Growing Up in the Shadow of DACA
By Isvett Verde
Think back on the big triumphs of being a teenager: the possibilities presented by a first paycheck; the blend of fear and freedom the first time you drove alone after getting your driver’s license. Upon graduating from high school, scholarship or financial aid made the dream of education possible, opening the door to a far more expansive world along the way.
These milestones, which so many of us take for granted, were long out of reach for the young undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children, better known as Dreamers. That is until Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, was created by the Obama administration in 2012.
While it did not provide a pathway to citizenship, DACA enabled tens of thousands of Dreamers to get driver’s licenses, get health care and live their lives, while Congress worked out a legislative solution.
It also allowed them the opportunity to apply for in-state tuition and get jobs that made use of their skills and abilities. It gave some the confidence to use their voice to fight for other people in the undocumented community. Others started businesses, served in our military and more.
It has even been credited with improving the mental health of beneficiaries, which is not surprising. Lost in the conversation around who should and shouldn’t have the right to stay in the United States is the toll living with perpetual uncertainty exacts on a life — and the ripple effects it has on families.
In the meantime, a generation of young people grew up, got married, bought houses, started families and are now well into their careers. Still, without a pathway to citizenship, they tentatively plan for a future that remains uncertain.
The thing is, the United States needs these young people. A recent survey found DACA recipient households pay roughly $6 billion in federal taxes and just over $3 billion in state and local taxes each year. Like other immigrants, they make vital contributions to our economy and communities.
As we reflect on 10 years of DACA, it’s a good time to listen to what the Dreamers have to tell us — their stories and hopes for the future, and what makes them American.
Erika Andiola, age 34
Erika Andiola, a leader for over 10 years in the migrant rights movement in Tempe, Ariz. “Things look hard at the moment, but we must remember that it takes persistence to push people in power to action,” she said.
The Deferred Action Action for Childhood Arrivals program was fought and won by undocumented young leaders like me. I began organizing with the Dreamers movement while still in college and in 2010 co-founded the Arizona Dream Act Coalition, led by undocumented youth.
I graduated with a degree in psychology in 2009, but I wasn’t able to get a job because I didn’t have legal status. DACA changed that. I received my work authorization card in 2012 and went on to get a job as the outreach director for then-Representative Kyrsten Sinema.
Being able to work meant that I could help my family financially. In time, I even bought my mother a house — something I had dreamed of doing since coming to this country as an 11-year-old child. Being protected from deportation also gave me the confidence to be more outspoken and advocate for my mother and millions of others across the country.
But the feeling of safety and certainty I first felt upon getting legal status was short-lived. Those of us who were lucky enough to receive DACA before the Trump administration sought to end it were afraid we had to go back to living completely undocumented and most likely lose our jobs. I also fear the government could use the information it collected from us to target us for deportation.
I have good reason for feeling that way. In 2013, the same day I started my job in Congress, men who identified themselves as the police came to the door of our house. They were really looking for my mom, they said. But my brother, who was also undocumented, was outside fixing his car, and they told me that if I didn’t open the door, they’d take him away.
In the end, the men, who were actually ICE agents, arrested both my brother and my mother. Because of my work in the movement, I knew how to run a deportation defense campaign. I texted Representative Sinema right away to let her know what happened and also reached out to other members of Congress, attorneys and local immigrant rights organizations.
Within hours I was able to rally enough support to get my mom pulled off a bus destined for Mexico. She was dropped off at the local ICE detention center in Phoenix, where my brother was being held, at 9 a.m. the following day. My brother told me that ICE agents had pictures of me and printouts of articles written about me, which led me to think that maybe my family was targeted because of the work I was doing. They were eventually released, and my mom is still fighting her deportation order. The thought that something like this could happen again gives me nightmares.
I think it is important to celebrate a program that was won by young undocumented people and to show young people growing up now the value of organizing. But I also feel very disappointed and frustrated because we thought that eventually something like the Dream Act and broader protection for people like my mother would pass.
Yet, I remain hopeful. A lot of us in the Dreamer movement didn’t know what we were doing when we started organizing. In my school and others across the country, hundreds of young immigrants came out of the shadows. Fear didn’t lead us anywhere; courage and the willingness to share our stories with one another and eventually with the media helped us build a movement that delivered change. Things look hard at the moment, but we must remember that it takes persistence to push people in power to action.
