I first learned about the experiences of recipients of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals as a law student in the UT Law’s Immigration Clinic, and then as a graduate student conducting research on the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act. When I joined the Immigration Clinic in 2010, DACA had not yet been authorized. I helped immigrant university students who came to the U.S. as young children, attended public schools and dreamed of pursuing professional careers. Their courage and perseverance never ceased to amaze me. Most of them were first-generation college students who had sacrificed everything even — and were even working multiple jobs — to obtain a higher education. They confronted adversities that went far beyond the stresses of course work. An undocumented status threatened to put their dreams on hold. The lack of a Social Security number meant an inability to obtain a driver’s license, an inability to study abroad and an inability to work legally in the United States. Graduation brought even more uncertainty, as graduates could not obtain careers that aligned with their skills and achievements. Fear of deportation cast a constant shadow over daily life, from such mundane tasks as going to the grocery store or shopping with friends. Some had parents or family members who had been detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement or deported. Others were in deportation proceedings themselves, juggling classes and homework with immigration court hearings.
When the DREAM Act narrowly lost in the Senate in December 2010, I was impressed by the young immigrants’ resilience and mobilization. Before the vote, “Dreamers” marched together, shared their stories with the public, pressured elected officials and even staged hunger strikes. They also traveled to Washington to attend the vote and occupied legislators’ offices to demand change. The DREAM Act’s failure was devastating. Yet “Dreamers” continued to fight for immigrant rights, vowing their activism would someday pay off. On June 15, 2012, “Dreamers” learned their political engagement could affect change. On this day, President Obama announced the creation of the DACA program, which granted undocumented youth protection from deportation and work authorization. Finally, the young immigrants could pursue careers of their choice and go about their daily lives without fear of deportation.
As an immigration attorney, I have witnessed the difference that DACA has made in the lives of young immigrants. In the context of higher education, DACA has opened doors for undocumented young immigrants who previously could not accept paid internships, study abroad or pursue professional careers. DACA has also promoted more awareness on college campuses about the experiences of immigrant students. Several colleges and universities now have resources for undocumented students. “Dreamers” have pursued graduate school and excelled in their careers. They have become teachers, mentoring younger generations of young immigrants and their families who look up to them as role models. “Dreamers” have also become lawyers who advocate for immigrant rights and social justice. With DACA, “Dreamers” have sustained their families financially and given back to their communities.
Since DACA’s inception, increased threats against the program have caused anguish for its beneficiaries and their families. In September 2017, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the termination of the DACA program. The announcement devastated DACA beneficiaries. They were left in limbo, fearing that they could be fired from their jobs or deported. Multiple lawsuits challenged the Trump administration’s termination of DACA. As a result, U.S. District Courts have issued injunctions allowing for DACA renewals to continue. However, threats to eliminate DACA still exist, making the program’s future uncertain. These threats coincide with the administration’s attacks on the immigrant community and declaration of a national emergency to construct a border wall.
Despite the uncertainty surrounding the DACA program, I have discovered hope through solidarity. I have also found victory in each DACA renewal grant. For DACA beneficiaries, it is important that permanent legislation be passed that will also protect the dignity of their families. As an attorney, I am proud to defend the rights of the immigrant community and use my voice to advocate for change.
Cigarroa is a 2013 graduate of the UT School of Law.