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Immigrants under DACA status wait and worry

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Eliana Sanchez Marban, 25, of Minneapolis, came to the U.S. when she was 7.
Eliana Sanchez Marban, 25, of Minneapolis, came to the U.S. from Mexico when she was 7 years old.
Riham Feshir | MPR News

Eliana Sanchez Marban made the trek across the border from Mexico to the United States when she was just 7 years old. She and her brother followed their parents, who'd already made plans to restart their lives here.

"We came in a car," she recalled. "We were fortunate enough to not have to travel by feet like my mom had to. While we were crossing, we had to pretend to be sleeping so that they wouldn't question us."

Sanchez Marban, now 25, is one of the thousands in Minnesota who have benefited from DACA, which is shorthand for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. The DACA program allows qualified immigrants temporary status that permits them to stay, work and gain access to other benefits.

Now the program is in jeopardy. President Trump, who had voiced support for DACA earlier in his presidency, faces the threat of a lawsuit by a group of conservative attorneys general who want to see DACA ended. 

Sanchez Marban has been advocating for immigrant causes since before the DACA program existed. She became an activist for immigrant rights in high school, and helped organize a walkout from Roosevelt High School in 2011, the spring before she graduated. While everyone else around her was making plans, she and a group of undocumented students thought: What's next for us?

"We wanted to find a way to obtain legal status," she said. "And have a voice to let the president at the time know, 'Hey, we are here and there is a lot of us ... This is not our fault. We didn't choose this. We are here and this is our life, we are almost Americans. And what do we do now?'" 

Those students eventually received permission to work in the United States. They got driver's licenses and Social Security cards. 

Those benefits came five years ago, when the Obama administration began the DACA program. It doesn't give students permanent residency or a path to citizenship, but it allows those who came to the United States as minors to work and renew that authorization every two years — as long as they stay eligible and keep a clean record. 

   Nationally, about 800,000 undocumented immigrants are DACA recipients, often referred to as "Dreamers." Sanchez Marban — a legal assistant with an immigration law firm in Minneapolis — is one of more than 6,000 in Minnesota.

"I feel like I am someone here," she said. "I'm not just a person who's constantly hiding."

But the program she depends on may be about to end. Jeff Sessions, the U.S. attorney general, has called DACA "very questionable in my opinion constitutionally." 

It will be up to Sessions to defend the program in federal court if 10 state attorneys general — from Texas, Arkansas, Alabama, Idaho, Kansas, Louisiana, Nebraska, South Carolina, Tennessee and West Virginia — follow through on their threat to sue the administration unless it acts to rescind DACA by next Tuesday.

Trump hasn't announced a decision. He promised to end DACA on the campaign trail. But after he took office, he said Dreamers can "rest easy." 

The program is popular, even among Trump supporters — and research shows that it's helped undocumented immigrants contribute to the economy.

Immigration advocates have been examining the possibilities of three scenarios that a lawsuit would bring. 

No. 1: The program stays in place. No. 2: DACA is closed to new applicants, with existing recipients able work until their authorization runs out. And No. 3: The program is shut down, everyone loses their ability to work legally, and those currently covered would be at risk of deportation.

John Keller, the executive director of the Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota, said that based on the president's comments about DACA since taking office, it would be natural to expect him to fight the lawsuit.

"If the litigation is brought, the normal response from a president who has said he supports the program would be to defend DACA in court," he said. 

For Dreamers like Eliana Sanchez Marban, the program's uncertain future is weighing heavily. She helps her mom and siblings financially. She drives them to the grocery store and medical appointments. 

"This has been my home for the past 17 years," she said. "I don't know what I would do. It's really scary, and it sucks that I have to think about it almost every day, but it's there."

If the program ends, she may have to go back to hiding.