Juan Carlos Cerda, age 29
Juan Carlos Cerda, an organizer in Texas, fears that if the DACA program is ended, he will be forced to go back into the shadows. “As a Catholic, I have faith in God that one day we will be citizens,” he said. “I will not give up on this hope.”
I was helping my dad, an electrician, wire a house the day President Barack Obama announced that undocumented people like me could request temporary relief from deportation proceedings and apply for work authorization. It was my uncle who called us and broke the news.
The process of applying was scary, because it meant that I’d have to come out of the shadows. But for the first time in my life I also felt hopeful. So, I took a leap of faith. I applied in September 2012, and my application was approved a month later. When I learned that I had been granted a document that permitted me to work legally, it felt like a dream. The first thing I did was look for jobs on campus.
I was hired for the university’s Information Technology Services Help Desk, doing tech support. The starting wage was about $15 an hour, compared with the $9 an hour I made as an electrician. This boost helped me pay my way through college. I eventually graduated with a degree in history and went to work teaching kindergarten.
I’m still a DACA recipient, as is my wife. I have spoken to a lawyer about my situation and he said that my brother can sponsor me for a green card, but it could take between 10 and 20 years because siblings don’t get priority. A lot can happen in that time.
I love to travel, but going to places like Laredo or El Paso can be tricky. When I go through border patrol checkpoints, the exchange is always tense and often feels confrontational. Sometimes they even claim to not know what DACA is. It’s frustrating and it makes me feel like I’m not accepted in the country I grew up in.
It’s also hard to watch elections come and go every two to four years, knowing that I can’t vote. I feel so powerless and it’s jarring when you consider that this country was founded on the ideals of equality and freedom. But I’m not completely free, nor am I legally considered equal to those around me.
I recently applied to renew my DACA five months before my work permit was set to expire. But because of a computer glitch, several thousand applications, including mine, were delayed by six months. That meant I had to resign from my teaching job until my permit got sorted out.
I worry about that happening again. I also worry that if the Supreme Court declares the program unconstitutional, I’ll have to work in the shadows, without health care, or that I’ll be deported. It’s hard to think about but it’s the reality.
The future is not looking that great. I fear that I not only will lose DACA but also that the students I mentor will not be able to get permanent protections. But as a Catholic, I have faith in God that one day we will be citizens. I will not give up on this hope.
Esder Chong, age 24
The DACA program gives Esder Chong of New Jersey some sense of security, but only in the short term. “What we all really want is a guarantee that we can stay in the country and live a good life,” she said.
I was granted deferred action when I was 15 years old. Because of it, I was able to apply for scholarships, pursue a bachelor’s and two master’s degrees and apply to internships. While in college, I was able to pursue professional opportunities at the National Immigration Law Center, George Washington Law School and Gov. Phil Murphy’s Office of Federal Relations. I am currently a project consultant at Boldly Go Philanthropy, a start-up consulting group. I recently graduated from the Harvard Graduate School of Education and previously completed my first master’s at Tsinghua University as a Schwarzman scholar. I could not have come this far without DACA.
DACA gives some sense of security, but only in the short term. Every two years I have to reapply and go through the process all over again. In the past five years, the program has been under the threat of rescission, further highlighting how fragile the security it actually provides is. It’s also conflicting to know family and friends who are also undocumented and don’t benefit from the same protections. It’s difficult to watch those dynamics play out in my own social circle.
To me this anniversary is not one that calls for celebration. When I think of the millions of undocumented immigrants in this country who are aging and in increasingly urgent need of support or access to health care, it’s hard for me to be celebrating a program that was intended to be exclusive from its inception. If and when DACA is rescinded, we need a plan for the undocumented community at large. Congress has no plan. Immigrant rights organizations are not in agreement on what the plan should be.
It’s hard to know for sure, but estimates put the number of undocumented people in the country at around 11 million. Of that number, roughly 590,070 people are DACA recipients. As we reflect on this anniversary, I want to encourage us to turn our attention to the people who are not protected by DACA. This includes the old and young among us.
The idealistic castle-in-the-clouds hope is a “citizenship for all” solution. This has been the go-to strategy and messaging for more than 20 years and it hasn’t worked. Instead, DACA somehow became the solution. What we all really want is a guarantee that we can stay in the country and live a good life, one that includes access to health care, education, employment opportunities and a driver’s license, and the ability to travel to see our family abroad. This could be achieved through citizenship for all, but it doesn’t have to be.
