August 15 marks the one-year anniversary of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, a presidential initiative that grants temporary legal presence to non-criminal undocumented immigrants who were brought into the country as youths by their parents. The two-year program allows DACA recipients to apply for a social security number, to legally work in the United States, and to pay taxes (although some select immigrants already had social security numbers and were paying taxes). It also protects them from deportation. The program has attracted more than half a million applicants. As of August, 430,236 undocumented youths have been approved.
Before DACA, these individuals were largely excluded from pursuing permanent, professional employment in the United States. But since receiving their employment authorization cards, many recipients are able to match their skills and qualifications with careers that they never could have had without legal presence. They are able to travel more freely, with many states issuing driver’s licenses, ID cards, and other fundamental privileges previously denied. And they have increasingly become contributing members of society. These are the stories of seven DACA recipients who are already changing their lives, even as they live with the fear that the change may be temporary.
C.P., 28, was nine-years-old when her parents brought her from Mexico. When she was 12 years old, her mother was detained during a raid. “The trauma of having a family member sent away stays with you,” she says. Before DACA, she was worried that she would be separated from her two-year-old son and “felt so stuck.” But after becoming a DACA beneficiary, C.P. was excited to start working as a medical genetics technician. Her temporary legal presence has given her the ability to “pay more taxes” than she did as a low-wage “overworked, underpaid” worker who worked “nights, weekends, [and] holidays.” She now pays for private health insurance coverage for her family and she has been able to buy a car– two luxuries afforded by legalization that directly boost the economy.
Rafael Lopez, 24, was one year old when he was brought from Mexico. Until he was approved for DACA, Rafael did not have a paying job. Now he works as a paralegal at a law firm. “It just feels really good because now I have some money in my pockets…,” Rafael said. “For a short little while, I forgot how much I wanted some sort of a state ID. I just wanted to be able to drive and not worry about getting stopped.” He plans to become an immigration lawyer and looks to his boss who takes on pro-bono work, as his role model. Before DACA, “my dreams were never set in stone,” Rafael said. “It was always an ‘if’… but now I’m not afraid anymore. I feel confident. [DACA] makes me feel empowered. Things are not as bad and I have something to lean on and that’s my DACA.’”
Thelma Monarrez, 25, was brought to the United States from Mexico when she was two-years-old. She works as a legal assistant where “having my own office was a dream come true.” Her legal presence provides her with the opportunity to volunteer at a battered woman’s program, which she previously could not do because she would not have passed a background check. “I can now drive without fear… and take family vacations which I’ve always wanted,” Thelma says. “Basically, my life is a little more ‘normal’…I feel like I do belong somewhere.” DACA has also provided Thelma with a chance to rent in apartment complexes without “having to put a huge deposit down because I have no social security number.” It also gives her a kind of stability that if she lost her job “I can easily look for another [one], which was not so easy before.”
Oscar [last name withheld], 23, was brought to the United States from China at the age of 13. He works at a Detroit-area restaurant and is looking forward to applying for an internship. He dreams of becoming an engineer and being able to “use my skill to help build America, legally.” Oscar says that the most positive thing that has come out of receiving DACA is an improvement in his mental health and an ability to pay taxes. With DACA, Oscar finds that “it’s a [relief] driving my car knowing that I have my [driver's license] in my pocket.”
Blanca Gamez, 24, was brought to the country from Mexico when she was seven months old. Before DACA, she was volunteering as an immigration advocate. But after DACA, Blanca was able to become a tax-paying, salaried employee at a non-profit immigration advocacy organization. She hopes to become a lawyer one day. Blanca said that prior to becoming a DACA beneficiary, she was “in limbo over nine silly numbers.” But now that she can legally drive and pay taxes, Blanca feels thrilled to be “a contributing member of society.” Although Blanca has never been pulled over, she is happy that she will no longer have to drive “in fear.”
Maria Sotomayor, 21, was nine-years-old when her parents brought her from Ecuador. Before she became a DACA beneficiary, Maria worked at a pizza shop. But now she works as a DACA coordinator, helping others file their DACA paperwork within the greater Philadelphia area. Like Blanca, Maria finds that DACA has opened “a lot of doors for me” and even though she had an international license before, she no longer fears “being pulled over while driving” and no longer has to explain to her friends why she used to carry around a passport in lieu of a state ID.
Yesenia Alaniz, 24, was one year old when her parents brought her from Mexico. She currently holds a bachelor’s degree in Social Studies, which inspired her passion to become a teacher. Because of DACA, she is now able to work at a retail store in the greater Las Vegas area to save up for a master’s degree in Education so that she can pursue that dream. She says that having the legal ability to drive has allowed her children to “participate in extracurricular activities,” but that being able to work has given her the freedom to “help my parents out financially.”
C.P., Oscar, Maria, and the rest of these DACA recipients have roots deeply embedded in society, and the impermanence of DACA’s two-year protected legal presence never strays far from their minds. Rafael and his family, for example, have a standing deportation order. While the Obama administration has stated that the DACA program was put into place as a way to shift its deportation focus on criminal immigrants, any one of these recipients are still at risk of deportation if the DACA program ends.
Beneficiaries can pay the $465 fee to re-apply for DACA before their employment authorization cards expire every two years, but the program is simply a stop-gap measure that provides an unsustainable long-term solution. What’s more, beneficiaries can only plan their futures in American in two-year chunks.
All of those interviewed believe a long-term, immigration reform solution is necessary, but none would accept a solution that only provides legalization for undocumented youths, such as the KIDs Act, proposed by House Republicans to grants legalization to a small subset of the undocumented population. That proposal would not provide a resolution for nine to ten million undocumented immigrants who do not qualify for the initiative.
The DACA program could very well be cut by the next president, relegating the nearly half a million undocumented immigrants back to living in a shadow economy. “I don’t want to lose the ability to work,” said Blanca. “That would be the scariest thought and one of the most horrific things that anyone can take away from me.”