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10 years after DACA was announced, Dreamers remain in limbo

Immigration advocate and DACA recipient Diana Pliego (center) speaks in front of the Supreme Court in 2019, as the court prepared to hear arguments on former President Trump's termination of the program.
Juan Gastelum
/
National Immigration Law Center
Immigration advocate and DACA recipient Diana Pliego (center) speaks in front of the Supreme Court in 2019, as the court prepared to hear arguments on former President Trump's termination of the program.

Ten years ago, Diana Pliego was heading home from a church youth group event when her parents shared some surprising news.

Earlier that day, the Obama administration had announced a new program that would protect her and tens of thousands of other immigrants from deportation and allow them to work legally.

It was the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, meant to help undocumented youth like Pliego who had been brought into the United States as children, often called Dreamers.

"I just remember having a lot of questions, like it sounded too good to be true," Pliego said this week. "But my parents were like, 'No, we have to talk to an attorney, we have to get your application in'."

So they did, and eventually, DACA felt like an answer to their prayers.

Now, on the 10-year anniversary of the policy being announced, some recipients reflect on the opportunities it has given them, but also on its limitations.

DACA was only supposed to be temporary

Pliego arrived in the country with her family from Mexico when she was 3 years old. When DACA was announced, she was getting ready to start college in South Carolina — a state that, at the time, prohibited undocumented people from attending public institutions.

Because of that, Pliego had chosen to attend Columbia College, a private college that accepted her despite her status. She got a full tuition scholarship, but it wasn't enough.

"My family of six was still barely making ends meet, and so just to pay [for] room and board was going to be a challenge," she said.

DACA allowed Pliego and her siblings to work, supporting the family and covering the costs of her education.

"Without it, I wouldn't have even made it to my second year of college, much less graduate," Pliego said.

She did graduate, and now works as a policy associate at the National Immigration Law Center.

But DACA was supposed to be a temporary solution — an executive order announced after Congress failed to pass a similar measure in the form of legislation.

This means many recipients remain without a path to a permanent stay in the U.S. And after former president Donald Trump tried to rescind the program in 2017, their status is even more uncertain.

What's more, DACA recipients are required to renew their status every two years, paying around $500 to retain their work permits and protection from deportation.

"The past 10 years I've kind of had to live my life in two year increments, not knowing if one day someone is going to take this away from me and I won't have any control over that decision," Pliego said.

This is why, for her, the 10-year anniversary is conflicting.

"It is actually in a way a big celebration of the movement that got us DACA and this really big victory that changed our lives for the better in so many ways," Pliego said. "But at the same time, it's conflicted feelings ... because it was never meant to be a permanent solution. It was temporary and it continues to be temporary."

Esder Chong, another DACA recipient who arrived in the U.S. with her family from South Korea, said the anniversary felt more frustrating than celebratory. It's a reminder that millions of people – DACA recipients and others – remain without a legal path to citizenship.

"I think about how it's already been 10 years with no federal legislative action to address the 10.5 million undocumented immigrants in the country and the fact that it was never intended to be a permanent fix to address our undocumented population," Chong said.

Chong does credit DACA with opening the educational and professional doors that got her to where she is now: the holder of two master's degrees, including one from Harvard, and an advocate for immigration rights.

Holding onto hope amid uncertainty

After the Trump administration tried to kill the program, the Supreme Court stepped in to revive it, prompting tens of thousands of Dreamers to rush to file their applications.

Then, last July, a federal judge in Texas ruled that DACA was illegal and blocked the Biden administration from granting any new applications, leaving the program effectively frozen in place.

More than 600,000 recipients like Pliego and Chong can renew their status while the administration appeals that ruling, but there are roughly another 80,000 Dreamers whose applications are on hold indefinitely.

There are also hundreds of thousands more who will never get a chance to apply for DACA because they don't fit into the narrow eligibility requirements laid out when the policy was created.

Despite the limits that DACA has garnered over the years, Pliego remains hopeful for legislative action that can lay out a path for a permanent stay.

"Even though it's an uphill battle, I do believe that if we continue to organize as a people, if we continue to be as resilient as we've been and organize and speak up, that eventually we will get ... the permanent solution that we have been calling for," she said.

Chong, for her part, is also conflicted about hope. She wants people to remember the undocumented population that is not even protected with DACA, a policy that she argues was exclusive to those "most marketable" in the undocumented population.

"I think when we talk about a permanent pathway to security and safety and belonging, I really want to turn our attention to those who are not in the conversation this week, which is like 90-something per cent of the undocumented population without DACA," she said.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.