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11 Years After DACA: Hundreds of Thousands of Undocumented Youth Remain in Limbo

7 minute read

Erika Martinez was watching the news with her mother when she first heard that the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program was being rescinded.

“I just remember being frozen, like I’m standing in front of the TV in our living room and I guess I’m just numb to it,” the 23-year-old recalls. “I’m like, ‘Are they ending it today? Does that mean that they’re not even going to phase it out so that I can apply?’”

Martinez was eligible for DACA—an executive order program implemented under former President Barack Obama, exactly eleven years ago, that offered undocumented people work authorization and protection from deportation for two years at a time if they were brought to the U.S. as children—but she does not have DACA because the program has stopped accepting new applications.

For many, the program was life-changing. “DACA made it possible for people to live out the dreams that their parents had when they migrated, meaning suddenly they had access to white collar jobs like working in an office, and being able to use their education to lead them through these professional pathways that were inaccessible before,” says Leisy J. Abrego, Professor and Chair of Chicana/o and Central American Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles. But in its absence, hundreds of thousands of undocumented youth have been barred from these opportunities, according to bipartisan political organization FWD.us.

Read more: Not Legal Not Leaving

DACA was first rescinded in September 2017, under then President Donald Trump’s Administration, preventing first-time applications from being processed. After legal battles reached the Supreme Court in 2020, justices of the high court ruled that the Trump Administration did not pursue the proper channels to end the program. That allowed recipients who already had DACA the ability to renew their status, but did not open up the program to first-time applicants.

A December 2020 ruling by Judge Nicholas Garaufis reinstated the program, opening it up to initial applications, though that was overturned in July 2021 by U.S. District Judge Andrew Hanen.

To date, more than 835,000 people have benefited from DACA, which President Obama first referred to as a “temporary stopgap” that would offer some relief to “talented, driven, patriotic young people.” But the program has largely been inaccessible to many undocumented youth throughout the past few years because of its status in legal limbo and other barriers like the financial strain its $495 application fee imposes on applicants.

Read more: A Dreamer’s Life

“My mom spent a year saving up for my older sister’s DACA application, saving up not only for the fee to USCIS, but also for legal fees,” Martinez says. “My older sister was able to become a DACA recipient but then it just got really hard right once it became time for me to apply and then before I could even submit my application [for DACA] it was rescinded.”

Martinez, who now works as a youth organizer at Make the Road New Jersey, an immigration and workers rights organization, says that in the absence of DACA her college aspirations seemed like a far away dream.

“I remember being like, this is so dehumanizing because I’ve literally done everything else that my classmates have done, and I don’t have access to financial aid,” she tells TIME. Martinez sprung her frustrations into action, successfully advocating for a 2018 law that allowed undocumented students in New Jersey to receive state aid for college, which allowed her to graduate college.

But undocumented youth in other states have not been as fortunate.

“There is absolutely a difference in the experiences of those who were able to get DACA and can continue to renew up until now and those who were not able to get into it before it was put on pause for new applications,” says Abrego. “Those folks don’t have access to so many possibilities that make higher education accessible, right? They don’t have the opportunity to work on campus, which is huge for students who typically are working class if they’re undocumented… They have to work so hard to figure out how they’re even going to work. And all of that makes it almost impossible to be able to focus on your studies.”

That reigns true for Aurora Lozano, a 24-year-old Texas student who arrived in the U.S. when she was less than 1 years old. Lozano, who has dreams of earning her bachelor’s and master’s degree in psychology, had already been approved for DACA and completed her biometrics appointment—the final step before receiving her work authorization card—when the program was blocked from accepting new applicants.

Read more: We are Americans, revisited. The Dreamers, Five Years Later

“My future is just on hold right now,” says Lozano. “Thanks to a huge blessing, a scholarship I received for people like me, I’m able to go back [to school] this fall. But when it comes to applying for a job, no one’s really going to hire undocumented people. So I think when it comes to having a job, that’s kind of out of reach right now. It’s impossible.”

Immigration advocates have been engaged in a decades-long fight for a pathway to citizenship. They came the closest to doing so in 2010, when the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act—which would have offered a pathway to citizenship to undocumented people who came into the U.S. as children—fell five votes short of passage. (The bill was first introduced in 2001, and has since been re-introduced in Congress multiple times, including as recently as February 2023.)

For many, DACA has brought great relief, but it is still not a permanent fix, Juliana Macedo do Nascimento, Deputy Director of Federal Advocacy at United We Dream, a national immigrant youth-led organization, tells TIME. She argues that it does not adequately meet the needs of the growing population of undocumented youth who could benefit from such a program.

To qualify for DACA, recipients have to provide evidence that they have been in the U.S. since 2007. “A lot of the young people graduating now wouldn’t even be eligible because they’re too young. They wouldn’t have even been born, or they were toddlers, and it’s hard to prove presence when you’re a toddler.”

The program’s legality is still being questioned as a court hearing seeking to end DACA was most recently heard in Texas in early June, a case which Macedo do Nascimento expects to reach the Supreme Court.

In light of such instability, immigration advocates are asking for greater change.

“Let’s sweep all of this technical conversation about whether DACA is legal, and create the permanent solution,” says Martinez. “I implore [legislators to] please look beyond the DACA because we know that DACA is dying, right? If there’s ever a time for you to take bold action, for a pathway to citizenship, it’s now.”

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