Houston News & Search
Jesus Contreras left for his shift as a paramedic just hours before Hurricane Harvey hurtled into the Gulf Coast. Six days later, he came home for the first time after thousands of waterlogged rescues caring for some of Houston’s most vulnerable people. He hardly paused, going on to volunteer at the evacuee shelter in Lakewood Church.
“I just did what I had to do,” the 23-year-old said.
Now, like some 800,000 young immigrants across the country, Contreras stands to lose not only his job, but his home. Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Tuesday ordered a six-month phase-out of a program, known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals or DACA, that since 2012 has shielded young immigrants like Contreras and granted them work authorization.
Without it, he once again has to fear looming deportation back to Mexico, a country he hasn’t seen since he was 6-years-old.
In a brief press conference, Sessions called the Obama-era program an executive overreach that encouraged illegal immigration and lost Americans their jobs. Rescinding it fulfills a campaign promise made by Trump, but punts the issue to a divided Congress, which has until March to come up with a solution before such youth could face deportation.
The announcement was met by despair across the country, but arguably nowhere more so than in Houston, where many young immigrants and their families are barely beginning the long recovery from Hurricane Harvey. Texas is home to the most so-called dreamers in the nation after California, with about 124,300 holding the work authorization, including some 80,000 in the greater Houston area, according to the Pew Research Center, a think tank in Washington D.C.
“I feel disgusted, I feel disappointed, it’s one of the most saddening messages I have heard,” Contreras said. “We are just being tossed around like a political football and it’s nasty.”
His attorney, Jacob Monty, who advised President Donald Trump on immigration before he resigned in disagreement last year, called Contreras a “remarkable American,” but added that he is just one of hundreds of so-called “DACA heroes of Harvey.”
Another recipient of the program, 31-year-old Alonso Guillen, was found dead Sunday in Spring’s flooded Cypress Creek. He and two friends had come to Houston from Lufkin to help rescue people when their boat hit the bridge over the creek and capsized.
Ximena Magana, a 23-year-old student at the University of Houston, said she and a group of two dozen DACA volunteers went nearly every day last week to the George R. Brown convention center, where they counseled immigrants in Spanish. Magana came here illegally from Mexico when she was nine and the work authorization has allowed her to keep two jobs while going to college.
“In a lot of families DACA recipients are the main source of income,” she said. “A lot of them are going to be contributing to the rebuilding of their homes.”
Houston city council members, faith leaders, and business executives packed into the Houston Hispanic Chamber of Commerce Tuesday calling on Congress to move quickly on passing immigration reform.
“We are recovering from a massive, catastrophic, historic storm and pretty much all Houstonians were impacted, including our DACA students,” Mayor Sylvester Turner said. “They are vital to the recovery of this city.”
Houston businessman and Trump supporter, George Strake Jr., said that he would vote for Trump again, but urged him to reconsider this particular decision.
“Please Mr. President, change your mind,” Strake said.
The chamber’s president, Laura Murillo, said she fielded calls from immigrants and business owners all day: How could they keep working? Most of all: How could this possibly be happening now, this, in the worst of all times?
Harris County could stand to lose $1.6 billion in annual GDP without the program, according to the Center for American Progress, a Washington advocacy group.
Across the state, university leaders issued grave statements about the impact the policy change could have on their students, with Renu Khator, chancellor of the University of Houston System, saying the announcement was “of great concern.”
University of Texas Chancellor William H. McRaven encouraged Washington to recognize the potential of DACA students and allow them to pursue education.
“I and the UT System believe in our DACA students and that their opportunities to contribute to Texas and our nation should be upheld and continued ,” McRaven said in a statement. “Congress must now act quickly to provide a bridge for these students to remain in the U.S. and become citizens.”
Some students wondered if all of their hopes and dreams were collapsing. Oscar Ortega has been juggling his day job at JP Morgan Chase with night school to obtain his master’s in finance.
The 25-year-old University of Houston graduate came here two decades ago from Mexico. He has just one year of college left. Suddenly his future climbing up the corporate ladder seems uncertain.
Others promised to stay resolute. Karla Perez, a third-year University of Houston law student, intends on graduating this spring and passing the Texas bar to practice immigration law.
“None of what happened (Tuesday) will change that for me,” she vowed.
Houston Chronicle report Lindsay Ellis contributed to this report.
Houston News & Search