DACA and the Agonizing Waiting Game

February 9, 2018

Dreamers put their trust in the goodness of the American people as lawmakers decide their fate. 

Update, February 14: A number of immigration proposals have been introduced in the Senate, but Congress remains deeply divided as the immigration debate continues. For a DACA replacement to pass in the Senate, it will need 60 votes, but none of the proposed legislation is thought likely to command enough bipartisan support to pass. 

Back in September when the Trump administration announced that it would end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA), three Dreamers — Cinthia Cantú, Mayte Lara Ibarra and Cesar Octavio Espinosa — spoke to UNICEF USA about living under the threat of being deported from the only home they’ve ever known. Five months later, we checked in again to see how they’re faring.

Nineteen-year-old Cinthia Cantú sometimes gets emotional when discussing her future. The fate of Dreamers like Cinthia — immigrants whose parents brought them to the U.S. as young children — has already sparked a three-day partial shutdown of federal services in January, when Democrats made good on their threat to block a spending resolution agreement if it failed to protect Dreamers.

Congress passed a pricey two-year spending bill on February 9, but the bill failed to address DACA. On February 12, the Senate opened what could become a lengthy and volatile debate on immigration.  A March 5 deadline set to end protections for Dreamers is rapidly approaching, even as legal challenges and the realities of the program complicate the question of when protections and work permits might actually expire.  

The future of roughly 700,000 immigrants hangs in the balance.

While negotiations continue on Capitol Hill, Dreamers try to stay calm

While negotiations continue on Capitol Hill, Cinthia is attempting to stay calm. “We try to stay positive, but we're human and we do think about all the negative things,” she says. Her parents brought her to the U.S. from Mexico when she was a baby so she could get the education they never had. “My parents struggled so much to even get me here, especially my mom, and thinking about all of that [changing] because of one President changing the laws and everything — it does make you sad.”  

That’s a far cry from 2012 when DACA was enacted and young immigrants like Cinthia felt optimistic about their futures in the country they call home. With DACA came the assurance that Dreamers like Cinthia could stay in the U.S without fear of deportation. They could attend college, work, get drivers’ licenses, build careers and have families.

That all changed on September 5th, when President Donald Trump ordered an end to the Obama-era program that shields young undocumented immigrants from deportation. Since then, it’s estimated that thousands of Dreamers have lost their DACA protection, exposing them to the very real threat of deportation back to the countries their parents had fled — often in order to escape gang violence, extreme poverty or lack of opportunity.

“I do cry sometimes at night,” Cinthia says. “I do get scared.” Like many Dreamers, she has no recollection of her birth country.

Nineteen-year-old Mayte Lara Ibarra was valedictorian of her graduating class at David Crockett High School in Austin, Texas in 2016. She earned a full-tuition scholarship to the University of Texas at Austin. 

Nineteen-year-old Mayte Lara Ibarra doesn’t know exactly what to feel. Mayte is studying pre-law at the University of Texas at Austin; she chose law so one day she can help others in her community. Only three years old when her parents arranged for her uncle to bring her and her sister from Mexico to the U.S., she grew up feeling as American as any of her classmates at school, where year in and year out she worked so hard to succeed she earned a 4.5 GPA in high school and was named valedictorian. But with her fate hotly debated on Capitol Hill, she, like Cinthia, is caught in limbo.

“It’s kind of feeling like you want to do something, make a change, but at the same time, you don’t know what’s going to happen, so you’re just stuck in this unknown,” Cinthia says.

The sense of uncertainty is a feeling that Dreamers know all too well

The sense of uncertainty is a feeling that Cesar Octavio Espinosa knows all too well. Not only is Cesar a Dreamer himself, he works for the Houston immigrants’ rights nonprofit, FIEL: Familias Immigrantes y Estudiantes en la Lucha (Immigrant Families and Students to the Struggle). Cesar recently went to Washington, D.C., where he and other Dreamers met with both Republican and Democratic lawmakers to put a human face on the DACA debate. There he met members of Congress and others just like him.

