When her dad returned home from working in the United States, his 18-month-old daughter Ana Laura Gonzalez didn’t recognize him. Eleuterio Gonzalez had been gone for six months. He wanted a better life for his family, but he didn’t ever want to leave them again. Her family moved from San Luis Potosí, Mexico, to the United States on visitor visas when Ana Laura was 3. But they overstayed.
“So at that point we became undocumented,” said Ana Laura. She didn’t realize what that meant for her and her future until she was in high school and began to apply for college and financial aid. Though she scraped together enough local scholarships to attend Texas State University, she hit another wall when she tried to apply for nursing school. The front page of the application asked for her social security number. Ana Laura didn’t have one.
That was in 2011. In 2012, the Obama administration released a memo announcing the Department of Homeland Security would exercise prosecutorial discretion and not enforce the nation’s immigration laws against children brought to the United States illegally before they were 16 years old. The memo instructed immigrants to apply for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) if they were under 30 and had resided in the U.S. for at least five years before DHS released the memo.
The program opened doors for Gonzalez. “I was sitting in the office and I got this tiny piece of paper with a social security number. And I literally started crying,” she said. The program also allowed her to get a driver’s license and a work permit. She graduated nursing school and worked at Dell Seton Medical Center in the ICU for four years. Now, she’s in grad school at Texas Wesleyan University and is engaged to be married.
But the future is uncertain for her and the more than 600,000 childhood immigrants. Last year a federal judge in Texas declared DACA illegal. The program is slowly dying as it makes its way through the courts. As DACA nears its end, immigrants like Gonzalez face hard decisions. Immigration experts say the decadeslong legal rollercoaster points to the need for legal immigration reform.
In September 2021, Judge Andrew Hanen ruled President Barack Obama did not have the authority to create DACA because he did not subject it to public notice and comment under the Administrative Procedures Act. The Biden administration appealed the ruling to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. In the meantime, President Joe Biden published a new rule in the Federal Register for public notice and comment on Aug. 30 that fortified the program and maintained existing requirements. So far, the rule has received over 16,000 public comments.
The regulation was supposed to take effect Oct. 31, but the program’s tenuous position in the courts keeps DACA up in the air. The federal appeals court said Hanen should take another look at the program in light of the Biden administration’s new regulation. Until the program officially ends, current recipients can renew their status, but U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) will not accept any new applicants.
Theresa Cardinal Brown is managing director of immigration and crossborder policy for the Bipartisan Policy Center. Now that the court has declared the program unlawful, she says it’s only a matter of time before DACA ends. But “nobody wants to be the one to actually pull the plug,” she said. The case may go to the Supreme Court. She says it could be another year before the “final ax falls.”
Lawmakers first introduced legislation in 2001 to protect children brought to the United States illegally. The Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act passed the House of Representatives in 2010 but hasn’t gone much further. Democrats can’t pass the 2021 version of the law without Republican support. The midterm elections could change things. But Cardinal Brown is skeptical that lawmakers on either side of the aisle are willing to compromise.
This leaves DACA participants in limbo. “Your question is always, ‘how much longer do I have, and how can I extend my stay?’” said DACA recipient Niña Ledonio. Ledonio, 29, works with Cardinal Brown as corporate relations manager at the Bipartisan Policy Center. She was born in the Philippines. Like Gonzalez, her family overstayed its visa. Both of her siblings were born in the United States, and her parents are now lawful permanent residents. She reapplies for DACA every two years and pays $495 every time she does. “A lot of people think in 10-to-15-year plans,” she said, “I always think in two-year chunks of time.”
If Congress doesn’t act, she will have to make hard decisions: how long should she wait it out and live on her savings after she loses her work status? Should she make plans to move to another country? She hopes it won’t come to that. “Twenty-six of my 29 years on earth have been in the United States,” she said.
DACA participants are finding ways to support one another through confusion and anxiety. Crystal Herrera is a U.S. citizen and is married to a DACA recipient. They live in Houston with their 10-year-old, 5-year-old, and 1-year-old children. Her husband, Henry Hererra, came to the United States from Mexico when he was 7. Crystal is an administrator for Dreamers2gether Inc, an organization that uses social media to support recipients by creating explainer videos and answering immigration questions. Dreamers2gether has 9,000 members in its Facebook group and more than 30,000 TikTok followers. With help from the group, Crystal helped Henry apply for permission to travel to visit his sick grandfather in Mexico. Now he is trying to get a marriage-based green card.
Rusty Price is the CEO and founder of the Camino Community Center in Charlotte, N.C. DACA employees and volunteers help the center provide food, healthcare, and training in education, employment, and entrepreneurship to the city’s Latino population.
“Dreamers,” as DACA recipients are sometimes known, fill vital roles as medical providers, nurses, and business people across the country, Price said. About 9,000 DACA recipients worked as teachers in 2017. “It has a huge economic impact that needs to be considered,” he said. Price also pastors Camino Church. “They’re contributing to society,” he said. “If we are going to take advantage of their work, we should treat them with dignity.”
Businesses are also concerned about the economic effect of ending the program. Almost 90 companies, including Amazon, Apple, Google, Meta, Microsoft, Starbucks, and Target, asked Congress to protect DACA recipients in a letter and ad campaign. When the last DACA work permit expires, the United States economy will be more than 500,000 employees short and will lose as much as $11.7 billion every year in the wages of previously employed recipients, the letter argued.
But Simon Hankinson, a senior fellow with the Heritage Foundation, argues there is more to consider: “The fundamental question is, was the decision allowable? Was President Obama able to just write a memo and legislate through a rule?” He doesn’t think so, and giving permanent residency to DACA participants further undermines immigration law.
Hankinson recognizes there isn’t an easy solution. “Because there are always people involved,” he said. But DACA recipients are just one group among many others. In 2014, DHS created DAPA, Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents, which allows the illegal immigrant parents of U.S. citizens and green card holders to apply for temporary work permits and protection from deportation. And thousands more children arrived in the country illegally since the Obama administration created DACA. “If you cobbled together all of the special interest groups … We’re talking about millions upon millions of people, and you’re essentially undermining the legal immigration system,” Hankinson said.
Meanwhile, the legal immigration system has record backlogs in immigration courts. Consulates and embassies abroad are also backed up. USCIS can’t process legal visa requests in a timely manner. The refugee resettlement system is still struggling to build new infrastructure. “All of these things are drivers of dysfunction throughout the system,” Cardinal Brown said. She understands the urgency of DACA recipients. But, in her opinion, focusing solely on DACA distracts from the broken system that is contributing to record levels of illegal immigration.
Back in Fort Worth, Texas, Gonzalez is completing her doctorate in nurse anesthesia at Texas Wesleyan University while planning her wedding. She is grateful for a strong community through her church as she lives with legal uncertainty. But it isn’t a new feeling. Courts have played tug-of-war with the program for the past decade. News organizations also interviewed her when the Trump administration challenged the program in 2017.
She wonders if her response disappointed journalists then. “Everyone kind of wanted that news story where I was crying and super scared and sad,” she said, “Every time, I’d be like, ‘no, I trust God and his plan.’” Five years later, her response hasn’t changed.