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Just before DACA decision, Colorado Springs 'Dreamer' opens up

September 4, 2017 Updated: September 5, 2017 at 8:01 am
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In this Sunday, Sept. 3, 2017 photo, supporters of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA), demonstrate on Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House in Washington. President Donald Trump is expected to announce that he will end protections for young immigrants who were brought into the country illegally as children, but with a six-month delay, people familiar with the plans said. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

Nayda Benitez never decided to leave the high mountain Mexican town she called home at age 7.

But once in Colorado Springs, she resolved to graduate from high school near the top of her class, get a scholarship and go to college.

Now a new White House plan may undo her work.

President Donald Trump is expected to announce Tuesday that he will end protections for immigrants who were brought into the country illegally as children. But Trump would delay that action for six months, people familiar with the plans told The Associated Press.

The delay in dismantling Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals would give Congress time to decide whether to address the status of the "Dreamers" legislation, two people familiar with the president's thinking told the AP. But it was unclear how the delay would work and what would happen to people who have DACA work permits or whose permits expire during those six months.

Immigrant advocates girded for the decision by planning a rally from 4 to 6 p.m. Tuesday at Acacia Park.

For Benitez, who plans to graduate in May from the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, Trump's pending announcement was "insane."

"I can't convey it in words how heartbreaking it is to hear that," she said Monday, weeping.

Benitez is among more than 2,000 people in El Paso County who have used the Obama-era DACA program, immigration attorneys estimate. Nationally, DACA gave nearly 800,000 young immigrants a reprieve from deportation and two-year, renewable work permits.

They are college students, small-business owners and young professionals, mostly ages 15 to 35, who have taken out mortgages, received student loans and gotten driver's licenses.

Benitez, 21, was brought to Colorado Springs by her parents.

"I don't know Mexico as well. And this is the country that I know most," she said.

While her parents each worked two jobs, Benitez threw herself into schoolwork.

At Sierra High School, she was a National Honor Society member who participated in ROTC. She was on student council all four years - capping her time there as student body vice president.

Riding a 3.9 GPA (higher when including honors courses), she received a full-ride scholarship to UCCS. She's majoring in sociology with one goal: Attend law school and help other undocumented immigrants.

"I had to be high-achieving, otherwise I wouldn't really be considered," she said.

She started a student group called Unidos, Spanish for "United," that caters to DACA enrollees and undocumented immigrants at UCCS. It has about 25 consistent members.

The DACA program made it all possible, she said.

And she fears a future without it.

"My thing is - why not just continue with DACA and move forward with that solution?" she said. "That's their means to survive and to go to school and to pursue their dreams."

She broke down when word of Trump's plan spread late Sunday night.

The expected move would come as the White House faces a Tuesday deadline set by Republican state officials threatening to sue the Trump administration if the president does not end the program. It also would come as Trump appeals to his base while coming increasingly under fire, with his poll numbers at near-record lows.

During his campaign, Trump called DACA illegal "amnesty" and vowed to eliminate it the day he took office. But he since said those covered could "rest easy."

All the while, his administration continued to process applications and renew DACA work permits, to the dismay of immigration hard-liners.

The pending announcement drew heated reactions from both sides of the issue.

Alex McShiras, a Colorado Springs immigration attorney, called the plan "an excuse" for passing the "Dreamers" issue on to Congress.

"I don't see how it could be a good thing," McShiras said. "I really don't, given the political climate, given everything that's happened in Congress in the last 10 years . six months isn't a long time."

He said his DACA clients include entrepreneurs and aspiring soldiers, police officers and firefighters. They often end up running small businesses because DACA provides a Social Security number but not citizenship.

"My clients want to do great things for this country," he said. "This is the only country that he or she has basically ever known."

He was joined by Democrats and some Republicans who called for DACA's continuation.

U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., called such a move "the height of cruelty," while Republican U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman supported it, according to The Denver Post. In doing so, Coffman touted legislation he drafted giving Congress three years to pass DACA-related legislation.

University of Colorado President Bruce Benson told students and faculty the institution will still accept undocumented immigrants, The Denver Post reported.

But U.S. Rep. Steve King, an Iowa Republican who has called DACA unconstitutional, warned that a delay in dismantling it would amount to "Republican suicide."

"Ending DACA now gives chance 2 restore Rule of Law. Delaying so R Leadership can push Amnesty is Republican suicide," he wrote.

Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan and a number of other legislators urged Trump last week to hold off on scrapping DACA to give them time to come up with a legislative fix.

Congress faces a packed fall agenda and has had a poor track record in passing immigration bills.

In the lead-up to Tuesday's announcement, local immigration attorneys told clients whose DACA status is expiring to immediately file their applications.

And they've told people not in the program to hold off on applying.

Benitez said she just wants to graduate and make a life for herself in the country she knows best.

"What is the point of a degree if I can't use it?"

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The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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