At around 5 a.m. on June 15, 2012, Reyna Montoya, an immigrant rights activist from Arizona, received a call from the White House. A spokesperson suggested that she organize a watch party and press conference because in the following hours the president would make a very important announcement — one that would change the lives of undocumented youth.
“I got nervous. They didn’t give me details and I didn’t know what it was about,” she told La Voz/The Arizona Republic.
At the time, Montoya was an organizer with the Arizona Dream Coalition. So, she got the word out and had some 40 to 60 people show up to hear the news. “I brought my people together, ‘Dreamers,’ parents, and we got together to watch the national message,” Montoya said.
“We had been advocating for a long time to stop the deportations of undocumented students, so the announcement gave us some relief,” said Montoya, a DACA recipient and founder of Aliento, a nonprofit organization that provides support to undocumented and mixed-status families.
That morning, former President Barack Obama announced the start of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), a temporary solution for hundreds of thousands of undocumented youth in the U.S. that would grant them a two-year authorized period to live and work legally in the U.S.
It would not, however, provide a path toward citizenship.
Ten years later after the order was implemented, it has been challenged multiple times in different courts across the U.S., as well as rescinded briefly by former President Donald Trump. Still, the order as written remains in effect and continues to only temporarily safeguard certain individuals.
Over the last 10 years, undocumented immigrants and immigration rights activists have been pushing for a more comprehensive legislation to be passed — one that benefits all immigrants and that provides a pathway to citizenship.
From the day she heard President Obama’s announcement, Montoya knew that this was just the beginning of a new fight.
“There were mixed feelings because from the beginning I realized that many were not going to qualify for the program. I felt it was a great injustice,” she said.
Among the main requirements to qualify for the DACA program are having been under the age of 31 before June 15, 2012, having arrived in the U.S. before turning 16, and having lived in this country continuously since June 15, 2007.
As of December 2021, a total of 611,470 DACA permits were active, according to the most recent data from the United States Citizenship and Immigration Service.
10 years of obstacles, barriers
Diana Pliego, a DACA recipient who was brought to the U.S. by her parents from Mexico when she was 3 years old, said experienced the most stressful days of her life during Trump’s presidency.
“(Trump) promised to take away DACA and I used to get up at night with anxiety thinking about what my life was going to be like when that day came,” said Pliego, who now works as a policy associate for the National Immigration Law Center.
Pliego’s fear became a reality when in 2017 Trump announced an end to DACA.
“When that day came and the fights began in court, it was incredibly stressful for me and my family. I was uncertain and insecure about my future,” said Pliego.
After a series of lawsuits and the partial elimination of the program, a federal court in California in 2018 dismissed the government’s decision to end it and ordered that it be restored.
A Supreme Court decision in 2020 blocked Trump from ending the program.
“These 10 years have not been easy, they have been a struggle,” said Dinora Nash, director of services for the Arizona Center for Empowerment. “Unfortunately, not everyone in the government wants to support this cause. It has been one of fighting without lowering our guard, always being up to date, keeping ourselves informed, seeing what we have to do, being united with the community, fighting together for a cause.”
Flavia Negrete, an immigrant from Peru who was brought to the U.S. by her parents when she was 4 years old, dreamed of pursuing a career in medicine. She grew frustrated and depressed due to the lack of opportunities available to her to achieve that dream.
In 2012, that changed. With DACA, she had the opportunity to study two majors, chemistry and neurobiology at the University of Maryland, and got a job working for the U.S. government as a scientist for the Food and Drug Administration.
“What’s the problem with not making this permanent if it’s almost permanent already? All this time we have been working, we have been paying our taxes,” Negrete said.
According to data from the Center for American Progress, an independent, nonpartisan political institute, there are 22,260 DACA recipients in Arizona, who contribute $149.6 million in federal taxes and $92.3 million in state and local taxes.
“It benefits all of us that DACA is permanent, economically, educationally. There are studies that prove that DACA can even provide jobs to the same American citizens.
“(Politicians) have everything in their hands to make a law like the Dream Act. It’s already written, they don’t have to do much work for this,” said Negrete, who today works as a communication specialist for Pre-Health Dreamers, an organization that helps channel resources to undocumented students.
The DREAM Act is a 2001 proposed federal legislation that would give undocumented students legal status, with a path to citizenship. The proposal has been modified and debated multiple times without seeing its approval.
Activists, politicians remain in search of a permanent solution
As the 10th anniversary of DACA rolled in, the organization United We Dream launched a petition calling on President Joe Biden and Congress for permanent protections for all undocumented immigrants.
“We fought to win and protect DACA yet it still remains at risk under Republican attacks, and millions more immigrants continue to face the threat of detention and deportation without any form of protection. That is why we need to fight for permanent protections for ALL,” the petition reads — a plight shared by many activists and politicians alike.
The executive order has not done what the Dream Act originally intended, but according to Rep. Rubén Gallego, D-Ariz., DACA has had a positive impact on many undocumented folks, although not “fully positive.”
“(DACA) is supposed to be a stepping stone in order for us to get, you know, eventual citizenship for these dreamers. But at a minimum, it stops separating families, it stops taking people out of this country that had been here forever,” Gallego said, adding that the program has allowed “many of these young men and women to get on with their lives … all really trying to live the American dream.”
According to Gallego, the right direction now is for Republicans to act and approve comprehensive immigration reform that can give “Dreamers” and the rest of the undocumented community permanent legal stay in the U.S.
“(Republicans) keep saying that they are pro-immigration reform but they never do anything about it and they just try to encourage more and more deportations of these ‘Dreamers.’ So, I think what we need to do is get some Republicans to actually help us out and pass the Dream Act,” he said.
While he remains confident that one day comprehensive immigration reform will become a reality, he noted that it will likely not happen soon. “The Republican Party has turned very anti-immigrant and is anti-immigration reform. They are even against legal immigration to this country,” he said.
Montoya thinks similarly, saying that after Trump’s presidency it has been very difficult for Republicans to support immigration reform. The passing of a Dream Act, however, does seem more likely, she said.
The DACA program and the Dream Act have similar objectives, which is to protect “Dreamers”, but they differ in the degree of protection they can provide.
The goal of the Dream Act is to give Dreamers permanent legal status and a path to citizenship. On the other hand, DACA only offers “deferred action” that recipients have to renew every two years.
Pliego said that without a permanent solution, anxiety will never go away, because although “Dreamers” have temporary relief in the present, the future remains uncertain.
“DACA only allows us to live our lives within two years and I cannot plan my life in the long term because I never know what will happen to the program. I do not know if I will have a job. I have to have savings in case something happens with DACA. I have to have a plan A, B or Z because I don’t know what will happen in the future,” Pliego said.
Reach La Voz reporter Javier Arce at Javier.firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @JavierArce33.
Comuníquese con el reportero de La Voz Javier Arce por correo electrónico Javier.email@example.com o por Twitter @JavierArce33.
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