Students stand in a line in front of the US Supreme Court with signs that read "Home is here"

Immigration

A new generation of DACA youth depends on Biden for support

DACA was introduced in 2012 by the Obama administration to protect undocumented youth from deportation.

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Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) students gather in front of the Supreme Court in Washington, June 18, 2020. The vast majority do not support a border opening or an amnesty for the nearly 11 million immigrants living illegally in the United States, but they do support changes in immigration laws that have not been updated for decades.

Credit:

Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP

Karla Mercado was 11 years old in 2012 when she saw President Barack Obama on TV announce DACA — or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals.

DACA would give thousands of undocumented young people temporary protection from deportation and a work permit (renewable every two years).

Mercado, who’s 19 now and a college student in Virginia, is a newcomer to the program — or at least she hopes to be. She just applied for DACA this year and has been undocumented since she was 2 years old. That's when she came to the US with her parents from Bolivia.

Mercado is also part of a new generation of undocumented people who qualified for DACA during the Trump administration, which fought against the program. Now, they're relying on President Joe Biden to secure their status in the country. 

Related: How Mayorkas might shape US immigration policy during the Biden administration

As a young kid, she didn’t know what DACA would mean for her future, she said.  

“We didn't really pay too much attention because I wasn't eligible for it yet, so we just kind of kept waiting.”

“There was the concern that maybe applying for DACA would actually put me at greater risk.”

Karla Mercado, college stue

At first, Mercado held off from applying when she turned 15 in 2016. That was out of fear that the Trump administration would go after the immigrant community, she said.

“There was the concern that maybe applying for DACA would actually put me at greater risk.”

But, she waited too long to make up her mind. The Trump administration, claiming the program had been put in place unlawfully, tried ending DACA in 2017, just before she wanted to apply.

“After the program was rescinded, I thought to myself, maybe I should have taken the risk, maybe I should have put in my application. Where would I be now?”

Dylan Ruiz, a 19-year-old college student in Oklahoma, faced a similar fate. He said his application had already been submitted when the Trump administration’s announcement came. His application was not processed, and the $595 processing fee was not returned.

He remembers his family being devastated at the turn of events — even though he remained optimistic, he said.

“They [my parents] were like, 'We came to this country to give you a better life, and because of this, all of our hopes and dreams, it’s all gone downhill.'”

Related: Trump proposes harsh asylum rules disqualifying many applicants

Both teens remained undocumented and without legal protection through high school — without much to look forward to. They couldn’t get a driver’s license, a work permit or financial aid for college.

Undocumented across generations

José Muñoz, communication manager for United We Dream — a national group led by immigrant youth — says he can relate. He belongs to an older generation of DACA recipients, part of the first group who applied for it under the Obama administration. He was in his 20s at the time. 

"It wasn't until I was able to apply for DACA that I was able to get some more financial aid, apply for a job that paid for some of my schooling, which was really a game changer.”

José Muñoz, national communication’s manager for United We Dream

“And it wasn't until I was able to apply for DACA that I was able to get some more financial aid, apply for a job that paid for some of my schooling, which was really a game-changer,” Muñoz said.

Muñoz said that while the newest DACA generation has many things in common with his, he also sees how things have changed over the years. Today, he says, there’s more awareness about what it means to be undocumented.

“In some ways, it's easier for people to find community and to find the resources that they need to be able to navigate life as an undocumented person, even anything as simple as resources for college.”

But not everything is equal. Muñoz said that among this new generation, there are also young undocumented people who never qualified for DACA — and still don’t. For example, people like Alejandra, a 21-year-old college student in Texas who prefers not to use her last name because of her legal status.

Alejandra arrived in the US as a toddler. At 12, she briefly went back to Mexico to see her grandmother who was ill, and then came back to the US. But to qualify for DACA, a recipient needs to be in the US without any interruptions.

Related: SCOTUS ruled in favor of DACA. A permanent solution is still needed, advocates say

Sometimes, she said, she feels left out of the policy conversations that only focus on DACA recipients and not on people like her, who have no protection from deportation or a chance to work legally. At the same time, she has had to find ways to navigate high school and college as what she calls a “fully undocumented” person.

“There's just a monolithic view on the DACA recipients and the non-DACA recipients, [and] it just harms the community and policy.”

Alejandra is referring to the Biden administration’s support for the American Dream and Promise Act of 2021, which is meant to provide a pathway to citizenship for DACA recipients as well as for Temporary Protected Status and Deferred Enforced Departure beneficiaries. That bill passed the House in March.  

The same proposal has been put up for a vote in previous years, but it has yet to garner enough support. There haven’t been any announcements on what the administration has planned for those without DACA or any other legal protections.

Uncertainty ahead

Both Mercado and Ruiz are waiting for their DACA decision to come in the mail. After several years of waiting, a US Supreme Court decision last year blocked Donald Trump’s rescinding of DACA, and people can now apply to the program again.

Related: Why is Arizona trending blue? Ask Latinos and immigrants who live there.

Mercado said it’s a tough wait — one filled with excitement, but also anxiety.

“Sometimes, I think about it and feel like years have passed and it's been forever. Why are they taking so long? And then other times, I'll really stop and be like, OK, it's only been a couple of months, you know, they're still doing their thing.” 

There’s still uncertainty, though. The Biden administration says it supports DACA, and officials have said they want to enforce it, but the program still has its enemies.

Texas and eight other states filed a lawsuit in 2018, arguing that the program violates the Constitution and that a president doesn’t have the power to create a program like it. That's overreach, they say. A decision is still pending — it's another legal battle that puts the program in jeopardy.

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