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Georgia student with full-time job worries about deportation

March 25, 2018 GMT

MACON, Ga. (AP) — When Uche Onungwa was 6 years old, his mother brought him to Macon from Nigeria, and since then living here is all he has known.

He attended public schools in Macon from kindergarten through his high school graduation. He now attends Middle Georgia State University — where he pays out-of-state tuition — while working full time at Geico.

Most people who know him have no idea he is a not an American citizen. He looks and talks like anyone else who grew up here. He loves the Atlanta Falcons and drives a 2017 Chevy Camaro.

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But without the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, he could be sent back to live in a country where he doesn’t speak the language and that he barely remembers.

“That’s really one of the biggest things, the scariest situations, is going to a place you don’t know anything about,” he said.

His story is similar to many of the 700,000 or so recipients — often called Dreamers — registered for DACA nationwide. His mother brought the family here legally on a work visa, but it expired and she didn’t do the paperwork to extend it, he said. After that, she started getting letters that she was going to be deported. Fearing that would happen, she went ahead and moved back to Nigeria, leaving Onungwa here with his father. That meant they were now illegal.

“Pretty much from middle school to high school I was scared of deportation,” he said. “I didn’t really understand it much, but I knew I was not like everybody else.”

Now 23, he is among more than 21,000 people in Georgia signed up for the DACA program established in 2012 by President Barack Obama. Its aim was to protect from deportation those who were brought here as children illegally or who became illegal later. It allowed those who signed up to work and attend college.

“As soon as the DACA thing came out, it was one of the most exciting things,” he said. “It was basically a miracle.”

On Sept. 5, though, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that DACA would be phased out. President Donald Trump called on Congress to pass legislation to legalize DACA. Although there has been some Republican support for DACA, efforts to pass legislation preserving it have been derailed by disagreement on other immigration issues, including chain migration, or the process of legal residents’ petitioning for their close relatives to come to the United States, and ending the lottery system.

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Meanwhile, two federal judges have blocked the effort to end DACA, and the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the case before it goes to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

So for now, DACA remains in place, but it still has an uncertain future. Onungwa pointed out that even with DACA, recipients are still not citizens and must seek renewals in order to stay in the U.S.

Ultimately he and other DACA recipients hope Congress will pass legislation that will allow them to become citizens. He said many people who were eligible for DACA did not sign up because they were afraid of identifying themselves as being here illegally. But those who did sign up, he said, now feel cheated that they came forward but could now be subject to deportation.

“We feel like we were lied to,” he said.

One person who has been trying to help Onungwa, as well as other Dreamers, is Raymond Partolan, a DACA recipient himself who grew up in Macon and now works as a paralegal.

He is also an outspoken advocate for Dreamers. DACA is a temporary solution, he said, and he hopes that providing a path to citizenship for DACA recipients will be a part of congressional campaigns across the country later this year.

“I think people are starting to wake up and see how urgent it is,” Partolan said. “This is going to be a hot-button campaign issue for the midterm (elections). Voters are going to pick the candidates to best represent our country in terms of immigration.”

Jennifer Moore, a Macon attorney who specializes in immigration law, said she has represented more than 100 DACA recipients, who typically are either students or employed and are law abiding. She said they remain concerned about their future.

“They are bright people,” she said. “They are the same people we go to school and church and work with. They are our neighbors. They are part of their community the same as anybody else. I think if we don’t figure out a solution that protects them that we lose on the benefit of having them.”

The Migration Policy Institute estimates that as of January there were 21,410 DACA recipients in Georgia and 682,750 nationwide. That’s only about half of those eligible. Although the institute has estimates on DACA participation in a few larger metropolitan counties, there is no data for Middle Georgia counties.

Onungwa spoke recently at a forum at Mercer University, in which about 100 people attended. The forum focused on the DACA issue from a religious perspective, with representatives of the Islamic, Christian and Jewish faiths offering scriptural support for immigration.

Anna Marmolejo, a Wesleyan College student, also spoke at the gathering. She is a native of Mexico and came to U.S. when she was an infant. She said she was in the gifted honors program at her high school and graduated in the top five of her class.

“We have worked tirelessly to be just like everybody else,” she said, “and then to be singled out is kind of going backward.”

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Information from: The Telegraph, http://www.macontelegraph.com