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Yamileth Carachure Flores was in their bedroom getting ready for school the morning of September 5, 2017, when their mother came in, cell phone in hand. Flores’s mother was anxious. She had watched then–Attorney General Jeff Sessions speak at a press conference, live streamed to Facebook, and the tone was worrying.
But Flores’s mother doesn’t speak English fluently and needed Flores to confirm what she suspected. Flores (who uses they/them pronouns) came to the U.S. in the late ‘90s with their family from a small town in the state of Guerrera, Mexico.
The Trump administration was set that day to announce an important decision about the immigration status known as DACA: Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. Flores is a DACA recipient: that is, an immigrant who came to the U.S. as a child and then met other requirements, giving her legal status to study and work in the U.S. If the administration rescinded the program, Flores’s life would be upended.
Together, they sat on the bed while Flores’s mother held up her smartphone, replaying the press conference. Flores recalls the dread they felt as Sessions spoke: “Good morning. I am here today to announce that the program known as DACA that was effectuated under the Obama Administration is being rescinded.”
“I felt like I couldn’t breathe,” Flores said
Flores and their mother cried together. “It broke my spirits,” Flores said, “And I’m like, ‘Well, I can’t do anything. I have to go to work.’”
They rushed to the community college where they worked as a student ambassador. After their shift, Flores called in to their next two classes, “I was scared shitless,” Flores said.
Several months after the press conference, a federal court overturned the Trump administration’s recission, citing a technicality. DACA survived–but in the years that followed, President Trump chipped away at DACA, threatening recipients’ ability to work legally, keep their driver’s licenses, and even stay in the U.S.—the only country many have ever known.
In Minnesota, there are an estimated 5,350 DACA recipients, according to the center-left think tank the Center for American Progress. Experts are unsure of even the short-term future of the program, while recipients waver between frustration at the program’s meager ambitions and gratitude for the security it provides.
President-elect Joe Biden has promised to fully restore the DACA program, but the future appears clouded with doubts. There are six weeks left in one of the most chaotic American presidencies in history: Another executive action in that window could further degrade the program. Meanwhile, control of the senate will come down to two runoffs in Georgia. If the Democrats win control of the Senate, new legislation that provides a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants could render DACA obsolete.
Makenzie Heinrichs is an immigration attorney and a fellow with the nonprofit Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota, where she teaches education professionals how to support DACA recipients. She estimates that as many as 9,000 Minnesotans may be eligible to apply if the policy were restored.
“Realistically, I think DACA will be reinstituted as it was in 2012, but beyond that, it’s hard to say what will happen,” Heinrichs said.
How did we end up with DACA in the first place?
The Obama administration enacted the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program in 2012, after congress failed to pass the DREAM act. That legislation would have provided a path to citizenship for the same population targeted by DACA; it’s the reason recipients are sometimes called “Dreamers.” At the time, congress was debating a comprehensive immigration reform that would have largely supplanted DACA. But this failed to pass in 2013.
While the media often talk about Dreamers, the public conversation often misses how limited the immigration program has been. To qualify for DACA, an undocumented immigrant must have come to the U.S. before turning 16, must have been younger than 31 when the program began, and must be enrolled in high school or a GED program (or have already completed high school). Only about 15 percent of the 11.2 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. were potentially eligible to apply in 2012, according to studies from Pew Research and the Migration Policy Institute.
Many young adults didn’t qualify: More than a quarter of potential applicants were younger than 16, the minimum age to apply, and about another 20 percent didn’t yet meet the education requirements.
Donald Trump promised during his 2016 presidential campaign to end DACA, repeatedly (and dishonestly) calling it unconstitutional. And while the Sessions order didn’t stand up to narrow court challenges, the program absorbed other hits.
In 2020, the Department of Homeland Security (which oversees the program) stopped accepting new applications, halted all international travel by recipients, and began requiring reapplications every year rather than every two. This doubled the financial and clerical burden on recipients. The administration has also taken steps to deport some applicants.
“I think there’s a lot of fear and uncertainty because there have been so many changes. People who do have DACA feel that this rug could be pulled out from them at any time,” Heinrichs said.
Heinrichs added that much of this uncertainty comes from the program’s origins as a temporary measure. That plan had been for Congress to pass comprehensive immgration reform, “and we know that didn’t happen,” she said.
Representative Ilhan Omar supports DACA. In an email to Sahan Journal, she said, “In Minnesota, over 5,000 Dreamers came to our country as children and have known no other home, only to have the Trump Administration treat them as criminals. I’m grateful the incoming Biden–Harris Administration has stated their support for a pathway to citizenship to protect Dreamers.”
