Meet Pamela, a soon-to-be-undocumented immigrant fighting to stay and contribute to the U.S.

"When we win the DREAM Act, we will see this as one of the best moments that we've had in politics for a while."

Pamela Chomba. CREDIT: Amanda Saviñón
Pamela Chomba. CREDIT: Amanda Saviñón

Pamela Chomba, a 28-year-old New Jersey resident who’s been in the United States for 17 years, held her breath when President Donald Trump announced the end to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program in early September.

Since 2012, the Obama-era executive action has provided 800,000 young immigrants like Chomba with temporary work authorization and deportation relief. The Trump administration rescinded DACA on September 5, giving Congress six months to create a more permanent solution. Under the plan, any DACA recipient with a permit that expires before March 5, 2018 will be allowed to renew their status for a one-time, two-year renewal, with the last authorization likely ending in 2020. DACA recipients whose work authorization cards expire on and after March 6, 2018 would revert back to their original undocumented status. Chomba, whose DACA status ends in October 2018, falls into the latter category.

Two months after Trump wound down the program, Chomba is now asking lawmakers in Washington, D.C. to pursue legislation that makes her protections permanent. DACA has made her financially stable, first as a community organizer with then-Mayor Cory Booker (D-NJ) and now as the Northeast Organizing Director at FWD.US, a lobbying group that advocates for immigration reform. From now until her DACA status expires, Chomba aims to put pressure on lawmakers to understand the costs of inaction for individuals like her as well as for the U.S. economy as a whole.

Out of economic necessity, Chomba came to the country at the age of 11 with her parents and siblings from Lima, Peru back in 2001. Her parents overstayed their visas, but eventually fell out of status.

For Chomba, a permanent solution is crucial to keeping her family intact. Her parents are undocumented. She and a younger sibling are part of the 22,227 people in the state of New Jersey who have DACA. Her youngest brother is a U.S. citizen. She’s not alone. Roughly 500,000 undocumented immigrants in New Jersey live in a similar mixed-immigration status situation, according to 2014 data. Approximately 604,000 U.S. citizens in the state live with at least one undocumented family member.

Chomba’s family has not had a serious discussion about the next steps if any one member gets deported. They had a conversation before Trump’s inauguration. At the time, Chomba — who was also helping other immigrant families figure out what to do once Trump was in office — had been operating on “the certainty that DACA was still intact” and that families should call on DACA recipients to take care of U.S. citizen children.

“That conversation is harder to have now that DACA is gone,” Chomba said, audibly sighing into the phone during an interview on Thursday. “My family and I haven’t sat down to think next steps because whenever someone mentions it, [we feel] fear and that fear is being driven by being powerless and unable to do anything. Before, we had DACA and something to hold onto. And now we have nothing.”

Her deportation fears aren’t unfounded. Even with assurances by the head of immigration enforcement in Newark, New Jersey that officers would pursue immigrants who commit serious crimes in “targeted” operations, immigration arrests are up 20 percent in the state as of May 2017. That’s why the dissolution of DACA has driven Chomba to work even harder to hold lawmakers accountable to pass legislation.

“The fear exists because my family depends economically on me.”

“The fear exists because my family depends economically on me and they depend on the support I’ve been able to provide them,” Chomba said.

On a financial level, DACA has meant Chomba helps with the cost of her younger brother’s college tuition. Chomba is among the nearly 685,000 DACA workers in the nation’s workforce, a group whose loss of status could mean a loss of $460.3 billion from the national GDP over the next decade, according to estimates by the Center for American Progress. (ThinkProgress is an editorially-independent news site housed within CAP.)

Losing workers like Chomba would also mean employers would have to find, retrain, and hire people who are just as effective as she has been. She has already thought of what it would mean for her employers at FWD.us once her DACA expires.

“One of my priorities was, ‘what do I need to leave at FWD’ so that the person who takes after me will continue this work,” Chomba said. “What can I do in the next few months to prepare a legacy or plan for the next person but what can I do now so that moment doesn’t come. And of course that’s organizing.”

Several different pieces of immigration legislation have been introduced in Congress so far. But House Republican leadership has not committed to passing a so-called “clean” DREAM Act by the end of the year. That bill would help DACA recipients and certain immigrants brought to the country as young immigrants without being attached to other bills that crack down on unauthorized immigration.

A recent FWD.us report suggests that if Congress fails to enact permanent legislation, there will be “escalating​ ​job​ ​losses” until all 800,000 DACA recipients “are​ ​prevented​ ​from​ ​participating​ ​in​ ​the​ ​workforce​” with many subject to deportation. The report — which analyzed the first nine months that DACA recipients will be barred from renewals in the time period between March 6, 2018 and November 9, 2018 — found that nearly 1,700 DACA recipients would be removed from the workforce each day during that time period.

A chart showing how DACA recipients with jobs will face a forced job loss if there isn't permanent legislation in place to protect them. (CREDIT: FWD.us)
A chart showing how DACA recipients with jobs will face a forced job loss if there isn't permanent legislation in place to protect them. (CREDIT: FWD.us)

Job loss, the report found, would “dramatically increase” beginning March 6, culminating in a firing every 13 seconds by the third quarter of 2018. In turn, the staggering cost of having to fire productive employees because they are no longer legally able to work could cost employers $3.4 billion in turnover costs, according to a December 2016 Immigration Legal Resource Center (ILRC) report.

Until her DACA expires, Chomba and other DACA recipients like her will continue to rally, protest, and pressure lawmakers to pass some form of Dream Act.

“What gets me up every day is the passion from DREAMers,” Chomba said, her voice breaking. “That really gives me esperanza [Spanish for “hope”]…I think, when we win the DREAM Act, we will see this as one of the best moments that we’ve had in politics for a while because we’re finally looking back at ourselves and saying, ‘This is the country we want to be, that we welcome you.’ That’s what gets me up”