DACA recipients shocked to learn that ICE has access to their information

Eliana Fernandez and her family take part in a DACA protest in front of the Supreme Court. The justices could soon issue a ruling on the Trump administration's plan to end the program.

(CNN)When the Trump administration announced its intention to end DACA in 2017, recipient Eliana Fernandez said she felt broken.

"I was devastated," said Fernandez. She says she came to the United States from Ecuador when she was 14, and had fallen out of legal status by the time she applied for DACA. "I began overthinking a lot of things. Like, how was I supposed to survive after I lost that status?"
DACA, or the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, allowed some undocumented immigrants who had been brought to the United States as children to apply for protection from deportation. It was enacted via an executive branch memorandum by President Barack Obama in 2012.
    Fernandez smiles in a high school yearbook photo, shortly after she arrived in the United States.
    For Fernandez, now 32, the program was transformational. A year after receiving her DACA status in 2012, Fernandez was able to get an associate's degree after several years of trying. A couple of years after that, she purchased her first home -- a place, she said, where her two US-born children, who are 13 and 7, could grow up safe and happy.
    But that sense of security that Fernandez was incredibly grateful to have gotten was ripped away from her once again. In September 2017, President Donald Trump announced he would terminate DACA, a controversial decision that resulted in a lengthy legal battle expected to soon be resolved by the Supreme Court.
    Fernandez said Trump's decision came as no surprise to her. Trump ran on a staunchly anti-immigrant platform to capture the Oval Office, and she said she knew he would eventually come after DACA.
    Fernandez poses with her family after graduation.
    That's why, after the President's announcement, she decided to join the lawsuit against the government over the Trump administration's decision to end the program.
    But while Trump's move to phase out the program may have come as no surprise to Fernandez, she said she and others like her are rattled by the recent realization that the personal information DACA recipients provided to the government when applying for protection is being shared with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
    "For all of us, this is a huge violation of trust," Fernandez, who now works as a community activist for Make the Road New York, an immigrant rights organization, told CNN. "One of the key promises, when DACA was enacted, was that the applicant's information would be protected from disclosure for immigration enforcement purposes."
    "My hope is that the Supreme Court justices can see that immigrants are the very fabric of this country," Fernandez told CNN.
    Internal emails and documents obtained by Make the Road New York and Make the Road Connecticut reveal that a DACA recipient's entire application file with US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), the agency that manages and oversees the program, can be directly accessed by ICE. That seemingly contradicts the federal government's long-standing stance that any information provided by applicants would not be proactively shared with the immigration enforcement agency except under special circumstances.
    The documents, which are heavily redacted and were obtained through a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit against the Trump administration brought by the organizations, were viewed by CNN.
    In a series of emails dated September 2, 2017 -- a few days before Trump announced plans to end DACA -- between then senior counselor to the Department of Homeland Security secretary, Gene Hamilton and ex-DHS spokesman Jonathan Hoffman, Hamilton wrote, "USCIS and ICE already share information about DACA beneficiaries. There's no way to stop that."
    The issue that Hamilton was being asked to weigh in on is redacted from the emails but Hoffman called it "the CIS Q&A." It is unclear from the exchange what this is in reference to. The following month, Hamilton left DHS for a position at the Department of Justice while Hoffman went on to become spokesman for the Pentagon in 2019.
    When Obama implemented DACA, Fernandez said, she was initially hesitant to apply despite the administration's multiple assurances and public statements that her information would be shielded from ICE and other law enforcement agencies.
    "At the beginning I was very nervous, because I didn't know what that meant," Fernandez told CNN. "But a lot of folks in my family encouraged me to take advantage of that opportunity, which I did."
    Eight years later, her worst fears, and those of countless other so-called Dreamers, have been confirmed.
    While it is unclear how often ICE has directly accessed the databases or whether any information obtained was used to target any individuals -- or whether ICE plans to do so if DACA is terminated -- Fernandez said she believes it gives new urgency to the Supreme Court decision.
    "The Supreme Court justices might not think that we are currently at risk of deportation, but these communications make it clear that ICE can literally go into USCIS databases to get our information without even submitting a formal request or having to specify a reason why, and it's scary to think what can happen if we lose the protection of DACA."
    Some Dreamers, according to Fernandez, shared with the federal government information not only about themselves, but also about their parents or other relatives who may also be undocumented. She says those DACA recipients are now worried this puts their families at risk of deportation as well.
    Per USCIS guidelines, ICE, or any other national security or law enforcement agency, must submit a formal request for any information pertaining to a DACA recipient -- and it may be disclosed only if the person poses a national or public security threat or has been issued a notice to appear before a judge. People whose cases are deferred pursuant to DACA will not be referred to ICE, per USCIS.
    Although the agency specifies that this information-sharing policy may be modified, superseded or rescinded at any time without notice, officials say it has not been.
    ICE deferred comment on the issue to USCIS. A spokesperson for USCIS sent CNN the following statement: