Ravaged by Harvey, Houston Dreamers fear deportation

HOUSTON — Diana Platas stares at the growing mountain of debris in her front yard in disbelief and recalls the moment she returned to her home after Hurricane Harvey to see almost everything her family owned was ruined.

“It brought tears to my eyes,” said Platas, 19. “I was the first person to open the door and as soon as I walked in, I gagged.”

She did salvage one cherished memory her parents adore. It’s a burlap canvas with her handprints in blue paint that she made in school as a child. The artwork is accompanied by a poem that talks about how a child grows up and moves away but their fingerprints will always remain.

For a family facing the reality of being separated by deportation, the canvas carries special meaning.

“What am I going to do? This is my life,” Platas said. “This is my home. This is all I know. I don’t know anything else.”

Platas is one of tens of thousands of immigrants in the flood-ravaged communities in Houston who have received Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA. The program, established by President Obama, offered temporary protection from deportation to undocumented immigrants who were brought to the United States as children.

On Tuesday, the Trump administration announced the program would end in six months, and encouraged Congress to draft legislation during that time to address those in the program, the so-called Dreamers.

The announcement could not have come at a worse time. Families facing months of rebuilding their flooded out lives now face the looming threat of being ripped apart by deportations.

Artemio Muniz, Texas chairman of the Federation of Hispanic Republicans, said he believes the DACA program is unconstitutional but that announcing the phase-out as tens of thousands in Houston are fighting to rebuild their lives is a "punch to the gut."

"This might be the one piece of evidence that shows maybe we are being coldhearted as a party, as a conservative movement," said Muniz. "These guys are working, they are contributing, they are not committing crimes, and what else do you want in an American?"

Activists across the city are mobilizing to apply pressure on the Trump administration and congressional lawmakers to save the DACA program or find a more permanent solution.

Trump said Tuesday that winding down the program would be more considerate than letting the courts end it, but emphasized he stands by his "America First" agenda.

"As I've said before, we will resolve the DACA issue with heart and compassion -- but through the lawful Democratic process -- while at the same time ensuring that any immigration reform we adopt provides enduring benefits for the American citizens we were elected to serve," Trump said.

On Tuesday evening, Trump tweeted: "Congress now has 6 months to legalize DACA (something the Obama Administration was unable to do). If they can't, I will revisit this issue!"

Dreamers sacrifice to help after Harvey

Across the Houston region, the work of Dreamers has stood out in the aftermath of the Hurricane Harvey tragedy. Jesus Contreras, a paramedic in Montgomery County north of Houston, spent six days after the storm coordinating rescue and evacuation efforts. The 23-year-old first responder was brought to the United States at age 6.

Contreras said he came home from one storm and the DACA decision has hit him like a second devastating storm, but he's also been struck by anti-immigrant activists who believe DACA recipients should be deported.

"The criticism has been crazy," Contreras said. "I'm not the only one who is a first responder in this situation helping people. There are a lot of us."

Another DACA recipient, Alonso Guillen, drowned in the Houston floodwaters as he attempted to rescue trapped victims.

Others formed small volunteer groups to help their neighbors clean out mud-filled homes and rip out sodden drywall.

Skarleth Velasquez, 19, spent the day the Trump administration announced the DACA changes volunteering to rebuild a neighbor's home.

As the sounds of hammers filled this southwest Houston neighborhood, Velasquez recounted how she was brought to Houston at age 5 from Honduras. She now studies computer science at Houston Community College.

The fear of deportation to a country she's never returned to since she was a child makes her question why some don't have more compassion for the stories of Dreamers like her.

"They see us as foreigners," said Velasquez. "But we're still American as anybody else born here. The only difference between me and the other person is that they have a document."