On a typical Saturday, the free legal clinic at the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles sees around 10 visitors. Last Saturday, it saw 74.
In a month Donald Trump will be president of the United States, and the average number of visitors to the clinic has tripled since the election. The line of immigrants tends to form as early as 5 a.m. on the sidewalk in the Pico-Union neighborhood. The doors open at 8 a.m.
Most of the immigrants in line are "Dreamers," young people covered by the executive action of President Obama known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA. They are seeking to renew their permits to work and to avoid deportation.
Trump’s get-tough stance on illegal immigration has included repeated vows to repeal DACA. And even though Trump has softened his tone somewhat on DACA in recent weeks, CHIRLA still recommends DACA recipients renew their applications by the end of December.
“It’s meant everything to me,” Nancy Velarde, 25, of Huntington Park, says of DACA. “I’m afraid of losing my job and not being able to support my son.” Velarde was born in Sinaloa, Mexico, and came to the United States with her family when she was still an infant.
On Thursday afternoon, Velarde was one of 10 young people in the legal clinic filling out renewal forms for the Department of Homeland Security. Velarde, who is a single mother, says that before she received DACA in 2012 she struggled to find a steady job; today, she works for an airline at LAX and studies sociology at East Los Angeles College.
More than 740,000 young immigrants are in the DACA program. The largest number of them live in California. To qualify, an immigrant must have arrived to the country at the age of 16 or younger, and have lived here for five years or more. If Trump eliminates DACA, he may not do so all at once but rather phase it out gradually, which explains the recent rush for renewals at CHIRLA. Applicants are availing themselves of what may be the final weeks the program is in operation.
CHIRLA holds the free clinics on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. It is not encouraging people to apply for DACA for the first time, since the applications will not be processed before Trump takes office.
“We do believe those who are seeking renewals will benefit from renewing now,” says Jorge-Mario Cabrera, CHIRLA’s director of communications. “Lots and lots of young people are coming into our offices to do that.”
Eddie Marroquín, 16, came to CHIRLA's clinic straight from an AP physics final exam at Fairfax High School. He was renewing the DACA benefit he first received in 2015, after a college prep program had denied him entry for not having a Social Security number.
“A lot of people are surprised I wasn’t born here,” Marroquín says, without a trace of any accent save that of an American teenager. He was born in Chiapas, a state in Southern Mexico, and brought to Los Angeles when he was 2 years old.
Marroquín, who is a junior at Fairfax, says he plans to enroll in AP chemistry this summer and that his goal is to study biochemistry at MIT, Caltech or Berkeley.
“To me DACA means not having to be afraid of being deported anymore,” he says. “And without the work permit, it would be difficult to help out my parents financially.”
Marroquín’s mother, Mari Rosario, 34, waited for three hours in the reception area at CHIRLA for her son to finish applying for his DACA renewal. She and Eddie’s father, Heriberto, have two younger children, ages 12 and 6, who were born in the United States.
She says Trump’s election has prompted frank conversations with her children about the grave uncertainties that lie ahead. After the election, her 6-year-old daughter asked if the family was going to be split apart.
“It’s hard because my children have dreams,” she says. “We tell them, you have to be prepared for things that come along in life, but don’t despair. You always have to continue to move forward, that’s what we tell them.”
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CHIRLA sponsored a pro-immigrant demonstration on Dec. 18, International Migrants Day; it was also a month before the inauguration. "We wanted to send a very strong message that California is not going to sit idly by and watch things happen," Cabrera says.
A bipartisan group of U.S. senators has introduced legislation called the Bridge Act, which would give DACA-eligible young people “provisional protected presence" for a period of three years — a program similar to DACA in all but name.
Cabrera says regardless of the next move in Washington, he believes the DACA youth, or Dreamers, will be proactive in defending the recent gains they have made.
“I don’t think DACA recipients are going to be sitting down while all of this is going on,” Cabrera says.