Ever since Donald Trump was elected, Melody Klingenfuss has known her time in the United States could be limited.
The 23-year-old has temporary immigration relief under President Obama’s landmark Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, which seemed imperiled amid Trump’s vowed crackdown on illegal immigration.
But instead of clear policy, Klingenfuss and thousands of other DACA recipients have faced mixed messages, contradictory leaks and a lack of clarity about their future. Inside the administration, there has been talk of deportations, only to have the president himself sound a less dire tone.
“It’s been very typical of this administration to give really good news and follow it with really bad news,” Klingenfuss said. “We really don’t know if they are going to change their minds the next day.”
The sense of dread began to ramp up again last week when Texas’ attorney general and nine other Republican-led states threatened to sue the Trump administration over DACA.
Then, Homeland Security Secretary John F. Kelly told lawmakers the federal government might not defend DACA in court.
If the threatened lawsuit goes forward and is successful, Klingenfuss and more than 750,000 other beneficiaries — known as “Dreamers” — would be at risk. All were brought to the country at young ages and don’t have legal status.
But as he has before, Trump seemed to indicate a softer tone on Thursday, saying he, and not his subordinates, would personally decide the future of the Obama administration program.
“It’s a decision that I make, and it’s a decision that’s very very hard to make. I really understand the situation now,” Trump said. “I understand the situation very well. What I’d like to do is a comprehensive immigration plan. But our country and political forces are not ready yet.”
During his campaign, Trump pledged to “immediately end” DACA. But in recent months, he has said Dreamers “shouldn’t be very worried” and described them as “these incredible kids.”
The lack of clarity has sparked frustration from Dreamers as well as anti-illegal immigration activists, who are demanding Trump make good on his promised deportations, including an end to DACA.
Despite the president’s softening language, Klingenfuss still believes DACA “is under threat like never before.”
She came legally to the U.S. from Guatemala at age 9 and fell out of legal status when she overstayed her tourist visa. Klingenfuss, who earned a master’s degree from USC, now is an immigrant and youth organizer with Coalition for Human Immigrant Rights Los Angeles.
“This is a very scary time for people,” said Adrian Reyna, director of membership at United We Dream, an immigrant rights organization that advocates for immigrant youth.
Reyna, who lives in Oakland and is a DACA recipient like his two younger sisters, said he had a serious conversation Thursday morning with his mother about the future of the program.
“There is a sense of comfort in knowing that your kids are fine and not going to be a target for deportation,” Reyna said. “So it’s not just the lives of Dreamers but lives of their parents that are really impacted at this moment.”
Karla Estrada, a DACA recipient who runs two Facebook pages devoted to those in her situation, said: “Some are even contemplating going back to their country of origin. There is a lot of sadness but anger, also.”
A petition in support of DACA she launched on Wednesday garnered more than 6,000 signatures in less than an hour.
“The community is usually pretty apathetic, so this sort of thing is very rare, to be honest,” she said. “But they now see an actual immediate danger.”
Estrada said she and others are concerned that the DACA program will meet a similar fate as that of the expansion of the program that Obama created three years ago, which was blocked by the courts.
Those like Klingenfuss — DACA recipients who are given a social security number and work permit — are arguably the most politically sympathetic in the often vitriolic immigration debate.
“We have young people who have developed American identities and American dreams and gone to American schools and live in American communities and breathed our American dream mythology and have become Americans,” said Jerry Kammer, a senior research fellow for Center for Immigration Studies.
Kammer believes DACA should be challenged in the courts and questions the program’s legality, but nevertheless can see its benefits for the recipients.
DACA is only a temporary reprieve that addresses a small subset of the 11 million who are here without legal status. While immigrant rights advocates argue it did not go far enough, it has been the biggest immigration policy gain in more than a decade.
Roberto Gonzales, Harvard University sociologist who has been studying DACA and its recipients throughout the nation, believes the Trump administration recognizes that ending the program would pose a political risk.
“To cut the program and force these young people back into the shadows seems inhumane and counter to what this country stands for,” Gonzales said. “It could also have the effect of galvanizing a group of young people who proved to be effective in protesting against elected officials.”
Many anti-illegal immigration activists have long condemned the program, questioning its constitutionality. They are now voicing discontent with Trump’s unwillingness to phase it out.
“For me, DACA is one big problem in the administration. [Trump] is actually reneging on a promise,” said Mark Krikorian, executive director for the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington group that is fighting illegal immigration and wants more restrictions on legal immigration.
Luis Serrano-Taha, a DACA recipient who lives in Los Angeles, said DACA was always a double-edged sword.
Serrano-Taha was part of a group of activists that participated in sit-ins and protests that ultimately helped push Obama to pass the executive action that created the program.
After the win, Serrano-Taha said some DACA recipients became complacent and stopped fighting for others left behind by the program, despite the growing numbers of deportations during the Obama administration.
People built their lives and careers and did not think about the fragility of DACA, he said. Others forgot about the larger immigration picture.
“It created a sense of entitlement,” Serrano-Taha said. “DACA has always been in danger, ever since it started. This should be a wake-up call. It’s a reality check.”