“My roommate in Washington was a 27-year-old PhD candidate at Harvard,” Cesar recalls. “He's doing his research on education. Brilliant young man. His worry was that he's going to have a PhD from one of the most prestigious schools in the country, but if his DACA gets taken away, what is he going to do next?” Since the September announcement, Cesar has met many successful young people who feel as though their lives and ambitions are completely on hold. “It is a very disconcerting time,” says Cesar. “I mean, literally, we get a different piece of news on the hour.”

Cesar, Cinthia and Mayte have been whipsawed by Beltway politics since early September, when the Trump administration’s call for an end to DACA was countered by a flurry of lawsuits in federal courts across the country, including one in New York filed by 15 states and the District of Columbia. Members of Congress worked to hammer out a compromise but with no deal in place, a glimmer of hope came on January 9, when a federal judge in San Francisco ruled that DACA recipients must be able to retain their protected status while litigation over the program fully plays out in the courts. As of January 13, the Department of Homeland Security announced it would once again accept the paperwork that enables Dreamers to renew their DACA status (something they must do every two years). While that and polls showing that up to 84 percent of Americans support a right to residency for undocumented immigrants who arrived here as children gave Dreamers some badly needed good news, the mixed messages continue.

The Trump administration is appealing the judge’s decision even as White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly has said he’s confident a deal can be reached. “The DACA deal will be worked out, I think, by the United States Congress,” Kelly told reporters. “Both sides of the aisle have agreed to meet in a smaller group and come up with [what] they think is the best DACA deal, and then it’ll of course be presented to the president.”

84% of Americans support a right to residency for Dreamers

Meanwhile Mayte, Cesar and Cinthia wait, left once again at the mercy of forces beyond their control. Cinthia fears that all her family has invested to give her a better life will be for nought.

Back in the 1990s, her father, who was pulled out of school in the fourth grade to work in a tire shop, journeyed from Mexico to the U.S. alone to find a place to live and a job before sending for his wife and daughter.

“I was only 1 year and 8 months old in 2000 when my dad called my mother to let her know that he had sent someone to cross us over from Vallehermoso, Mexico, to the U.S.

"When my mother talks about the journey, she recalls it was a hard decision. In Mexico there was poverty and violence, and many children were forced to leave school and go to work.”

Now a community activist in Houston, Cesar Octavio Espinosa was just six years old when he flew to the United States from Mexico City on a tourist visa. "I was very entrepreneurial at a very young age," he recalls. "I graduated from college when I was fully undocumented. DACA was a life-changer. We no longer live in the shadows."

Cinthia’s parents wanted more for her. Thanks to their decision to come to the U.S., she has not disappointed them. Cinthia graduated from high school and has been attending college with the goal of becoming a nutritionist. Eventually, she’d like to teach nutrition, health and fitness practices in her community. “I'm interested in health and community work, not just going to a privileged area to work, but to actually help my community and give back some of what they have given me,” she says.

A self-described optimist, Cinthia’s trust in God and belief that things happen for a reason fuel her hope that in the long run, everything will be okay.

It's not too late to support the Dreamers

Meanwhile, a different kind faith sustains Mayte. Coping with the uncertainty over whether her dreams of becoming a lawyer will end with deportation, she’s focusing on her studies and putting her trust in her fellow Americans.

“I still have faith that this country has great people that want to help and support each other,” says Mayte. “I still have faith that this is my home, and eventually I will be accepted in my own home.”

It’s not too late to support Cinthia, Mayte, Cesar and the hundreds of thousands of other Dreamers whose bright futures have been put at risk. Share your feelings about DACA today:

Top photo: Nineteen-year-old Cinthia Cantú, far left, was brought to the United States from Mexico when she was 1. "My parents wanted me to have a better future and, here in the U.S., I've been given the chance to build one."