Jessica Grijalva

Young DACA Recipients Aren't Giving Up The Fight

'We can't go back to where we were,' they told MTV News

By Jessica Suriano

When 20-year-old Deyanira Garcia heard that the Trump administration planned to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program back in 2017, she cried in her community college’s library. Now that the question of DACA’s legality has reached the Supreme Court, her anxiety about her future as an undocumented student in the U.S. has only gotten worse.

Garcia’s life in Arizona is the only one she’s ever known — she was just one year old when her family came to the U.S. from Chihuahua, Mexico.

“It doesn't make sense to go back when your roots are already here,” the Mesa Community College biology student told MTV News.

Garcia is one of about 700,000 people protected from deportation under DACA, which was created in 2012 by the Obama administration and enabled undocumented immigrants who passed a background check and came to the U.S. before they were 16 years old to stay in the country, obtain a work permit, and pursue higher education and professional careers. Those with existing DACA status can apply for renewal every two years, but those hoping for first-time DACA status have not been permitted to apply since Trump announced his termination of the program in September 2017.

The Trump administration rescinded DACA in 2017 on the basis that it was illegal for the Obama administration to create it in the first place, but advocates for the program argue the Department of Homeland Security did not follow correct procedure to end the program. So, on Tuesday (November 12), the Supreme Court heard oral arguments regarding the legality of the DACA program. The case is a consolidation of three cases filed from California, New York and Washington, D.C., and will determine if the program so many people have come to rely on for their livelihoods can legally continue.

There are three possible outcomes of the Supreme Court’s decision. First, the Court could decide they do not have the power to weigh in on whether Trump’s decision to end the program was constitutional, thus rendering the Trump administration’s 2017 decision immediately effective. Second, the Court may decide they do have the power to review Trump’s decision, and they rule that the Trump administration did follow correct procedure when it rescinded DACA. The third potential outcome, which DACA advocates say is the only ideal option, is that the Court decides they can review the decision and the justices rule that the Trump administration rescinded the policy in an unlawful manner.

Allison Davenport, supervising attorney for the Immigrant Legal Resource Center, told MTV News the Supreme Court will not finalize its decision from the arguments on November 12 until its spring session, likely in June 2020. And while many activists are still hoping for what they call a “clean” DREAM Act, which would grant legal status to undocumented Americans who were brought to the country as children and went to school here, most view DACA as a necessary protection for hundreds of thousands of American residents until such an act is passed and signed into law.

But activists know that DACA has its limitations, and it’s not the end of the conversation. “[DACA is] not a perfect program,” Davenport said. “It's not permanent. It’s not as generous as we'd like it to be, but it does provide at least some stability for people. And to take that away is just pulling the rug out from under people. It's going to be really disruptive and harmful.”

Jose Patino, the education and advocacy director for the Arizona-based, youth-led community activism group for undocumented students Aliento, told MTV News that an ideal program would also provide undocumented students with a permanent pathway to citizenship. He believes that a law like the DREAM Act would accomplish this.

If the Court sides with the Trump administration that the DACA program was an overreach of Obama’s executive authority, it could not be reinstated in the future by a new president, meaning hundreds of thousands of people would no longer be protected from deportation. Both the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times reported that the majority of the conservative-leaning Court seemed unsupportive of the DACA program by the end of Tuesday’s arguments.

Chief Justice John Roberts implied the Trump administration was within its legal rights to call the DACA program illegal, according to the New York Times, and Justice Neil Gorsuch seemed doubtful that the Trump administration needed to defend its decision to end the program more than it already has. Other justices, including Justice Sonia Sotomayor, wanted more explanation for the termination of the program; even so, activists are worried that the conservative majority might side with the current administration and set a precedent that endangers undocumented Americans for years to come.

“I think it was devastating for everyone,” Esli Soto, an environmental engineering student at Arizona State University, told MTV News of the hearings. “I think it hurt because there was no sense of security anymore. Whatever kind of blanket we had been covering ourselves for a while with — now it was just going to be ripped away.”

Soto was two years old when her family immigrated to the U.S. from Los Mochis in Sinaloa, Mexico. The danger in her birthplace, a state that is home to the Sinaloa Cartel, was her family’s motivation to flee the area. “I've grown up here my whole life and it's really weird to think that whole system, that whole stability, can be uprooted at any moment,” the 21-year-old, who works with Garcia and Patino in Aliento, said.

For now, Davenport says the best opportunity for many Dreamers already in the DACA program is to file for renewal as soon as possible, so that their case is already in the pipeline before a decision is made next spring.

