Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) allows about 800,000 undocumented immigrants who arrive in the U.S. as children to receive identification as well as work and live without the immediate threat of deportation. DACA was issued by former President Barack Obama in 2012 after the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act did not pass in Congress. DACA was repeatedly targeted by former President Donald Trump’s attacks on immigration, despite DACA recipients having majority support of Americans, including many Republicans.
In September 2017, the Trump administration moved to terminate DACA, attempting to end both the opportunity for new applications and for current Dreamers – young undocumented immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children — to renew their statuses. Former President Trump’s campaign and presidency both promised to address undocumented immigrants, using xenophobic rhetoric to further fuel racism toward those crossing the U.S.-Mexico border seeking sanctuary.
On June 18, 2020, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the Trump administration’s termination of DACA, reinstating the process for new and renewed applications. While the Supreme Court made it clear that the administration held the power to terminate DACA again, it also pointed out the attempt was “done in an arbitrary and capricious manner” and any additional attempt would require stronger justification.
On President Joe Biden’s first day of office, he proposed an immigration bill that features a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants and makes Dreamers immediately eligible for green cards. The current reinstatement of DACA, especially with the new Democratic White House, brings relief to DACA hopefuls and renewals alike. Andy Roman, a Dreamer currently residing in Kansas, encourages everyone considering applying for DACA to take the leap.
“In the beginning it’s definitely overwhelming, but absolutely worth the work,” he reassures. “Maybe I’m being hopeful but going to a different administration now in White House, I feel like we are going to be treated a bit more equally, the process might ease up, and you might not be as overwhelmed or intimidated.”
Held Under a Microscope
Roman was initially introduced to DACA during the Obama administration. At the time, he faced several educational and professional plateaus as his status prevented him from applying for federal student loans or landing jobs outside restaurant service and bartending.
However, the process of proving one’s identity was exceptionally intimidating. “The steps you take to apply for DACA are, in my personal opinion, a jump through as many hoops as you can to make sure that you are who you say you are and you’ve been where you say you’ve been,” Roman says is the most “relaxed” way he can put it. “It was fairly complicated then,” referring to the process under Obama and that he “can’t imagine” what it must have been like under the anti-DACA Trump administration.
The application price for him at the time was $465, a fee he continues to pay every two years when he renews his Dreamer status (the fee has since raised to $495). He also had to submit documentation of essentially his entire life, from elementary school yearbook photos to current job paystubs, to prove he was here since the time he said he was. For Roman and others, the price and scrutiny are ultimately worth it as a documented status includes receiving a Social Security number and employment verification card.
Ashley Martinez, Ph.D., a licensed psychologist specializing in trauma and Latinx mental health/resiliency, says DACA also allows individuals to open a bank account, apply for a driver’s license, and much more. Like Roman, Dr. Martinez believes this reinstatement is invaluable, especially as she says the benefits were “all necessities for many in 2020.” As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to hit Latinx individuals disproportionately due to systemic social and health care barriers, there is an undeniable need for a secure income and the reassurance that they will not be deported while simply trying to survive.
Opportunities for Dreamers
Dr. Martinez, in her experience working with Dreamers between 18-25 years old, has heard many clients speak to “the drive to make their family happy because of their cultural values, familismo, and the desire to pay them back for the sacrifice.” This “protective and motivating” factor pushes Dreamers to use their documented status and newly earned benefits to pursue educational and professional goals which allow them to improve their communities and support their families.
Roman recalls friends being “doctors-in-waiting” who immediately pursued master’s and doctorate degrees after becoming documented. Others excelled in engineering while he worked both at a bank and then as a translator and interpreter at his father’s immigration attorneys’ office. “When this program came out it was kind of a saving grace. It’s a life changer.” Above all, he believes the peace of mind of a documented identity is the greatest payoff as it allows him to exist freely rather than try to “pass under the shadows.”
Before the DACA program existed, Roman lived in fear of being sent back to his home country due to his undocumented status, something he stresses was out of his control as he came to the U.S. as a child. The program gave him a “lifeline,” one which he recalls thanking Obama for on his last day in office.
“It allows you to have an identity, it allows you to have confidence in yourself. You feel like you are a person, not just a number or statistic. You are someone that is helpful to society. You can be looked at as yourself and be acknowledged and praised for being who you are, rather than having to hide.”
Paying the “Astronomical Price”
Both Roman and Dr. Martinez agree that while DACA provides life-changing opportunities that open doors for many, Dreamers also pay an “astronomical price” just to exist. A xenophobic stigma surrounds Dreamers suggesting that this status provides them with various unearned government handouts. However, Roman points out that not only does he have to pay the increasing renewal fee each year – something natural born citizens aren’t required to do – Dreamers also don’t qualify for any sort of government assistance including Social Security, a retirement fund, or the eligibility to apply for Obamacare.
Dr. Martinez mentions the “immense pressure” her clients carry when they undergo this overwhelming process to provide for their family and ultimately feel as though they failed. “These concerns are made worse when families are not able to apply for or receive benefits like health care, which requires individuals to work more as a way to support the family as needed. This balancing act, while also navigating an inherently racist system, can be exhausting and, at times, traumatizing.”
Roman also mentions how damaging stigmas toward Dreamers are, considering the contradictory nature of the claims that they’re opening the door for other illegal immigrants to come in. “We can’t even apply for health insurance yet we’re going to be the ones to help other immigrants? We can barely help ourselves on some fronts.” He stresses that Dreamers were also brought here as children by no power of their own. “We should not be persecuted for that; we should be helped for that.”
Those Considering DACA Should “Absolutely Do It”
According to Dr. Martinez, “Having DACA status can provide a sense of identity and a foundation of safety which can allow someone to finally feel a sense of relief.” While both she and Roman agree the process can be daunting at times, it is ultimately worth it. “Do it. If you are feeling intimidated, just power through it,” Roman says. “This program was put in place for you, for people like us.”
Roman suggests those considering DACA not only apply, but also ask an immigration attorneys’ office about the process as well as seek out current recipients to talk to for support and advice. Above all, ask questions until you have the information you need.
“There are so many people who would kill just for the opportunity to be here, not just the opportunity to be in that position but to be here and even have that chance to go for it. We were brought here with the best intentions to be raised as American people but didn’t have the access to documentation. This is that lifeline. Take advantage of it, use it, and don’t waste it.”