A realistic alternative legislative solution like lawful permanent resident status would grant the right to work and to live in the country without the fear and stress that comes with waiting for Congress to pass a citizenship-granting solution.
It’s time to think outside the box and rally around the actual wants and needs of the broader community. As a DACA recipient who calls New Jersey home and a daughter of undocumented parents, I urge legislators and immigrant rights leaders and organizations and allies and friends to seriously consider a push for federal legislation that provides a pathway to residency — a legal status for all. This isn’t the sexiest message, but it’s a measure worth considering to move our community forward.
José Alonso Muñoz, age 31
José Alonso Muñoz of Minneapolis for a long time felt deeply ashamed of being an immigrant. “These days, I’m working to meld the memories I made in Mexico last year into the parts of me that still feel stigmatized and ashamed,” he said.
I come from a mixed-status family: My five siblings are citizens, while my parents are residents. When I was growing up, no one outside of my immediate family and a handful of close friends knew I was undocumented. Few also know how incredibly expensive it is to navigate our immigration system, and how few options exist for undocumented people to adjust their status.
Being undocumented colored nearly every aspect of my life growing up in tangible ways. I was denied in-state tuition when I graduated and struggled to navigate college with limited resources and access to financial aid. I couldn’t get a driver’s license or apply for jobs. But it also affected me in ways that aren’t so easily quantified, like the feeling of not belonging, being out of place. I was terrified of leaving the house and having any interaction with the police or immigration enforcement.
The feeling of not belonging was especially hard as a queer kid. I tried as hard as I could to fit in, but that wasn’t always easy. My earliest memories are of my dad driving me to school in his blue Ford F-150, which had a Mexican flag perforated decal taking up the entire rear window. He always wore a cowboy hat, regardless of how cold the winters were in Minnesota. To me it was like he was sounding the alarm about my status.
It’s no surprise that I felt deeply ashamed of being an immigrant. Of being Mexican. The reality for the entirety of my life was that Mexico was a place I would be sent to, a punishment that came with being separated from my family, my loved ones, my home. It instilled a stigma about being Mexican that I wasn’t able to shake until last year, when I was granted advance parole, which allowed me to travel outside of the United States for the first time.
With my travel permit in hand, and a lot of anxiety about returning to a place I hadn’t been to since I was a baby, I boarded a flight to Mexico in November. My trip coincided with my dad’s annual trip to see family. I met up with him in Poncitlán, Jalisco, about 40 minutes outside of Guadalajara, where he grew up and where I lived for the first few months of my life.
He showed me the school he attended until he had to drop out to help on the family ranch. I got to know aunts, uncles and cousins I’d never met before and spent time with my grandparents. As the days passed, I started to see Mexico more through his eyes. It was a surreal experience.
When I applied for DACA a decade ago, I felt so isolated and scared. I am still unable to plan for my future. But these days, I’m working to meld the memories I made in Mexico last year into the parts of me that still feel stigmatized and ashamed. I am filled with pride when I think of how at the age of 17 my dad made the scary and difficult decision to leave his home in search of a better life.
But most of all I have learned to step into my own voice and power. I am not just fighting for myself, but also for other young people who feel like I did. That is what drives me to continue to organize for the dignity of all immigrants.
Gaby Pacheco, age 37
Gaby Pacheco marched from Miami to Washington as part of the Trail of Dreams in 2010. For her, the fight is no longer only about access to education but also about being able to provide for her family, get critical health care and fully participate in this shared country.
If I close my eyes, I can still hear the birds chirping in the White House Rose Garden the day President Barack Obama announced the program that would change my life and hundreds of thousands of others. I felt like one of those happy birds, freed from the golden cage in which I lived.
The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program has been one of the most successful immigration programs in the history of the United States. It has offered a glimpse of what citizenship and full participation in American life would mean for undocumented immigrants.
More than 90 percent of recipients are employed, including more than 340,000 workers deemed essential, including nurses, educators and those who kept food on our tables during the pandemic. These DACA employees’ lack of U.S. citizenship didn’t stop them from rising to the occasion to support the nation they have long called home.
