It’s a day I’ll never forget: September 5, 2017, the first day of my senior year at NYU. It was the day the Trump administration announced that they planned to end Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). What was supposed to be a joyous ride to the end of my undergraduate career was suddenly riddled with unnecessary stress and uncertainty about my future in this country.
Although the courts have reinstated DACA for now, the damage and anxiety the administration caused with its attempt to shut down the program cannot be undone. Furthermore, amidst the horrific immigration battleground at the border for the past few months lies the tenuous nature of DACA and how vulnerable its recipients are to the whims of the current administration.
This is my sixth year as a DACA grantee. My experiences with DACA have been fraught even before the current administration’s attempts to end the program.
DACA was created in June 2012 as an executive order from the Obama administration. DACA defers removal action, or deportation, for two years to undocumented immigrants who must meet a handful of strict requirements.
If approved, DACA recipients get a temporary employment authorization, as well as a social security number, and become eligible to obtain a driver’s license in their state. DACA does not provide a path to citizenship, nor is it a form of amnesty—it simply delays deportation for a two-year period. Additionally, despite the benefits, DACA does not provide a lawful status to its recipients, meaning they are still in a sense undocumented.
Proving I’m ‘Worthy’
A few days after I turned 15, my parents and I met with an immigration lawyer. To ensure that my case was as strong as possible, the lawyer told my parents and me that we had to find proof of identification, proof that I had come to the U.S. before my 16th birthday, proof of my (lack of) immigration status, proof of having continuously lived in the U.S. since June 15, 2007, and proof of my status as a student.
We went home and immediately began poring through every document that could prove I was “worthy” of receiving DACA status. The memories of looking for and making copies of countless documents for my application are vivid: Kindergarten report cards, my third-grade science fair certificate, a small piece of paper that marked my arrival to the United States in 2001, high school transcripts, my Salvadoran passport, and even a letter from my church stating we attended regularly. All were scanned, copied, and placed inside a large manila envelope to be sent along with my DACA application. Though this collection of documents would primarily be used to prove that I had been in the country since 2001, it also felt like a litmus test for good moral character.
As the years passed, I increasingly felt as though DACA served as a way to perpetuate the myth between the “good” immigrant and the “bad” immigrant, creating a hierarchy. The good immigrant (the DACA grantee) is an educated law-abiding citizen, who contributes to the nation’s economy, and is even willing to put their life on the line by serving in the armed forces. The bad immigrant, especially as depicted by this administration lately, is nothing but an uneducated criminal.
While this false dichotomy has become even more muddled during this administration, it is crucial to recognize that DACA plays a role in creating that divide through requirements that ignore the various contexts in which immigrant children and DACA grantees are treated by society. I believe it was pure luck that my parents were able to settle down in a neighborhood where I was able to find mentors in my teachers and feel valued as a student and a peer. Had they chosen differently, I may not be a DACA grantee or a first-generation college graduate.
DACA Opened Doors But Also Kept Some Shut
DACA allowed me to get a job at my hometown’s ice cream store to help support myself financially throughout high school and most of college. DACA allowed me to get my New York state driver’s license, making transportation easier for me. DACA opened up a host of opportunities that were previously unavailable to me. Yet other doors remained shut.
The first door-slam came when I had to fill out my FAFSA in order to receive financial aid. I was confused when I did not see any Pell Grants or state and federal aid on my student profile for my top two school choices. That’s when I learned DACA recipients do not qualify for federal aid or state aid in the state of New York. Though I was able to get a school scholarship, and my parents and I found other ways to pay for my education, the amount of money that I could’ve received from state and federal aid would’ve made a huge difference, as I am sure is the case for many DACA grantees across the nation.
Another source of anxiety around DACA has been the cost to apply and then renew every two years: $495—$85 for biometrics and $410 for work authorization document application/renewal. Regardless of how well you budget, the fees of applying for or renewing every two years can have a great effect on DACA grantees of low-income backgrounds or families that have more than one child who qualifies.
Getting together enough money to initially apply is difficult enough, and one bad financial year, or the need to pay for other costs such as tuition or housing, could cause unnecessary financial strain. The high costs became more problematic last fall when DACA grantees scrambled to pull together the funds to renew before the administration’s October 5 deadline. United We Dream even set up a DACA Renewal Fund in order to help grantees fund their urgent renewals.
I can’t pretend to speak for the hundreds of thousands of DACA grantees in the U.S. who are entering higher education and the workforce. However, the events these past few months have proved that it is vital that the country’s leaders provide a more stable future for all undocumented immigrants, so they can become fully engaged and active citizens in a country they yearn to be a part of. After all, I am only in the United States because of the American dream. This is my home. But for how long? Now that I have my bachelor’s degree, my professional career should be just beginning.
Earlier this month, I was able to renew my DACA for the third time, but the future still remains unclear beyond the next two years. Although I am nervous about what will happen next, especially in the wake of family separations at the border, I still remain hopeful that one day Congress will pass a clean DREAM Act.