by Labor Day.
“I think I speak for every Dreamer when I say DACA has changed our lives for the better as we wait for (Trump’s) official announcement. This is definitely a stressful time for us, but, whatever the decision, we will keep fighting,” Masiya said Wednesday.
In anticipation of a decision by Trump — expected as early as this week — DACA supporters gathered Wednesday in front of the federal courthouse in downtown Honolulu, vowing to wage a fierce fight to protect the program.
Leading the charge were two officials who have emerged this year as prominent Trump critics: Hawaii Attorney General Doug Chin and U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono.
“Rescinding the DACA program … is just another example of the president considering a policy that has no basis in factual foundations but is only designed to perpetuate something that’s just appealing to a base that really is discriminatory and discriminating against people based upon the countries that they came from,” Chin said.
Hirono noted that the U.S. Senate is considering a bill that offers some permanent protections to Dreamers.
“I’m hopeful that, because it is a bipartisan bill — a co-sponsor is Sen. (Lindsay) Graham — we will be able to push ahead with that,” Hirono said. “But the main thing right now is to ensure that the president does not do away with the executive order that created the program.”
Since DACA’s inception in 2012, roughly 790,000 immigrants — including 558 in Hawaii — have received temporary legal status under the program.
Clare Hanusz, a Honolulu immigration attorney, pointed out that more than 55,000 Dreamers live in the Houston area alone.
“This is an especially cruel time to be playing politics with the lives of immigrants who are at risk,” Hanusz said. “As if those people and their families didn’t have enough to deal with right now with the flooding, they’re also desperately concerned about the loss of their ability to work and help support their families and to help this country rebuild.”
Masiya came to the U.S. with his family when he was 13, moving from Zimbabwe to Dallas — before eventually settling in Hawaii. It wasn’t until three years later, when he went to apply for his driver’s license, that he had a rude realization: He was undocumented.
Masiya had come to the U.S. legally but overstayed his visa, and it was too late to get his status adjusted.
Masiya spent the next several years in a kind of legal twilight zone, forced to put off his college plans — despite receiving several scholarship offers for his academic and football prowess.
“I had a lot of peers and former (football) teammates who were moving on with their lives, and here I was completely stuck and paralyzed,” Masiya said during a panel discussion in April. “I woke up doing nothing every day while people were continuing on with their lives.”
Masiya later moved to Honolulu to study political science at Hawaii Pacific University. He now works as a staffer for U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard but has spoken to Civil Beat in his personal capacity.
His is a common story, so common that there have been a number of bipartisan efforts in Congress to alleviate the plight of Dreamers like Masiya — young, U.S.-educated immigrants who came to the country as minors.
But none of the efforts to pass the DREAM Act succeeded.
In the end, President Barack Obama signed an executive order to create DACA, making it possible for those who can meet its requirements — including having migrated before turning 16, having no serious criminal background and living continuously in the U.S. since June 17, 2007 — to come out of the shadows.
Masiya was approved for DACA in November 2012, after he moved to Honolulu.
“I remember getting that envelope in the mail. When I opened it and saw this little card — my work permit — I just wept for like an hour,” Masiya recalled during the panel discussion. “It was this little card the size of your driver’s license that was about to completely change my life.”
But Trump’s improbable election in November cast a cloud over DACA’s future — and Masiya’s.
Trump campaigned on reversing DACA, referring to it as an “unconstitutional executive amnesty.” In January, a draft executive order was leaked to The Washington Post, showing a plan that would end the program outright and eventually expose Dreamers to deportation.
In recent months, however, Trump has wavered on whether he will crack down on Dreamers.
“DACA is a very, very difficult subject for me,” Trump said in a February press conference, promising to address the issue “with heart. … It’s one of the most difficult subjects I have because you have these incredible kids.”
In April, Trump also told The Associated Press that Dreamers should “rest easy,” and that he’s “not after the Dreamers; we are after the criminals. … That is our policy.”
Nonetheless, Trump is still weighing whether to phase out DACA, as conservative states try to force his hand to make a decision by Tuesday.
That’s the deadline in an ultimatum issued by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton and nine other state attorneys general asking the Trump administration to rescind DACA — or face a legal challenge.
A similar lawsuit has already succeeded in stopping Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents — a sister program aimed at protecting the parents of Dreamers — even before it could take effect.
The Trump administration is said to be looking into several ways to sunset DACA.
One option is to have Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who as a senator blasted DACA as executive overreach, direct the U.S. Justice Department to review the program.
If the department determines that DACA is not legal or is no longer applicable for prosecutorial discretion, Sessions can ask the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to stop awarding and renewing work permits.
Another option is to wait for the legal challenge. When it comes, Sessions can instruct the Justice Department to not defend DACA in court.
DACA can also end the same way it began — with acting Homeland Security Secretary Elaine Duke instructing U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to stop issuing work permits, just as her predecessor Janet Napolitano helped launch DACA with a memo in 2012.
Chin said he will do everything he can to defend DACA. He and 19 other state attorneys general have already written a letter to the Trump administration to voice their support for DACA — and they’ll be ready to mount their own legal challenge if it doesn’t defend the program, he said.
Masiya says he’s bracing for whatever comes next — but he’s intent on continuing to speak up on the issue.
“If I don’t speak out about things that are affecting me, who else will? Who’s better to speak out about these issues other than Shingai Masiya, who’s affected by this?” Masiya said.
“I call on the president to (save DACA) and the leaders in Washington to bring the DREAM Act up for a vote, so we can finally stop living in fear and have more control of our future,” Masiya said.