Yet these statistics pale in comparison with the individual stories of dreams big and small fulfilled thanks to DACA. The smiling family on a grassy quad celebrating a college graduation. The nervous first-day-of-work selfie before starting a dream job. Advance parole allowed Dreamers to see their grandparents overseas without worrying that they would be barred from re-entering the United States.
Before DACA, many Dreamers weren’t able to fulfill the milestones that Americans take for granted. For us, that “adulting” part took a lot longer. For example, when I turned 16 years old I completed a driver’s ed course, but I wasn’t able to get a license. I also wasn’t able to get a summer job like the rest of my friends.
When we talk about immigration, we often say that undocumented people live in the shadows. DACA had the effect of turning the light switch on. As soon as the program opened doors for us, we hit the ground running. Work authorization allowed me to help start TheDream.US scholarship program, which has provided more than 8,750 college scholarships to Dreamers. I was able to purchase my first home, start a retirement plan and get a driver’s license. Eventually, through a marriage petition, I was able to obtain a green card.
I was part of the negotiations with the White House that led to the formulation of DACA and part of the group working to ensure that its implementation went smoothly. There was a true sense of freedom being able to gain access to what many young Americans take for granted and a sense of accomplishment in seeing so many DACA recipients succeed by any measure.
But not all has been rosy for DACA recipients, then or now. Remember, the program itself was a victory won through the fierce advocacy of Dreamers. On Jan. 1, 2010, I was among the people who marched from Miami to Washington as part of the “Trail of Dreams,” asking President Obama to stop deportations and offer deferred action, while Congress worked on passing the Dream Act. Yet despite support from 55 senators and strong majorities of the American public, that legislation could not overcome a Senate filibuster in December 2010.
Even after the Supreme Court ruled in June 2020 against the Trump administration’s attempt to end DACA, the legal challenges to the program continue. A July 2021 ruling from a Texas federal judge again threw the program’s future into uncertainty.
In the process, the legal challenges and ups and downs remind us that for all of its successes, DACA does not provide the certainty that its recipients or America need. Despite the popular conception of “young” Dreamers, the reality is the average DACA recipient is now 26 years old, and many of those who fought for and won protections are in their 30s and 40s, and are still waiting for the passage of long-promised legislation. Many are heading households; 300,000 U.S.-born children have at least one parent with DACA.
The fight is no longer just about being able to get access to education, but also about being able to provide for your family, get critical health care and fully participate in our shared country. People have built homes and have strong roots here; we’re no longer children. The stakes are much higher now.
Most Dreamers are not experts on the nuances of DACA legal challenges and don’t read Beltway accounts of how the filibuster again stymies legislative progress. But they do remember the promises that elected officials have long made about delivering a permanent fix. And like me, many do recall that beautiful June day 10 years ago, when the promise of more fully participating in America was made an imperfect reality.
Jose Magaña-Salgado, age 35
Jose Magaña-Salgado has been fighting beside and on behalf of courageous undocumented and DACA youth over the past decade. “I am still at risk of losing everything if the initiative ends, which could in turn affect my family and the people I employ,” he said.
I was part of the inaugural class of DACA recipients in 2012. Before DACA I felt uncertain about what I’d do once I graduated from college. Being shielded from deportation and having the ability to apply for a work permit meant that there was a pathway for me.
In the years since, I graduated from law school. The physical and economic security of DACA provided a foundation that allowed me to start a small business that now employs over half a dozen United States citizens and to purchase multiple homes in the Washington, D.C., area. I have also been able to visit Mexico, which was very emotional for me. It helped me better understand myself and my family history.
As an intervenor in the continuing litigation in the Fifth Circuit regarding the continued existence of DACA, I have been on the front lines of fighting beside and on behalf of courageous undocumented and DACA youth over the past decade.
I still have DACA, so I am at risk of losing everything if the initiative ends, which could in turn affect my family and the people I employ. I think it’s important to emphasize that the benefits of the program go far beyond avoiding deportation. Losing access to protections like government-issued ID could make it harder to buy certain prescriptions at the pharmacy, to purchase health care, enter federal buildings or drive.
Undocumented immigrants like me were here before DACA and we will be here after DACA because this is our home, and no matter what, we will not give up that fight. The fact that DACA has been around for 10 years and that this administration is defending the program gives me hope. The fact that it still stands despite legal challenges is a testament to the power of grass-roots movements.
Isvett Verde is a staff editor in the Times Opinion section.