Young Immigrants Fear Deportation Under Donald Trump

President-elect may end program that aids undocumented immigrants brought to U.S. as children

Maria Xirun Tzoc, who works at Children's Hospital Los Angeles, worries that her temporary work permit under President Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program could end under the Trump administration and she could face deportation. Photo: Stuart Palley for The Wall Street Journal

Nov. 20, 2016 2:50 p.m. ET 294 COMMENTS

LOS ANGELES—Maria Xirun Tzoc, brought to the U.S. illegally when she was 4 years old, played Christian music during her drive to work the morning after the election. “Mr. Trump, please don’t take away DACA,” she prayed.

Ms. Xirun is among about 750,000 immigrants in the nation who have benefited from Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, a program President Barack Obama introduced through executive action in 2012. It enables those who came to the U.S. illegally as children, known as “Dreamers,” to apply for two-year renewable work authorization and protection from deportation.

“Without DACA, I’d lose the job I love,” said the 21-year-old Guatemalan, who helps patients navigate insurance and check in at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles. “I could get deported.”

Donald Trump has pledged to “immediately terminate” the Obama administration’s executive actions, which includes DACA. The president-elect has offered the position of attorney general to Sen. Jeff Sessions (R., Ala.), a DACA opponent.

Mr. Trump’s representatives didn’t respond to emails and phone messages seeking comment.

Mr. Obama also used executive action on other issues, such as gun control, which critics deem an unconstitutional attempt to bypass Congress.

“No president should be able to give away American jobs and public benefits to people with no right to be in the country absent express congressional authorization,” said Dan Stein, president of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which wants to reduce immigration into the U.S.

Some Democrats have called on Mr. Obama to protect DACA in the wake of Mr. Trump’s victory. The president said last week that he would “urge the president-elect and the incoming administration to think long and hard before they are endangering that status of what, for all practical purposes, are American kids.”

The uncertainty has left in limbo the large pool of young DACA recipients, who are in their late teens to early 30s. Many say they are in a bind over whether to renew their participation in the program, which costs nearly $500, or let it lapse.

If they renew and Mr. Trump scraps the program, they will have wasted money. If they don’t reapply, and Mr. Trump allows the program to survive even temporarily, they would jeopardize their jobs and legal status to remain in the country.

To qualify for DACA, applicants must prove they arrived in the U.S. before age 16, have no criminal history and meet educational criteria.

Meantime, immigrant-advocacy groups are advising new applicants not to apply and add their names to a database that could be used to deport the undocumented. People in the DACA program cannot apply for citizenship.

“First-time DACA applications are not likely to be processed before the next administration takes office and may be unnecessarily exposing themselves to the Department of Homeland Security,” said Kathy Gin, executive director of Educators for Fair Consideration, a nonprofit that works with undocumented students.

Michael Olivas, interim president of the University of Houston-Downtown, called DACA “transformative” for enabling undocumented youngsters who grew up in the U.S. to fulfill their ambitions and give back to the country they call home.

“To end DACA would be a tragedy for the country and for those who came forward, became known to the government and trusted they could renew if they kept their part of the deal,” said Mr. Olivas.

Before qualifying for DACA, Eli Oh worked as a waiter. “I had good grades, I went to college,” said the 29-year-old South Korean who arrived in the U.S. when he was 11. “When DACA happened I was able to pursue nursing.” Today, he is on the critical-care response team at Stanford University Medical Center in Stanford, Calif.

Mr. Oh said he feels “betrayed” by the prospect of DACA’s demise. “I thought that with DACA I was finally safe,” he said.

Many employers might not even realize they have DACA recipients among them. They apply for jobs like other immigrants eligible to work in the U.S.

Opponents say the injection of thousands of people into the work force who were once here illegally creates unfair competition even in fields like Mr. Oh’s, where analysts fear a looming shortage.

“No matter if there is a nursing shortage, I feel that DACA needs to be ended,” said Patrice Lynes, a retired nurse in Temecula, Calif., who voted for Mr. Trump and describes herself as an activist against illegal immigration. “Let Americans achieve those jobs.”

Ciriac Alvarez Valle, who came from Mexico when she was 5, pays for her studies at the University of Utah by working for a federally funded program that prepares low-income high-school students for college, a job she would lose without her DACA work permit.

“Ciriac is an exceptional scholar with a heart for underserved communities,” said Theresa Martinez, a sociology professor at the university who is Ms. Alvarez’s senior-thesis adviser. Ending DACA, would be “a catastrophic setback for her.”

Meanwhile, DACA recipients say they will continue to work toward their goals. Miss Alvarez, 21, hopes that the Trump administration allows her DACA to remain valid at least until it expires in December 2017. “I would have a year of a cushion to figure things out,” said the senior, who aims to attend graduate school.

Mr. Oh, the nurse, said he has gone from “crisis mode” to “planning mode” since Mr. Trump’s victory. “I am working a lot of overtime and saving money” in case the program ends. If he has to leave the U.S., he said he would consider Canada, where nurses are also in demand.

Back in Los Angeles, Ms. Xirun returned home from work Nov. 9 to find a government letter notifying her it was time to renew her DACA participation. The health care worker immediately took a picture for a new work permit and withdrew money from her savings to pay the application fee.

“I don’t hesitate for a moment,” she said. “I’m scared, but I need to have faith. I pay all my taxes; I love what I do.”