NASHVILLE — As Vice President Mike Pence addressed Tennessee Republicans at their annual political fundraiser here Thursday, several dozen immigrant students from across the state demonstrated outside and urged state and federal officials not to gut a program that protects them from deportation.
"We have this wonderful work permit that has given students like me that are undocumented the opportunity to make something of our lives — and all of this is under threat of being snatched away in the blink of an eye," said Alondra Gomez, 20, who joined dozens of other youths peacefully demonstrating outside Nashville's convention center.
The protest, organized by the Tennessee Immigration and Refugee Rights Organization, occurred as former President Barack Obama's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program comes under new political and legal threats.
DACA grants work permits, identity documents and relief from deportation to some 800,000 undocumented people who arrived in the U.S. as youths and who pass criminal background checks.
More than six months into Donald Trump's presidential term, his administration has taken no action against the DACA program. And that hasn't sat well with critics including Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery, who has joined attorneys general in nine other states to threaten a lawsuit if the Trump administration doesn't end the program.
Dubbed the "Dreamers" program by proponents, DACA has prevented an estimated 8,000 young, undocumented Tennesseans from being placed into what program supporters call the "deportation pipeline."
For Gomez, a native of Mexico who arrived in the U.S. at about age 5, the education possibilities opened up by the DACA program changed her career trajectory.
A graduate of the Chattanooga Center for Creative Arts, a local magnet high school, Gomez had originally thought about becoming a professional ballerina.
Instead, she went to Chattanooga State Community College, graduated from a medical assistant program and now works at a local health clinic. Gomez said she was accepted into a four-year honors program at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and begins classes later this month.
Simply having the opportunity to work, often serving as an interpreter between nurses and patients, has "been a beautiful experience," Gomez said.
While her focus has been on nursing, Gomez said "with everything that's been going on politics-wise" she's now thinking about political science.
In a recent newspaper column, University of Tennessee student Jose "Luis" Pedraza wrote that the issue "is not simply about deportation. It would rob our communities of prominent and productive residents — teachers, doctors, nurses and researchers, retail entrepreneurs, and more.
"Dreamers are business owners who have created American jobs, employees who have paid into Social Security, families who make mortgage payments," he said, noting most are working and paying taxes.
He estimated DACA recipients pay more than $21 million a year in state and local taxes.
In the last several years, there have been attempts in the General Assembly to grant students such as Gomez and Pedraza the ability to pay in-state tuition rates to attend public colleges and universities. Now, they pay out-of-state tuition, despite having grown up in Tennessee.
Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, has sponsored the Senate version over the past three years, saying the legislation should appeal to conservatives because it will provide better educational opportunities to the undocumented youths and thus make them far less likely to use government services.
Critics, however, object, citing the students' illegal status.
This year Republican Gov. Bill Haslam announced his support for Gardenhire's legislation. Still, the bill failed yet again in the House.
Before being appointed state attorney general, Slatery worked as Haslam's chief legal counsel.