For many years, Christian Castaneda kept a secret from his friends.

They had known him since preschool in Portland, but he was afraid of how they might react to learn he is not a U.S. citizen. Castaneda, 20, is a beneficiary of the Deferred Action Against Childhood Arrivals program, also known as DACA, which protects undocumented people who have lived in the United States since childhood. But the Trump administration plans to end the program this year, and Castaneda is one of 800,000 young immigrants who soon could be in danger of deportation.

So he is telling his story not only to friends, but also to Maine’s congressional delegation. Castaneda and two other “Dreamers” from Maine traveled to Washington on Tuesday to ask Republican Sen. Susan Collins for a permanent solution. The three young people also have spoken with Sen. Angus King, an independent who caucuses with Democrats, and Castaneda traveled to the capital last week to meet with Democratic Rep. Chellie Pingree.

“I’ve been in the shadows for too long,” Castaneda said.

When he landed in Washington, Castaneda stepped into a legislative battle that has the federal government hurtling toward a shutdown.

Former President Barack Obama created DACA in an executive order in 2012. It has not offered them a path to permanent legal residence, also called a green card, or citizenship. But it grants them two-year, renewable work permits that allow them to live and work here without punishment. Data from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services shows 105 people in Maine have received approval for DACA to date.

President Trump said Obama exceeded his authority by creating the program, and it falls to Congress to decide whether the protections will continue. The federal government will phase out DACA by March if there isn’t legislation to replace it.

A federal judge ruled last week that DACA cannot end while a legal challenge to the president’s decision is pending. The Trump administration announced Tuesday it will appeal that decision to the U.S. Supreme Court.

In Congress, a bipartisan compromise has become tangled in a dispute over the federal budget, military spending and border security. The government will shut down if lawmakers are unable to reach a spending deal by midnight Friday, but Democratic leaders have said they are unlikely to support any deal that does not protect young undocumented immigrants.

ASPIRATIONS TO BECOME A U.S. MARINE

Castaneda has lived in the United States since he was 4 years old. His dream after high school was to sign up for the U.S. Marine Corps, but he was discouraged from joining because of his immigration status. He is now a student at the University of Southern Maine.

“I still have aspirations to one day be in uniform and serve the only country I know,” he said.

Castaneda traveled to Washington with the help of Mainers for Accountable Leadership, and a donor paid for the plane tickets. The group left Portland early Tuesday and returned late the same night. The group included two other Dreamers who did not want to share their full names out of fear for their families.

They explored museums in Washington and visited congressional offices. The three Mainers joined dozens of people in the Hart Senate Office Building at a rally with United We Dream, a youth-led immigrant organization. They raised their fists in silent protest and later joined in chanting.

“Dream Act now,” they shouted.

ENCOURAGED BY TALK WITH SEN. COLLINS

Marie Follayttar Smith, co-founder of Mainers for Accountable Leadership, traveled with the group.

“We’ve mobilized on the issue, but we haven’t had the opportunity to amplify the voice of a Dreamer and to listen, other than watching TV, reading accounts and watching videos,” she said. “This was a chance to learn from them.”

The group met with Collins on Tuesday afternoon and took turns telling their stories. She asked them questions about their memories of their home countries and their careers in the United States.

“You’re the kind of people that Maine really needs,” Collins said, according to a recording from Mainers for Accountable Leadership. “We need energetic young people who are willing to work hard, people who want to help our country and our state.”

Collins told them she wants to see a path to citizenship for DACA beneficiaries. She also said she would support a bipartisan compromise proposed by other senators, which would offer legal status to many undocumented immigrants and ramp up border security.

The senator has opposed a different bill that would allow “Dreamers” to stay even if they have three misdemeanors on their record, which she has said is an indication they would continue criminal activity.

“I’d love to have you not only have a path to citizenship in this country, but to remain in the great state of Maine,” Collins said.

Castaneda said he was encouraged by the meeting, and he believed Collins listened to their stories.

“She seems like she’s working really hard,” he said.

Last week, the group also spoke with King. A spokesman from King’s office confirmed the phone call and said the senator’s staff regularly meets with DACA recipients. In an emailed statement, King said he supports the bipartisan compromise that has been proposed by other senators.

“The young men and women who qualify for deferred action have spent the majority of their lives in the United States – coming here as children at no fault of their own – and have worked hard to be active members of society,” King said. “They pay taxes, look after their loved ones, contribute to their communities, and support our economy. I am encouraged that members of Congress in both Houses, on both sides of the aisle, are concerned about the status of DACA recipients in our country, and hope that we can harness that energy to pass the bipartisan Graham-Durbin compromise.”

Castaneda also traveled to Washington last week with FWD.us, which advocates for protections for DACA recipients. The group scheduled meetings with lawmakers from across New England, and as the only member from Maine, Castaneda met with Pingree.

Pingree described Castaneda as “a wonderful young man,” saying she was moved by his story.

FATE OF COMPROMISE SOLUTION UNCLEAR

She said she believes there is enough support in both parties in Congress to enact protections for young undocumented immigrants like Castaneda. She wants to see the issue separated from the debate about the federal budget.

“The very idea that we are introducing all this stress into their lives, that there’s this political game going on around their status, is just unconscionable,” Pingree said.

Castaneda will now return home – and wait. But he said his visits to the capital gave him hope.

“At the end of the day, I feel very good to see other people in Washington, D.C., and know that they’re supporting us and know that we don’t stand alone,” he said.

Correction: This story was updated at 8:43 a.m. on January 17, 2018 to clarify that Sen. Angus King’s spokesman said the senator’s staff regularly meets with DACA recipients.

Megan Doyle can be contacted at 791-6327 or at:

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