After years of living in the U.S. without a path to permanent residence, immigrants brought to America illegally as children tell VOA they are exhausted and heartbroken after a court recently ruled against a program that prevents their deportation.
A federal judge in Texas last week said the former Obama administration exceeded its authority in creating the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA) in 2012.
“As popular as this program might be, the proper origination point for the DACA program was, and is, Congress,” U.S. District Judge Andrew S. Hanen wrote in his ruling, which blocked new enrollment in DACA.
While the decision does not immediately affect current DACA recipients and will likely be appealed, it nevertheless jeopardizes the underpinnings of a program that has served as a lifeline for about 650,000 young immigrants desperate to remain in the United States.
Meanwhile, Congress’ longstanding inability to agree on a path to legal residency for those brought to the U.S. as minors – which prompted DACA’s creation as an executive action – continues.
DACA recipients, many of whom have energetically campaigned for congressional action for years, tell VOA of mental and emotional exhaustion and a gnawing fear about their futures.
“I think the level of anxiety about what is going to happen to your life is nowhere near the appropriateness that anybody should live under, especially young people,” Juan Escalante, a DACA recipient from Venezuela, told VOA.
Escalante’s family moved to the U.S. when he was 11 years old. His parents fled Venezuela after experiencing a traumatizing event.
“I remember being at a red light on the passenger side of a car with my mother, and a man pulled up to the side of the car and basically said ‘If you don't give me all your money and give me your jewelry, I'll kill your kids right here,’” Escalante told VOA.
His family settled in Miami, Florida. Escalante then moved to Tallahassee, where he pursued a bachelor's degree in political science and a master's degree in public administration. He now lives in Washington, where he has been an immigrant advocate for 16 years.
He said DACA recipients, though grateful for the program, live with constant uncertainty that takes a toll.
“We don't know what Congress is going to do. We don't know whether we are going to be deported. And we continue to live under this type of insecurity about what's possible,” Escalante said.
Republican-led states challenge DACA.
The lawsuit challenging DACA was led by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton. Other Republican attorneys general from Arkansas, Alabama, Nebraska, Louisiana, West Virginia and South Carolina joined in the suit.
Paxon hailed Hanen’s ruling as a victory.
“This lawsuit was about the rule of law – not the reasoning behind any immigration policy. The district court recognized that only Congress has the authority to write immigration laws, and the president is not free to disregard those duly enacted laws as he sees fit,” he said.
Learning about their status
Escalante learned about his undocumented status when a college admissions officer said he needed to provide a copy of his green card showing legal residency in the United States.
“I remember just going to my parents and asking for a copy,” Escalante said. “That's kind of when the cat came out of the bag.”
Iranian Hadi Sedigh had a similar realization after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Now a DACA recipient and attorney in Washington, Sedigh was 9 years old when his family came to the U.S.
“Being from Iran, a Middle Eastern country and a Muslim country, I think 9/11 was sort of the point where the immigration issues became much more real and much more urgent. I realized after 9/11 that I was undocumented,” he said.
Sedigh calls DACA a blessing but notes he still lacks legal residency in the U.S and the program may not endure.
“It has been under attack. There have been court cases,” he noted. “So, the feeling of being fortunate to be a DACA recipient, after being undocumented, is very much alongside trepidation that your DACA status could be taken from you at any point.”
Future of DACA
In his 77-page opinion, Hanen underscored that he was not giving a green light to expulsions of immigrants.
“To be clear, the order does not require DHS (Department of Homeland Security) or the Department of Justice to take any immigration, deportation, or criminal action against any DACA recipient, applicant, or any other individual that it would not otherwise take,” he wrote.
The Biden administration has vowed to appeal the ruling while also pressing the Democrat-led U.S. Congress to act.
In March, the House of Representatives passed legislation that created a pathway to citizenship for those brought to the United States as minors. The Senate has yet to act.
Immigration advocates are hoping to add a provision to protect DACA recipients, sometimes called Dreamers, in a massive spending bill Democrats aim to pass this year. It remains to be seen whether an immigration measure can be included in a bill advanced under special Senate rules for the consideration of tax and spending measures.
Despite the uncertainty, Sedigh said he tries to remain optimistic.
“Most undocumented people are so used to this kind of struggle with the immigration system that (over time) you just become a little bit unfazed by it,” he said.
Escalante said he gets therapy to maintain his mental health and tries to look past things he cannot control.
“I know the things that are in my control are to continue to call Congress and continue to advocate with good faith,” he said.