Jesus Perez doesn’t remember much about his journey to the United States two decades ago, beyond his parents using a simple phrase that would change the course of his life: “We’re leaving.”
Perez was 5 when he left Mexico. He’s never been back.
President Donald J. Trump’s decision Tuesday to rescind protections for immigrants brought to the country illegally as children delivered a powerful dose of dread to hundreds of thousands of “dreamers” across the country — many of whom know about their native lands only through the stories of their parents.
“We’re going to fight back. We’re going to stand up,” said Perez, now a 25-year-old research assistant at the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. “Our parents taught us that no matter what happens, you always find a path.”
Though Trump’s decision fulfills a campaign promise — and had been expected for days — the announcement nevertheless drew emotional responses from dreamers and some public officials in heavily Democratic Maryland. The state has the ninth-largest share of foreign-born residents in the nation, according to census data.
Perez is one of more than 9,000 Marylanders who qualified for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, which President Barack Obama’s administration created with a memo in 2012. Trump and conservative Republicans have criticized the program ever since, describing it as a constitutional overreach.
DACA granted a reprieve from deportation and the possibility of work permits to people under 16 who entered the country prior to 2007 as long as they were in school, had graduated or had been honorably discharged from the military, and had a mostly clean criminal record.
Administration officials said Tuesday they were ending the program but would give Congress six months to come up with a fix — leaving the fate of the dreamers to Republican leaders on Capitol Hill. During that time, the administration will continue to renew work permits sought by dreamers already covered under DACA. But the Department of Homeland Security said it would no longer approve applications for those seeking to enroll for the first time.
White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders declined to answer directly when asked Tuesday if dreamers would be deported once the six-month window expires on March 5. Because dreamers had to apply for the program, federal immigration officials have access to their names and addresses.
“They’re not a targeted priority,” Sanders said. “But the goal here is that Congress actually fixes the problem, and then that isn’t an issue.”
Reaction from Maryland elected officials split largely but not entirely along partisan lines. Republican Gov. Larry Hogan, who is up for reelection next year, said through a spokeswoman that he supports securing the borders — but also leveled subtle criticism at Trump.
“Focusing immigration efforts on children and young people, many of whom have never known another home and came to this country by no fault of their own, should not be where enforcement efforts are concentrated,” spokeswoman Amelia Chasse said in a statement. “Instead of targeting innocent kids, we should be targeting criminals.”
That appears to put Hogan in line with more centrist Republicans on Capitol Hill, including House Speaker Paul Ryan, who said he “hoped” Congress “will be able to find consensus on a permanent legislative solution that includes ensuring that those who have done nothing wrong can still contribute as a valued part of this great country.”
Rep. Andy Harris, a Baltimore County Republican, said he “strongly” supports the president’s decision, and described DACA as a “gross overreach” by Obama. Asked to respond to Chasse’s statement, Harris said the Trump administration is focusing immigration enforcement on criminals.
Repealing DACA, he said, is a separate issue about whether the government will provide work permits.
“They are here illegally,” Harris said. “We have to restore the rule of law.”
Democrats condemned the move.
"It's cruel," said Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, a Baltimore Democrat. "I think it's very, very unfair, and very, very unfortunate. DACA children who I have met usually come to me with tears because America is all they've known.”
For Perez, the DACA program was a “relief” that allowed him to come out of the shadows. It also allowed him to take the job at Hopkins, and to get a standard driver’s license.
“To now have it in limbo means that you either lose it all, and restart all over again — “ Perez said, trailing off. “I’m not going to let that happen. We will win in the end.”
Some DACA recipients, such as Perez, have more than a year left on their work permits. Others, such as Nathaly Uribe Robledo, are potentially facing a shorter timeline.
Robledo, 22, was 2 years old when she entered the United States legally on a tourist visa. Her family overstayed the visa, and Robledo wound up in the DACA program.
Her current work permit expires at the end of the year. She has requested a renewal. White House officials said the administration will continue to process renewal applications.
“These past five years I've been able to lead a normal, American life as a young adult,” Robledo said. “It's very hard to mentally prepare to let go of all of that.”
Leaving the United States, she said, would mean “traveling to strange lands and to strange people.
“The majority of us are so integrated into the community and so integrated into the American lifestyle that I highly doubt that the majority of us would leave.”
Nearly 600 business executives, including those at Amazon, Microsoft, Bethesda-based Marriott International and United Airlines, signed an open letter late last month calling on Congress to approve legislation to provide “these young people raised in our country the permanent solution they deserve.”
Brad Smith, Microsoft’s president, said Tuesday that Congress should address immigration before turning to what is expected to be a tax cut proposal for large corporations — a central priority for the Trump administration.
But the response from the business community in Maryland was far more muted.
Baltimore-based Under Armour — whose CEO joined and then left a manufacturing council created by Trump this year — posted on Twitter that the company “stands with America and the DREAMers.” Pressed for what that meant, specifically, the company said in a statement that it would “work with Congress” to pass a solution.
David Rosario, who runs the insurance agency at which Robledo works, said about half of his nine-person team are dreamers.
“Just to live and be with these young adults that shine immensely and are loyal and hardworking, and sit with them and see their grief and their uncertainty, and cry with them, and tell them it’s going to be okay, it’s just daunting,” Rosario said.
Veronica Cool, CEO of the Reisterstown consulting firm Cool & Associates, agreed. Her firm helps companies reach Hispanic customers and employees.
“You have a pool of qualified people that were raised in the United States, that went through all kinds of criminal background [checks] to even qualify for the DACA program,” Cool said. “Now they’re graduating, getting jobs, having a life and contributing to society. For it to be pulled from under them is horrible.”
Several Maryland universities also weighed in.
Wallace D. Loh, president of the University of Maryland, College Park, called the decision “antithetical to the core values” of higher education. He vowed in a letter to students and staff to “continue to identify all avenues available for offering support.”
Loh said the university had about 100 DACA students on campus.
Monica Camacho Perez was one of dozens of dreamers from Maryland who rallied near the White House on Tuesday to protest the decision. The 23-year-old Baltimore woman, who is unrelated to Jesus Perez, came to the United States from Mexico when she was seven.
Perez said DACA “gave us the opportunity to feel safe.
“We’ve already been in the shadows for so long,” said Perez, who works for CASA, the Maryland-based immigration advocacy group. "I'm just scared for my parents, for myself, for my whole community."
Sun reporters Erin Cox and Talia Richman contributed to this article.