How One Action Transformed The Lives Of 600,000 Undocumented Immigrants

CREDIT: ThinkProgress/ Esther Y. Lee

As President Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program turns two on Friday, a bicameral Republican effort to kill the program has left its beneficiaries equal parts rattled and despondent that their lives are so tethered to the whims of politicians.

“Everything will be taken away,” Maria Sotomayor, a 22-year-old DACA recipient told ThinkProgress this week, considering the prospect that the program could be eliminated. “My job. My driver’s license. All the security that we have built within the last two years.” She reflected on what could happen if her employment authorization card (EAD), issued after she received DACA, was taken away. “It’s crazy how this piece of plastic has so much power. If DACA is taken away, I will again go back to being undocumented and being at risk of deportation.”

About 600,000 undocumented individuals who came to the United States as children have already been granted temporary legal presence under President Obama’s executive order, some of whom are now in the process of renewing their application. For many, the executive order, manifested in the form of three identity cards that DACA recipients are eligible for — a state identification card, Social Security card, and an EAD — has established stability and a sense of normalcy for undocumented youths. A survey by the Immigration Policy Center found that 59 percent of DACA recipients have been able to get a new job (45 percent saw increased earnings); 49 percent opened their first bank account; 33 percent were approved for their first credit card; and 57 percent secured a driver’s license.

The DACA program, which directs Department of Homeland Security (DHS) immigration agents to pursue criminal immigrants rather than low-priority enforcement cases, has stopped the deportation of hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants and granted them work authorization for two years. But Republican Sens. Jeff Sessions (R-AL), Ted Cruz (R-TX), and Reps. Steve King (R-IA), and Louie Gohmert (R-TX) have all devoted hours to defunding the DACA program and in a sense, cutting off the lifeline, for recipients. The DACA program was shot down at least three times on the House floor. Many Republican lawmakers have also claimed that the program directly caused the uptick of migrant child arrivals on the border. But as statistics bears out, there has been a positive correlation between increasing violence in Latin America and the number of children fleeing in the past few years.

When ThinkProgress interviewed Maria for the first time last year, she had just began her first job as a civic engagement coordinator at an immigration advocacy group after leaving her job at a pizza shop where she felt exploited. Through the group, Maria has since gotten the chance to go to Ecuador to work with a host organization to help abandoned children. The DACA program gave her permission to apply for advance parole, a document that allows her to re-enter the United States after traveling abroad. Advance parole is issued only to immigrants without a valid immigrant visa and is generally granted for reasons like death in the family, educational, or employment purposes. Still, it’s not guaranteed that immigration officials would let individuals back into the United States at a port of entry. While she was in Ecuador, Maria saw her family for the first time in 12 years. “I told my family that I was coming home. To see my family after so many years — all my cousins who were babies when I left — was a completely amazing experience. It was really hard — waking up in my home country, waking up to my grandmother. Saying goodbye to my family in Ecuador was really sad. I had a couple of hours to enjoy them.”

Cintia, another DACA recipient that ThinkProgress caught up with from last year’s interview, is likewise utilizing the program to help feed her family and to “give my son a better education.” Cintia works as a medical genetics technician, and recently bought her first car and got her first credit card — another kind of plastic that both she and Maria believe will help them integrate in this country. Although Cintia admits that she’s “dependent on DACA,” she is also “finally building credit to be able to reach long term goals like buying my own house. I have gained experience at my current job that makes me a more marketable individual in my profession.” Cintia is concerned that DACA could be taken away since her son relies on her for her paycheck, “I would lose my job… It makes me feel vulnerable and scared again.”

Yet another DACA recipient Thelma, a litigation case manager at a law firm, has seen her opportunities open up beyond the sandy dunes of her Nevada town. With DACA, she and her family can finally consider moving west to Oregon. “You can’t pick up and move,” Thelma said, recalling how she put her dreams on hold prior to DACA, since it’s not easy for people like her to simply pick up a job application. “You don’t have the security of knowing what jobs are out there.”

Maria, Cintia, and Thelma are not the only success stories of a program that has worked exactly as intended in giving hope and stability to these immigrants who consider the United States home.

A North Carolina Budget and Tax Center survey from April found that expanding access to driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants could improve public safety and even increase large consumer purchases. According to the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, one in five fatal crashes involved an unlicensed or invalidly licensed driver. What’s more, consumer spending increases when DACA recipients are given greater buying power through increased earnings.

The DACA program has brought to national attention what life is like when undocumented immigrants are lifted out of the shadows. Perhaps one anecdotal fascination about the DACA program is that beneficiaries have become more open about their status, many becoming politically involved, with some defending their worth to anti-immigrant congressional members. Undocumented youths are openly declaring their legal status, sometimes even accosting Republican congressmen to ask what they plan to do with DACA recipients.

But because DACA is temporary, advocates have been pushing for a more permanent resolution that could allow them to be fully integrated into American society. In the two years since the program’s implementation, immigration reform has sputtered along in Congress — first with an arrhythmic heartbeat through the Senate, then flat-lining in the House. States fared a bit better, moving ahead with measures to advance immigrant rights, some in the name of public safety, others to improve worker conditions. Now, President Obama is contemplating how to best lift more undocumented immigrants out of the shadows. By some estimates, experts believe that Obama’s next executive action could protect millions of undocumented immigrants by granting them temporary deportation reprieve and work authorization. The action could build on the existing DACA program and include measures that would provide temporary relief to undocumented family members of existing DACA recipients, American citizens, or even those who have lived in the country for a certain number of years. But until Obama makes a formal announcement about rumored plans for an executive order, many beneficiaries of the program will remain on edge. As DACA recipient Blanca Gamez put it, “If DACA is removed, I feel as though part of my identity would go along with it.”