Life for DACA recipients in the U.S. is anything but assured, and a recent federal ruling has unleveled the shaky ground they walk on and drawn sharper curves into their paths.
In Texas last week, U.S. District Judge Andrew Hanen called DACA “unlawful” and barred new applicants from applying for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. The immigration program was created via executive order by former President Barack Obama in 2012 as a stopgap measure to shield young immigrants brought to the U.S. by family members from deportation.
Although the program does not present a pathway to citizenship for undocumented young people, it has opened doors for education and jobs — in other words, it has provided DACA recipients a shot at a normal life.
Advocates have long grappled with the notion that just as the stroke of a pen gave life to DACA, such a move could also spell its demise. Hanen’s ruling exemplifies those worries. It does not affect the more than 40,000 so-called Dreamers living in the Mountain West or the hundreds of thousands of DACA recipients nationwide. Still, for those young people — who often cannot make plans for the future beyond the two-year intervals of protected status that the program affords — it deepens a sense of precarity.
President Joe Biden said the Department of Justice will appeal the ruling but advocates and DACA recipients remain worried about the program's future.
Victor Esquivel, who uses they/them pronouns, received Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals at 18. The Wyoming resident battled depression throughout high school — largely fueled by the understanding that after graduation, opportunities to thrive, to build a career would be scarce.
“I didn't know whether or not I should continue school. If I did continue and I got a degree, I wouldn't be able to use it. I got really down,” Esquivel said.
Esquivel, 28, was brought to the U.S. from Mexico by a family member when they were four years old. They say receiving DACA profoundly changed their life. Suddenly Esquivel could apply for higher-paying jobs that helped them to support family members. Today, Esquivel is in veterinary technician school pursuing a lifelong aspiration to work with animals. DACA has also provided them a sense of personal liberation: “I always felt like I was in two closets, one being a queer closet and the other being undocumented.”
Esquivel’s protected status imbued them with the courage to embrace these aspects of their identity and politically organize for both the rights of immigrants and people in the LGBTQ+ community. They remember gathering with other DACA recipients outside Texas Republican Sen. John Cornyn’s office.
“I remember at the end when we were done, we all said, ‘We are undocumented, unafraid, unapologetic.’ And it's funny because at that time I really wasn't completely so unafraid. Like, I felt my legs trembling,” Esquivel said.
Esquivel traveled to Washington D.C. a few months later to advocate for immigrants on Capitol Hill, and by then something had shifted: “As a group, we all yelled, ‘Undocumented, unafraid.’ And I think that was the first time I really felt it. And I think that's one thing we all need to remind each other.”
Still, as much as Esquivel has developed courage to speak out, the recent ruling seemingly turned back the pages on the calendar. Esquivel, with a newly accepted spot in a veterinary technician program, was reminded “of that feeling right before I graduated high school, whether or not I should go to school and further my education and if I did, what would it mean to be undocumented without a degree and no way to use it?”
Esquivel is not alone.
Ming Hsu Chen, the faculty director for University of Colorado Boulder’s Immigration and Citizenship Law program, interviewed roughly 100 DACA recipients in Colorado for her 2020 book, Pursuing Citizenship in the Enforcement Era.
“The very term that came up again and again was this idea of uncertainty or precarity or liminality — just about day-to-day life and whether they'll be able to make a life here in the United States,” she said.
Chen says the ruling has profound impacts on people’s plans for the future. Still, she hopes it catalyzes lawmakers to pass federal legislation that gives Dreamers permanent citizenship. (Congress’s continuous failed attempts to do so in the past compelled Obama to create DACA.)
“This decision simply adds to the pressure that's already been on the government to resolve the situation, to resolve the uncertainty that DACA applicants have been living with for most of their lives,” Chen said. She points to different pieces of legislation now before Congress, such as two versions of the American Dream Act.
Meanwhile, hopeful applicants are weighing whether to still file for protected status — in case something changes again. It is a choice with implications, said Emily Brock, an attorney with the Rocky Mountain Immigrant Advocacy Network.
“Now the decision is: What risk am I willing to take? Am I willing to risk the $495 filing fee? Am I willing to put my information in the system knowing that there may not be a way for me to gain DACA status, that there may never be a reopening of the window to apply and I may put my application in and never get a decision on that application?” she said.
Brock says with each ruling and policy shift, DACA recipients are stuck on a “roller coaster.”
Esquivel, for their part, is concerned about the young people who are now precluded from applying and the millions of other immigrants who never had a chance to apply. They believe when these different groups unite, passing compassionate immigration policy will be possible. Esquivel intends to keep fighting for that.
“I've gone to Washington, D.C. I've talked to senators, I've talked to religious leaders. And it's really empowering to find out that, as someone who thought my voice was useless and unheard, I am making a difference out there.”
You won’t find a paywall here. Come as often as you like — we’re not counting. You’ve found a like-minded tribe that cherishes what a free press stands for. If you can spend another couple of minutes making a pledge of as little as $5, you’ll feel like a superhero defending democracy for less than the cost of a month of Netflix.