But Ilhan–like other progressives–sees DACA as an incomplete solution. “It’s time for us to give all undocumented people a pathway to citizenship and to welcome immigrants to our shores with open arms, just as I was welcomed here as young refugee,” Ilhan said.
On the issue of DACA and immigration reform, the rest of Minnesota’s congressional delegation falls along party lines. In addition to Ilhan, DFL representatives Betty McCollum, Dean Phillips, and Angie Craig support a path to citizenship for DACA recipients; so do DFL senators Tina Smith and Amy Klobuchar.
The state’s GOP representatives hew closely to the national party’s stance on immigration. Newly elected congresswoman Michelle Fischbach has called for any immigration reform to prioritize “border security and law enforcement.” Representative Jim Hagedorn has repeated President Trump’s false claim that DACA is unconstitutional. In 2019, Representatives Tom Emmer and Pete Stauber joined Hagedorn in voting against amnesty for DACA recipients.
As someone whose future and livelihood depends on DACA, Flores is hopeful that under President Biden, activists “can push more, and hold these politicians accountable to have a better and more progressive immgiration reform act or bill.”
Flores added, “We’re not settling for breadcrumbs. Because, essentially, that’s what DACA is at the end of the day—breadcrumbs that only a small slice of 11 million people were able to get.”
New applications for the program could begin as early as January, 2020. If you or someone you know think you may be eligible to apply, Heinrichs said it is important to consult an immigration attorney.
“When you apply for DACA you are putting yourself in a government system with your name and some of your information, and coming to the attention of DHS is always a risk,” she said.
‘I’m more than happy with what I have, if I knew it wouldn’t be taken away’
José is a 25-year-old DACA recipient who has worked with the Immigrant Law Center. He asked that Sahan Journal not use his full name, out of fear that his status may make him a target for discrimination or even violence. “My protection is solely based on the DACA program. If that wasn’t a thing at some point, I would be pretty exposed,” he said.
In 1999, at the age of 3, José came to the US with his parents from Estado de México, an area to the east of Mexico City. Until high school, José didn’t think much about his lack of legal status. When friends started to get their driver’s licences, he said, “I began to see the implications of what it meant to be undocumented.”
That meant no license, not being able to legally work, and no financial aid for college—not even loans.
He took the ACT his junior year and got an OK score (“not great, but decent,” he said). He could have applied to universities, but couldn’t afford to go. Despite having lived in Minnesota for more than a decade, he would have been considered an international student, doubling the cost of his education. With no financial aid available, and no way to legally work, it wasn’t an option.
“It was hard for a 17-year-old kid to internalize. While my friends were talking about going to schools, I had to step back and think about what my options were,” he said.
The Obama administration instituted DACA during José’s senior year in high school, too late for him to go to university right away. But it allowed him to get a work permit, “to propel myself,” he said. He went to a technical school for a year and worked as an auto mechanic for a time before going back to higher education. Today, he’s a financial analyst.
The changes to the program under the Trump administration didn’t directly affect José. He applied during the Obama administration, and renewed before the two-year renewal period was shortened. Still, the assault on the program eroded his optimism.
“I need to be a realist. There is no financial incentive for the government to give people like myself more than we have,” he said. He plans to work while he can and save in case he can’t in the future. “I’m more than happy with what I have, if I knew it wouldn’t be taken away.”
Unlike José, Flores found their experiences as an undocumented immigant and DACA reipient made them embrace politics. “When it was announced that DACA was going to end, it was more heat to the fire,” Flores said, “I wanted to do more. Not just work and save up money in case something were to happen.”
Today, Flores is an organizer with Unidos MN, a social-justice nonprofit that focuses on immigration, education, and environmental justice.
Flores is grateful for the security and opportunities afforded by DACA, but frustrated that it is the best the government has been able to do for undocumented immigrants. “Something about DACA, it kind of illustrates the narrative of the ‘good immigrant,’” Flores said.
“I had to be worthy, I had to provide something economically good for this country, because that was what was argued in the Supreme Court and that is how they defended us.”
The very terms of that arrangement feel dehumanizing. In protecting immigrants from deportation, DACA includes “nothing about just us as people. It is always going to be a constant battle of proving that we deserve to be here. We just deserve to exist.”
José echoed this sentiment. “People always ask ‘Why didn’t you do it the right way?’ Like, my parents have been trying to do it the right way for 21 years,” he said.
“Do I think there will be something permanent, something more than what I have?” José said. “I don’t know. These are changes that need to happen from people who don’t care about who I am or about people like me.”