DACA at 12 is on life support and already leaving out many young immigrants

Over a decade of Republican lawsuits to end the Obama-era program, which has halted new applications, has shut down the program to a generation of undocumented youth.

Participant seen holding a DACA sign at the protest.
Photo by Erik McGregor/LightRocket via Getty Images

Hundreds of thousands of immigrants in the U.S. will count their blessings on Saturday as they mark a new anniversary of a program that has let them stay in the country, study and work and build lives.

Millions more who arrived here as children and don't qualify for it are wishing they'd been so lucky.

The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program began 12 years ago Saturday. While its beneficiaries hope to have had a permanent legal status in the U.S. by now, they also are celebrating the educations, better paying jobs, families and homes they've been able to build and the freedom from fear of arrest and deportation that came as a result of President Barack Obama's executive order.

But their commemoration is sobered by the possibility that Republicans will succeed in their legal and political battle to end DACA. Donald Trump, who tried to end DACA and stopped new applications, could be re-elected president.

DACA recipients also recognize that they are outnumbered by the more than a million young immigrants who could have qualified for DACA, but have been denied because of Republican-led battles to end it and a halt on new DACA applications.

daca, immigration
Ricky Campos, 23, and Katye Hernandez, 22, both undocumented immigrants from El Salvador, hold signs saying "Thank You President Obama" outside the White House on June 15, 2012. (Jacquelyn Martin / AP file)

By 2025, no undocumented high school graduates will qualify for DACA because they will have entered the U.S. after the required arrival to the U.S. of June 15, 2007, according to FWD.US, a progressive group that focuses on immigration and criminal justice.

"The young people that were undocumented in elementary school and are now going into middle or high school or graduating are facing an uncertain future like I did when I was in their shoes," said Greisa Martínez Rosas, executive director of the United We Dream network, an immigrant youth-led advocacy group. Martínez graduated from high school undocumented but obtained DACA in 2013.

Those realities have created an urgency this election that has many immigrant advocates criticizing President Joe Biden for not doing more to protect them, yet also favoring his re-election.

"President Biden can walk and chew gum at the same time and so can we," Martínez said. "We can be clear about the massive needs that millions of undocumented people are facing and the lack of action this president or administration has had and also be clear that we cannot have a second administration of Trump."

Biden campaign spokesperson Fabiola Rodriguez said in a statement that "on Day One, President Biden sent Congress a plan to provide a pathway to citizenship for Dreamers and has done everything in his power to preserve and fortify the DACA program including by expanding affordable, quality health care access through the ACA to over 100,000 Dreamers." She added that Trump "is promising to end the DACA program, separate families and institute mass detention camps for immigrants."

Trump campaign spokesperson Jaime Florez said they did not have a comment on the DACA anniversary or Trump's plans on DACA.

As of now, about 530,000 people are in the U.S. under DACA. An estimated 84,000 have applications pending that were submitted in the time when prohibition on new applications was briefly lifted. In 2023, the Migration Policy Institute estimated 1.16 million immigrants would have qualified for DACA under 2012 rules if the program would have been allowed to continue without legal attempts to stop it.

A block on new applications, and lives in limbo

The Biden administration began accepting new DACA applications in 2021, and that's when Reyna Valdivias Solorio submitted her paperwork. But her application got stuck in limbo when a Texas court ruled DACA illegal and blocked processing all new applications again. The Biden administration still accepts new applications but doesn't process them.

A recent graduate of Nevada State University, Valdivias holds a degree in business administration, concentrating on financial services. She hoped to be a financial analyst. Instead, she works with her father in construction and landscaping.

"I am 110-pound girl lifting wheelbarrows far heavier than my own weight, digging knee-deep trenches and living in extreme exhaustion in the heat of Las Vegas," Valdivias said in a rally at the U.S. Capitol Thursday. But this is not the hard part, she said.

"The hardest part is the emotional stress that comes from living in fear that one day, my older siblings, my parents and I could be deported and be separated from my younger siblings in this country we call home," she said. Her younger siblings were born in the U.S. and are not at risk of deportation.

daca, immigration
DACA supporters rally outside the Supreme Court on June 18, 2020, after the court rejected the Trump administrations push to end the program. (Bill Clark / via Getty Images)

Alexis Toro Juarez, a biology student at Marymount University in Virginia who hopes to attend dental school, had planned to apply for DACA. He had his application in, his fingerprints done and was only awaiting a Social Security document when the courts shut off applications again.

"I was worried whether I could finish my education after high school," Toro Juarez said. A scholarship through Dream.US, which provides scholarships to undocumented students, paid his college tuition.

Eighteen-year-old Sergio Cipriano just graduated from high school in Phoenix and is headed to St. Mary's University in San Antonio to start his dream of being a pediatrician. A spiritual person, he wanted to attend a religious school and was also able to afford college through a Dream.US scholarship.

He was brought to the U.S. when he was 1 year old. He applied for DACA when he was a high school freshman, just meeting the eligibility requirements. A few weeks after getting a notification that his application had been received, a decision by a Texas judge shut down new applications, he said.

"It's terrifying," he said about living without legal status and the possibility of deportation. "I could lose my life I have here —  I carry that and it's a lot, but I try not to be afraid."

Abraham Enriquez, who heads the conservative-leaning Bienvenido US, agreed with his liberal counterparts that some immigrants who arrived as children deserve a path to citizenship through congressional action. But like other Republicans, he said DACA should never have existed and it should be dissolved. He emphasized that he was speaking for himself and not his group, which focuses on Hispanic engagement.

The White House plans an event next week to mark the DACA anniversary. The administration is working on providing DACA recipients without health coverage access to Affordable Care Act plans.

No legal status, but part of the community

Many of the young people who were shut out of DACA are following their predecessors who fought for the program by engaging in activism or civic and community life.

Valdivias, Toro Juarez and Cipriano were part of the contingent that visited lawmakers' offices in D.C. and rallied at the Capitol last week. They also are involved in activist groups that are working to turn out voters this election.

Karime Rodriguez, a former DACA holder who now has legal residency, said there is disillusionment in the community that once again a president has not been able to make immigration reform happen.

"We know the candidates are not ideal now," said Rodriguez, immigration services manager with LUCHA immigrant advocacy group.

"We are not voting for our saviors," she said. "You have to vote for the candidate that is going to allow us to make change in the future — Trump is not that candidate."

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