'Over the moon!': DACA recipients celebrate Supreme Court decision

“Just knowing that I can move forward with my life for the time being gave me the hope I haven’t felt in a very long time," said Kassandra Aleman.
Supreme Court Rules President Trump Can Not End The Deferred Action For Childhood Arrivals (DACA) Program
Greisa Martinez, who grew up as an undocumented immigrant in Dallas reads the Supreme Court's decision about the Trump administration's attempt to end DACA on June 18, 2020.Drew Angerer / Getty Images

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By Suzanne Gamboa and Nicole Acevedo

Kassandra Aleman, 26, just got the news she was waiting for — and now has the green light to apply to law school.

"I'm over the moon right now!" said Aleman, a deputy training director for the Texas Democratic Party and a DACA recipient. “Just knowing that I can move forward with my life for the time being gave me the hope I haven’t felt in a very long time.”

The Supreme Court ruled on Thursday that DACA, or the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals Program, could remain, stating that the Trump administration had failed to give an adequate justification for ending the Obama-era program that allowed teens and young adults brought to the U.S. as children — but who lack legal status — the chance to study and work without fear of deportation.

In front of the Supreme Court and in cities around the country, families and groups were absorbing the news and rejoicing after years of worry and mobilization.

Aleman is one of almost 650,000 people who have DACA status as of December 2019, according to the Migration Policy Institute. The majority of them, like Aleman, came from Mexico.

"I was able to get a bachelor’s degree — I wasn’t sure I would be able to afford it if I didn’t have in-state tuition,” she said. Aleman went on to work in Congress and had plans to apply to law school. But after President Donald Trump announced in 2017 that he was ending DACA and amid the subsequent court battles, she had put her plans on hold.

The impact of the decision is profound. Young people have moved into adulthood and young adults have created families, bought homes, built careers and erected infrastructures of activism and philanthropy in the eight years since DACA became reality.

For many, the permission to work and remain in the U.S. has been the closest that Dreamers, as these young people are called, could feel to being a full American, and it has been a lifeline for whole families.

Oscar Hernandez, 31, a DACA recipient since 2013.Thalia Nguyen

"DACA is inarguably one of the most successful policies of immigrant integration of the last three decades," says Harvard University professor Roberto Gonzales, who documented the lives of 1,500 DACA recipients in his book, "Lives in Limbo: Undocumented and Coming of Age in America."

"It has provided hundreds of thousands of young people the ability to work legally, obtain driver's licenses, establish credit," said Gonzales.

For example, he said, there are now 50,000 DACA beneficiaries in health-related fields and 20,000 teaching children in classrooms around the country.

"The recent DACA decision is a fantastic one," said Tony Choi, an activist and DACA recipient. "DACA has not only been a net positive in my own life, but in my community's as well."

Choi added that in most Asian American communities, "the rate of applications have always been lower than expected." There are 1.3 million young immigrants in the U.S. who qualify for the program, according to the MPI.

"I'm also incredibly excited that a younger generation of undocumented young people who were shut out of the program by the illegal termination of DACA in fall 2017 will now apply for DACA," said Choi.

'Just holding each other and crying'

Oscar Hernandez, 31, got DACA in 2013. He was able to get financial aid, earned a Master's in business and is the first DACA student to graduate from University of California, Irvine School of Medicine. This week, Hernandez started a residency in general surgery at Cleveland Clinic in Ohio.

"When I got DACA it sort of felt like a liberation," Hernandez said.

But the last few years were full of uncertainty over whether he could even stay in the country despite his medical degree.

On Thursday morning, Hernandez was at home in Cleveland with his girlfriend, refreshing over and over again the Supreme Court homepage, waiting for the decision to come down at 10 a.m. When he heard the news, he had one word to describe how he felt. "I'm ecstatic!" he told NBC News. "We were just holding each other and crying and hoping that something positive comes from this. ... I can go back to work, continue my training as a surgeon — at least for now, I can rest easy."

Ciriac Alvarez Valle, a DACA recipient, from Salt Lake City, Utah.Courtesy Ciriac Alvarez Valle

Ciriac Alvarez Valle, 25, of Salt Lake City, said she was not prepared for a positive decision. "I'm in shock and wish I would have had more faith than I did, like my mom did in God," she said.

A policy analyst for Voices for Utah Children, a child advocacy and policy nonprofit group, Valle's DACA expires in 2021, and she had been working on a renewal to ensure she could legally remain in the U.S. for a couple of years if the worst happened.

Having DACA, which led to her job, has been crucial in the coronavirus pandemic, since some of her family members have recently lost their jobs. She and her sister, who also has DACA, has been able to help out her family financially because she can work. "Now I hope new applications open," she said.

'We continue the fight'

The organization United We Dream has been one of the most visible and vocal national groups urging legislation to allow Dreamers to remain in the U.S. without fear of deportation.

Bruna B. Sollod, a spokeswoman for United We Dream, told NBC News that "today we celebrate, but tomorrow we pick up the fight," referring to the possibility that the Trump administration will come back with a different strategy or argument to end DACA.

Shortly after the decision, Trump tweeted about the "horrible and politically charged decisions," referring to the Supreme Court's DACA decision as well as the one defending LGBTQ employees' rights issued Wednesday.

"We need to make it impossible for this administration to deport us," Sollod said.

But at least for now, said Washington, D.C.-based radio producer Osman Ariel López-Barraza, 30, who came to the U.S. from Honduras when he was a young teen, the Supreme Court ruling "is such welcome news and such a relief."

"When I heard the decision this morning," said López-Barraza, "I jumped up and down and yelled yes, yes, yes!"

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Kimmy Yam and Patricia Guadalupe contributed.