“A lot of DACA recipients, especially people who have renewed their case several times, are people who have studied — maybe they're pursuing graduate degrees or maybe they're in the workforce — and they may have children they're supporting,” she said. “Loss of this protection and losing a valid work permit is going to be completely devastating. You have this ability to work and provide for yourself and your family, and all of a sudden that goes away. It's going to be completely life-changing for not just DACA recipients, but their families and communities as well.”

Soto’s identity as an Arizonan, and as an American, is so engrained in her that she didn’t even know she was undocumented until she asked she asked her parents if she could start driving when she turned 16.

“What are my options?” she told MTV News, adding that she doesn’t think pathways to legal status are “feasible” for all immigrants; Davenport agreed, noting that it’s a “big myth” that every immigrant would be able to apply for citizenship. Even when an option does exist for someone to pursue legal status, the time and financial barriers often discourage them from doing so.

“I think the part that was really irritating was just that there was no sense of direction,” Soto added. “There was no saying, OK, this is what happens next. It was just, ‘we're done.’ I think there was a sense of frustration and just sadness all over for everybody who was impacted by that.”

It also doesn’t help that the president seems willfully determined to vilify people who must pass stringent guidelines in order to even qualify for DACA status. The morning of the Supreme Court arguments, Trump tweeted a smear against recipients, alleging that “Many of the people in DACA, no longer very young, are far from ‘angels.’ Some are very tough, hardened criminals.” To be eligible for the DACA program, hopeful recipients must prove they are currently in school, have completed high school or have a general education development (GED) certificate, or are an honorably discharged veteran. They also have to prove they have not been convicted of a felony, a significant misdemeanor, or three or more other misdemeanors, and do not pose a threat to national security or public safety.

“At the end of the day, we have to remember that we're people and that we're not just numbers,” Soto told MTV News.

Denis, who asked MTV News to only use her first name for protection purposes, doesn’t think the process to obtain legal status is an “accessible” one, either. In addition to wait times that can last for years, she said, “you have to be from a certain type of background,” and “you have to have a certain financial income to be able to have access to citizenship right from the start.” Under the Trump administration, the cost of becoming a citizen could increase to nearly $1,200. While immigrants are 15 percent more likely to work unusual hours than U.S.-born workers with similar jobs and comprise nearly 20 percent of the U.S. labor force, they make less money than U.S. citizens in 45 states. Without secondary education, access to higher-paying jobs in the U.S. dwindles for immigrants, and so does the ability to pay for pricey application fees or legal consultations.

Many undocumented people don’t know what their lives will look like by next summer, but if anything, the uncertainty has motivated activists to regroup with their communities and find new ways to share resources with one another. Aliento, which was formed in 2016, has organized several campaigns for the protections of undocumented youth in Arizona. The group holds art and healing workshops for those affected by deportations, detentions, and family separations, and trains activists in education and advocacy for local communities. Their current campaign, Arizona’s Future, fights for Arizona high school students to have economic access to college regardless of immigration status and was inspired by a 2017 Arizona Court of Appeals decision to stop granting in-state tuition rates to undocumented students pursuing higher education.

For her part, Denis helps educate high school students on their options for higher education through an Arizona State University student organization called Undocumented Students for Education Equity. The student group fosters a safe and respectful campus environment for DACA students and equips students with as many resources as possible to attend college and be able to stay there until graduation. It’s the kind of work she wants to do long-term, but a rescission of the DACA program would put Denis’s dreams of becoming a teacher and influencing policy for future generations in jeopardy. “That would be doing a disservice to my community because by investing in me, you're investing in my community,” she said.

Activists from across the country have marched for hundreds of miles — through rainstorms and neighborhoods filled with those who oppose DACA — to the Supreme Court before Tuesday’s oral arguments. Others have rallied in their hometowns. But many of the activists are intimately connected to the case — and they’re not immune to feeling the emotional, mental, and physical burdens that often accompany challenging powerful people and institutions.

“Personally, I feel like I try to be really put together,” Soto said. “I try not to be so reactive and responsive just for my own sanity’s sake, you know? But it's really hard. And sometimes you just can't help it — you just need to cry, or you just need to scream and yell and feel sad.”

Garcia has felt burnout before, but she still believes in the power of undocumented students getting involved in their local communities. She also never wants anyone to feel afraid to ask for help.

“I get my strength from the community,” Garcia told MTV News. “I know that there's hope.”

“DACA was a stepping stone toward something greater and we can't go back to where we were,” Denis told MTV News. “We have to move forward from this so that we can help our future communities.”