One is a popular student at a local university, the poster boy — literally — for the Golden Door Scholars program. The other stands accused of beheading his mother this week, in a grisly crime that has captured attention around the globe.
Both of them are young illegal immigrants in North Carolina who became Dreamers under President Obama’s 2012 deportation amnesty.
And this week, both of them became the faces of the two poles of the immigration debate.
The National Immigration Forum’s Bibles, Badges and Business network has begun running a web video in North Carolina featuring Jose Contreras, who by all accounts is a model student at Queens University in Charlotte, which he attends as part of a scholarship program designed specifically to give illegal immigrants a chance to go to college.
“The overwhelming majority of immigrants who are here and who are unauthorized are contributing to American society in just incredibly powerful ways,” said Ali Noorani, executive director of the forum. “The story about Jose isn’t about Jose; it’s about how North Carolina is a much, much better place, through the eyes of the people who’ve come to know and love him.”
On the other side, though, is Oliver Funes-Machado, an 18-year-old who stands accused of killing his mother. When authorities responded to a 911 call, they found the young man holding his mother’s severed head in one hand, according to an affidavit obtained by reporters in Zebulon, North Carolina.
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Asked by a 911 operator why he did it, the young man replied, “Because I felt like it.” He said he stabbed her eight times and left the knife in her mouth.
The case has made international headlines.
Both Mr. Funes-Machado and Mr. Contreras were here under DACA, or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. That program granted a stay of deportation and issued work permits to young adult illegal immigrants brought to the U.S. as children, and who either finished high school or were pursuing a diploma.
“We’ve got Third World problems of decapitation and heads lying in yards here near my home in North Carolina. It’s ridiculous, and it never should have happened,” said William Gheen, founder of Americans for Legal Immigration Political Action Committee. “Donald Trump promised there would be border and other immigration law enforcement.”
For years, the Dreamers have been the faces of the immigration movement, staging “coming out” moments where they declared their status as unauthorized, yet unwilling to hide in the shadows any longer.
They helped shift the immigration debate over the years, and Americans are increasingly willing to grant illegal immigrants a chance to legal status and even a full pathway to citizenship.
President Trump, though, dented that push.
During his campaign, he focused on the downside of immigration, highlighting the families of victims of crimes perpetrated by illegal immigrants — beginning with the 2015 slaying of Kate Steinle in San Francisco, a sanctuary city.
Immigrant rights advocates say those victims are tragic stories but that on the whole, immigrants — including those in the country illegally — commit serious crimes at lower rates than the native-born Americans.
Mr. Noorani said Mr. Funes-Machado “doesn’t belong in the United States. Full stop.”
But he cautioned against conflating crime and immigration, saying it ends up wasting law enforcement resources that should be directed at serious criminals.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said it has lodged a detainer request on Mr. Funes-Machado, meaning that should he be released by state or local authorities, federal agents want to pick him up for deportation.
“ICE is focused on identifying, arresting and removing public safety threats, such as convicted criminal aliens and gang members, as well as individuals who have violated our nation’s immigration laws,” the agency said.
Federal officials said being part of DACA isn’t an affirmative legal status, but rather signals those folks are lower priorities for being kicked out of the country. The status can be revoked at any time. About 1,500 DACA recipients have had their approvals revoked because of gang or criminal activities.
Mr. Gheen says far from low priorities, he would put DACA recipients “near the front row for deportation, with the other violent criminals.” He said the Dreamers became a powerful political weapon in the hands of Mr. Obama.
“They’re trying to use the Joses and this video to overthrow the entire system of government in the United States by turning more than 10 million illegal immigrants into Democratic voters,” he said. “Our focus needs to be on the thousands of Americans that are losing their lives each year to illegal immigrant crimes.”
Under Mr. Trump, ICE agents have apprehended several DACA recipients. One, a young man in Seattle, is fighting his deportation, disputing the government’s accusations that he has gang ties. A judge has promised a ruling in that case next week.
Meanwhile a 22-year-old woman who let her DACA status lapse is also facing deportation. Activists suggest she is being punished for having spoken out after agents raided her house, targeting her father and brother. Lawyers are fighting her deportation in federal court as well.
Dreamers have always been the most sympathetic figures in the immigration debate. They were brought to the U.S. illegally as children, usually with no say in the decision, and many have grown up knowing no other country for the vast majority of their lives.
Some 752,000 had been approved under DACA, according to the most recent statistics that cover through Sept. 30. Updated numbers are due any day.
During the campaign, Mr. Trump called that 2012 policy illegal and vowed to revoke it as soon as he took office.
But Mr. Trump has since said he is searching for a solution that would grant Dreamers citizenship rights, and the White House on Thursday was mum on Mr. Trump’s campaign pledge to revoke the DACA policy.
Instead, press secretary Sean Spicer said the White House is taking steps to increase deportations overall — though those policies specifically carve out Dreamers as exceptions.
“The president’s been very clear about how he plans to address immigration as a whole,” Mr. Spicer said.
Mr. Gheen, though, warned Mr. Trump to speedily make good on his promise to revoke DACA.
“It has now become Donald Trump’s DACA amnesty,” he said. “Every minute that exists, I don’t live in a constitutionally governed America.”