IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

DACA recipients can’t keep living from one court case to another

With each legal challenge, the future of the program that has helped many realize a piece of the American Dream becomes more uncertain. Congress needs to do something.
Image: Students and supporters rally on the day the Supreme Court hears arguments in the DACA case on November 12, 2019 in Los Angeles.
Students and supporters rally on the day the Supreme Court hears arguments in the DACA case on November 12, 2019 in Los Angeles.Mario Tama / Getty Images file

On Wednesday, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals is scheduled to hear oral arguments on a case that could forever change the lives of hundreds of thousands of people. The question that hangs in the balance (once again) is what’s the fate of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, the Obama-era program that allowed undocumented young people to apply for protection from deportation and work permits. 

While DACA has long had an uncertain future, the program faced a devastating threat when the Trump administration attempted to rescind it in 2017. The Supreme Court ruled in 2020 to keep the program in place, but it suffered another blow in July 2021, when a U.S. district court judge ruled in Texas v. United States that DACA was unlawful yet allowed it to continue for current recipients.

After 10 years of living with uncertainty about the future of the program, the undocumented community deserves more.

And now we’ve landed at this moment.

After 10 years of living with uncertainty about the future of the program, the undocumented community deserves more. DACA recipients cannot continue living from court case to court case. 

The program has helped many kick-start lives that once seemed out of reach, providing much-needed relief to hundreds of thousands of families. My own story is a reflection of that.

On a cold January morning in 2013, I walked to my college dorm’s mailroom to pick up a credit card-sized piece of plastic that would change my life forever. My DACA petition had been approved, and I was holding my employment authorization card. At the time, I did not fully grasp what that card would mean to me, my family and hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants nationwide. 

Holding it, I felt some relief from the uncertainty and anxiety that had defined my life — even as a child.

By age 8, I knew the power elected officials held over my family’s future. The 2000 presidential election was the first time I pinned my hopes on a presidential campaign. I vividly remember following both parties’ campaigns, telling myself, “The next president is going to give me and my family papers.” That’s the level of political consciousness many undocumented children have. 

In 2001, when I was 9, I again had a new reason for hope. The first bipartisan iteration of the DREAM Act — federal legislation that would permanently protect certain immigrants who came to the United States as children — was introduced in the Senate. Since that bill failed, many versions of the act have been introduced. More than 20 years later, we are still waiting. 

That same year, I lost my grandfather to cancer in Mexico and witnessed my mother tailspin into a crippling, yearslong depression. As an undocumented immigrant, she could not go back to Mexico to see him on his deathbed because of her immigration status, which made it impossible to guarantee that she would be able to come back to the U.S. She was forced to make an impossible decision: to not mourn her father alongside the rest of her family in order to avoid being permanently separated from her own children. That was just one of my parents’ painful decisions over the years.

Indeed, our everyday lives were shaped by fear. We did not leave the house after dark on weekends or visit family on holidays because even a routine traffic stop could lead to my family’s separation. From 1994 to 2013, undocumented people in California were denied driver’s licenses. Being stopped at a sobriety checkpoint without a license — while sober— could, at best, result in an unaffordable impounding of our family car and, at worst, lead to deportation proceedings.   

By the time I reached high school, the fear, shame and anxiety were ever-present. I was so afraid of my immigration status being discovered that once it was time to apply to college in 2009, I avoided seeking help. I navigated higher education’s complex processes and systems without the assistance of any mentors, teachers or guidance counselors.  

Then, during my first semester of college, immigration reform once again seemed possible. On Dec. 8, 2010, the House passed the DREAM Act for the first time, nearly 10 years after it was first introduced. The bill quickly moved to the Senate. I allowed myself to once again feel hope that it could pass. I needed that hope. Without it, what was the point of struggling through college? Why go through so many sleepless nights studying in what my friends called “The Struggle Booth”? Without work authorization, my college degree would be nothing more than wall decor.   

Within two weeks, the heartbreaking news came in. The bill was dead, coming five votes short of the 60 required to move forward.  

During some really challenging years, my work has been a bright spot. DACA has completely changed my life.

It was a huge turning point in my life. After years of being in the shadows and avoiding any situations that could potentially reveal my undocumented status, I decided to take a brave step. When a good friend asked me to help launch a student immigrant rights group, I said yes despite my overwhelming fear. I had to exercise my agency. Through my community work, I slowly began sharing my story and advocating for myself and others like me, eventually leading public campaigns to halt the deportations of community members.

Then, on June 15, 2012, I got a text message from my friend urging me to turn on the news. I sat in disbelief as the Obama administration announced a new immigration policy — DACA. 

Suddenly, I had access to temporary protection from deportation and work authorization. I was able to accept internships, get a driver’s license and access countless other opportunities many citizens take for granted. The relief was immeasurable.  

At the same time, it was clear to me that there was much work to be done to protect undocumented communities as millions of people were ineligible for the program. After graduating in 2014, I joined Teach For America (TFA) as one of their first DACAmented teaching corps members. I wanted to help build a world where students could feel safe and supported regardless of their immigration status. DACA allowed me to be a middle school math teacher in Los Angeles, impacting the lives of nearly 500 students, many of whom were undocumented. Sharing my journey with my students helped them feel safer — and more hopeful. I now oversee TFA’s DACA Initiative, supporting more than 300 DACA recipient corps members and alumni across the country.  

During some really challenging years, my work has been a bright spot. DACA has completely changed my life. 

It has been 10 years since the launch of the program. It has served its purpose by bringing people out of the shadows and giving them the opportunity to pursue a small piece of the American Dream. But every two years — how often recipients have to apply to renew their DACA — and with every court case that challenges the legitimacy of the program, that dream becomes less certain. Only Congress can provide permanent protections for undocumented communities via a pathway to citizenship — a measure supported by most Americans.   

After 28 years of living in the United States, I was recently able to adjust my status through marriage, and I am no longer a DACA recipient. It’s not lost on me what a privilege this is. I am fully aware of how many people should be able to adjust their status but haven’t been able to. Being on the other side of it now, I also know that living from one court case to another is taxing for those who aren’t directly impacted but love someone who is. My sister, who is still a DACA recipient, the recipients I support in my work and my former students who are ineligible for DACA all deserve the same sense of stability I now enjoy. They deserve a pathway to citizenship. Congress has the power to make that a reality. There is bipartisan support. The American people agree. We cannot wait anymore.