Throughout his campaign, President-elect Donald Trump signaled that a reprieve President Obama extended to undocumented people brought to the U.S. illegally as children would end.
In the 100-day plan Trump outlined in October, he promised to “cancel every unconstitutional executive action, memorandum and order issued by President Obama” on day one. Though the Obama Administration would argue otherwise, that language would fit Trump’s view of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.
And then there was his pick for attorney general. As tough as Trump was on the campaign trail, Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions has been even tougher over the years, and he showed little sign he would change direction now at confirmation hearings this week.
Asked by South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham about overturning the executive order that created the DACA program, Sessions replied that “it would certainly be constitutional” to do so.
As always with Trump, though, there is a lot of room for ambiguity. Both Sessions and Trump’s nominee for the Department of Homeland Security, retired Marine Gen. John Kelly, were ambiguous about the upcoming Administration’s actual plans for the program in their confirmation hearings.
That’s left many Dreamers—the name for people brought to the U.S. illegally as children—feeling uncertain and even afraid.
“The biggest sense I get from my friends is a sense of fear, mostly due to the fact that we don’t know if DACA is going to continue or not,” former Dreamer and U.S. Army veteran Oscar Vazquez, who did not benefit from the action, testified at Sessions’ hearings on behalf of others who had. “The fact that our names are out there and the fact that the top law enforcer of the country has voted against them every single time he’s gotten the chance—how is that going to give us confidence to report crimes that have been committed against us?”
With President Obama’s action in the crosshairs, Vazquez said he wanted to convey to Trump’s Attorney General pick the importance of the program that has allowed more than 700,000 immigrants to apply for work permits and attend school without having to worry about being deported. “We need our country’s top law enforcement officer to understand that immigrants make our country stronger,” Vazquez’s written statement reads. “It’s not right to deport someone who was brought here as a child to a country where they may not know the language and may not even remember.”
But when Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, a longtime Obama ally, pressed Sessions further about what would happen to the Dreamers, the attorney general nominee responded by calling on Congress to act.
“President [-elect] Trump has indicated that criminal aliens—like President Obama indicated — certainly are the top group of people. So I would think that the best thing for us to do—and I would urge colleagues that we understand this—let’s fix this system,” Sessions said. “And then we can work together after this lawlessness has been ended. And then we can ask the American people and enter into a dialogue about how to compassionately treat people who’ve been here a long time.”
Later that day, Democratic Sen. Kamala Harris of California posed a similar question to Kelly, the Homeland Security nominee. Kelly said the law would guide him when it comes to immigration enforcement, but that young migrants likely would not be the department’s highest priority. “There’s a big spectrum of people who need to be dealt with,” Kelly said.”Those categories would be prioritized. I would guess this category might not be the highest priority for removal.”
The two nominees’ statements follow hints from Trump that there could take a softer approach to Dreamers and DACA recipients than his campaign promises suggest. In TIME’s 2016 Person of the Year interview, Trump said he would “work something out” with Dreamers that would “make people happy and proud.” “They got brought here at a very young age, they’ve worked here, they’ve gone to school here. Some were good students. Some have wonderful jobs. And they’re in never-never land because they don’t know what’s going to happen,” he said.
These vague statements, however, do not add up to a policy. Juan Escalante, a DACA recipient, remains apprehensive about what’s to come in the next Administration. “With only nine days until the inauguration there is still no clarity on where the Trump Administration stands on the potential repeal of the deferred action program,” he said. “It will be a very sobering thing to have to wake up every day and wonder if today is the day that DACA will be terminated by the Trump Administration.”
When he was 11, Escalante’s family immigrated to the United States from Venezuela with his parents. The family became undocumented after an attorney they’d hired to help them gain permanent legal status mishandled their paperwork. But his status did not stop him from pursuing an education—he holds a bachelor’s degree in political science and a master’s in public administration from Florida State University. In 2012 he applied for DACA and the work permit he uses today was administered thanks to the program.
Escalante says his undocumented status inspired him to being advocating for himself and others like him; now, he is the Digital Campaigns Manager for America’s Voice and America’s Voice Education Fund, a pro-immigration reform advocacy group. As an active advocate, he’s familiar with the positions of Sessions, who he said made clear during his own hearing he would remain the same immigration hawk he has always been. But in Escalante’s opinion, Kelly’s response stood in contrast to Sessions.
“I think for General Kelly, the responsibility of leading DHS will be whether or not he’s going to stand up to Donald Trump and guide him on what sensible policy looks like,” he said, but added he has no greater sense of clarity after the hearing than he had before.
“With only nine days until the inauguration there is still no clarity on where the Trump administration stands on the potential repeal of the deferred action program,” Escalante said Wednesday. “The immigrant community is growing more and more anxious and worried about their future not only because of the claims that Trump made on campaign trail, but because it’s been months and there’s been no certain point of assurance.”
Back at the hearing on Tuesday, Vazquez expressed similar worries. “There’s definitely a sense of concern,” he said. “There is a lot of fear most of all.”
With reporting by Tessa Berenson