The tension that Kassandra Aleman, 26, has been accumulating in her neck and upper back since the Trump administration ended the DACA program three years ago "just dropped" after learning that Joe Biden had become president-elect on Saturday.
Aleman, a deputy training director for the Texas Democratic Party and a DACA recipient, helped organize volunteers in her state trusting that Biden would be able to deliver on his campaign promise once he is sworn in on Jan. 20.
“He said that on Day One, they're going to reinstate DACA," said Aleman, referring to the Obama-era program called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, which allowed teens and young adults brought to the U.S. as children, but who lack legal immigration status, to apply for the chance to study and work without fear of deportation. "But Dreamers show up, so if promises were made to us and we're not seeing that progress, we've never been afraid to go show up in someone's office and say, 'Hey, I thought you were on our side.'”
"Those are promises that would literally change my life,” said Mariana Castro, 26, a DACA recipient from Peru living in a mixed-status family in Florida.
The Trump administration began rejecting new DACA applications this summer about a month after the Supreme Court blocked the White House from fully ending the program, calling Trump's efforts “arbitrary and capricious." Existing applicants must reapply every year, instead of every two years, to remain in the program.
A 28-year-old DACA recipient from Houston started to write down his story as “a way for me to cope with everything that had been going on,” especially the mental health toll the uncertainty surrounding DACA's fate took on him. He recently published his autobiography, “Until Death, Jail, or Deportation: Story of a Dreamer” under the pen name Hector Soliz.
While he felt a need to come forward with his story, Soliz said he wasn’t ready to be identified under his real name while the fate of the DACA program remains uncertain and amid persistent anti-immigrant rhetoric. He said that's one of the reasons why he remains cautiously optimistic about Biden's win.
“I was relieved," said Soliz. "But almost immediately afterwards, that relief turned to some caution and some fear even” after Trump refused to concede, instead showing a hesitancy toward an orderly transition of power.
Despite the uncertainty, DACA beneficiaries like Astrid Silva "believe that the Biden administration is going to be much more caring."
"Not having to fight for my humanity is already a big step," said Silva, 32, who co-founded the nonprofit Dream Big Nevada to support undocumented youth.
Both Silva and Aleman are among almost 650,000 people who have DACA status as of December 2019, according to the Migration Policy Institute. The majority of them, like Silva and Aleman, came from Mexico.
They couldn't vote, but they mobilized
While they aren't eligible to vote, DACA recipients such as Aleman, Silva and Castro found ways to harness their political power ahead of the election.
“When Trump got elected, I told myself that I was going to be part of the campaign that took him down,” said Castro, who's also a longtime immigration activist. She later joined Democrats in Florida to help campaign for Biden.
In Nevada, Silva helped register new voters and planned events to get voters to show up at the polls.
“Because you cannot vote doesn't mean that you cannot volunteer. It doesn't mean that you can't be in politics," Aleman said. "Politics is not just voting, but rather what elected officials do when they're in office. That process is also about us.”
It's estimated that one-third of the nation's undocumented population of 11 million are Dreamers, but only a small fraction of them are protected under DACA, according to the National Immigration Forum, an immigration advocacy group.
"It’s difficult because when you don't have DACA, you can't get hired anywhere. You can contract and do other things, but you can't actually have a job,” said Rosa Vazquez, 22, an undocumented student from California who graduated from Harvard's government program in May.
Monica Sibri, 28, a Dreamer who doesn't have DACA and is a longtime immigration activist from New York, recently moved to Washington, D.C., to finish a master's degree, “because if I am to be deported, this is the only thing that's going to sustain me, wherever I go — my education,” she said.
In her view, Biden's win is “a result of the direct work and sacrifices of communities who lived terrorized for four years," said Sibri, who's Ecuadorian. “But at the same time, we're not naive to the idea that his administration comes from the times of having a 'deporter in chief,'" referring to the criticism President Barack Obama faced when noncitizen removals increased significantly under his administration. Biden was the vice president at the time.
"We're not going to forget, and we're going to take it to the streets again if we have to,” Sibri said. “We need to create legislation because we cannot be relying on executive orders anymore. We need to make sure that this is something that goes through a Congress, that's protecting our communities and our families long term.”
Vazquez agrees. She feels confident that "the immigration movement has grown immensely" since 2010 when the Dream Act — which would have provided current, former and future undocumented high school graduates and GED recipients a pathway to U.S. citizenship — fell just five votes short of passage in the Senate.
"We have better tools now to push an administration to actually enact something that's even larger than the Dream Act that really brings citizenship for everyone,” said Vazquez, who was born in Mexico.
While Biden may be able to fulfill some of his promises with executive orders, such as reinstating DACA, "he still needs Congress on his side to pass additional immigration reform," Aleman said.
While Democrats kept control of the House, a Senate runoff in Georgia on Jan. 5 may determine if Republicans retain control the Senate; the other Senate race is too close to call, according to NBC News, but could also go to a runoff. Aleman said she already enlisted as a campaign volunteer in Georgia to help Democrats win, understanding that a Democratic Congress will be more likely to help Biden fulfill his campaign promises.
"A lot of immigrants, we've been on the defense for so long," Castro said. "We were practically under attack for the past four years. Now is the first time that we can move forward and have a seat at the table.”
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