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For Utah Immigrants With DACA Status, The Future Is Uncertain

Erik Neumann
Yessenia Sontay helped a student with her homework at Glendale Middle School.

As President-Elect Donald Trump takes office later this month, many are wondering how his administration might change immigration policy, specifically the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program or DACA. It protects children who came to the U.S. illegally before they were 16-years-old. 

At Glendale Middle School on the outskirts of Salt Lake City, Yessenia Sontay is helping a classroom of 7th and 8th graders after school with their homework. It’s a diverse group. Hispanic and black kids, and Pacific Islanders and Asian-Americans. She asks for prompts for them to write in their journals. One boy, Edgar chimes in.

"What kind of car would you want when you grow up?" he askes.

"Meaningful stuff, Edgar!" Sontay says. 

"Fine, I have one idea," Edgar says. "What kind of college would you go to and why?"

"That’s a good one!" Sontay answers. 

Sontay teaches part-time at Glendale. She’s also a junior at the University of Utah where she’s studying elementary education. Sontay came to the U.S. from Guatemala when she was seven years old and like some of the kids she teaches, she’s undocumented.

"Our family, we weren’t supposed to talk about being undocumented, about coming here just recently from another country. It was something that was supposed to stay quiet because out of the fear that if somebody found out we could be separated," she says. 

Eventually Sontay applied for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals or DACA. President Obama created the program through an executive order in 2012. It protects people who came to the U.S. before they were 16-years-old from being deported. 

President-Elect Trump and many congressional Republicans are likely to target President Obama’s executive orders for repeal in the coming weeks, including DACA.  Just this week, Attorney General nominee Jeff Sessions mentioned the possibility of dismantling DACA during his confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

"It’s an executive order, really a memorandum of the Department of Homeland Security. It would certainly be constitutional I believe to end that order. The Department of Justice I think would have no objection to a decision to abandon that order," Sessions said during the hearing. 

Over the years Utah has stood apart from other Republican states in its approach to undocumented immigrants. Utah is one of around a dozen states that offers “driver’s privilege” cards to undocumented people since they can’t get driver’s licenses. And college students like Yessenia Sontay can get in-state tuition for school – although they can’t get federal aid through the FAFSA loan program. And in 2013, Utah Senator Orrin Hatch was the main author of the Dream Act, the companion bill to DACA.

Carolina Nunez teaches immigration and citizenship law at Brigham Young University. She says Mormon ideals help shape Utah’s unique approach.

"The LDS Church has been on the record, fairly sympathetic towards immigrants and has called for immigration policy that doesn’t separate families. And so that really lends to a compassionate view of immigrants, even immigrants who are here without authorization," Nunez says. 

In 2010, community and religious leaders created the Utah Compact, a document seeking compassionate solutions to illegal immigration.

Lane Beattie is the CEO of the Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce. He helped write the Utah Compact.

"It’s just not the matter that you ought to build a wall, you also have to solve the problem. And the problem isn’t that we have a lot of illegal immigrants in the country. The problem is how do we make sure that those people that are willing to come here work hard, pay their taxes. How do we get them here?" Beattie says. 

Utah Republican State Senator Curt Bramble has dealt with this issue locally too. 

"Look, I think it’s very difficult when you have an individual who’s typically come to find a better life for themselves and their family but they violated the law to do it," Bramble says. 

In 2011 Bramble co-authored a bill that would allow people who are here illegally to get a work permit and pay taxes. He describes it as a “rational approach” to immigration. The bill passed but, because it relied on authorization from the federal government, Utah has never been able to enact it.

"I think you take it a step at a time. I think it’s possible to put forward a proposal that would allow the individuals to come out of the shadows, to be granted the authority to work. These kids, typically they don’t know another country besides the United States," Bramble says. 

When Yessenia Sontay was considering applying for DACA she was scared. It meant admitting to the government that she was undocumented and giving up information that connects her to her parents who aren’t eligible. Still, they told her to apply.

"I thought a lot about it but my mom didn’t. My mom said, ‘no, if you can have a license, if you can have that little bit of hope of doing something and working and stuff, take it. Don’t worry about us. We’re gonna be fine,'" she says. 

For now, even with Utah’s unique approach immigration, Sontay and many others utilizing DACA will have to wait and see. 

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