Some DACA immigrants describe anxiety and gloom as they await a Supreme Court decision.
When he thinks too much about the future, Edison Suasnavas’s hands get sweaty. Sometimes, in the middle of the night, he wakes up in a panic, realizing that the nightmare is real. Then there are days when his anxiety is so obvious, his co-workers can’t help but notice that something is bothering him.
“It’s hard not to talk about it with them,” says the 33-year-old biologist at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, where he tests tissue and blood samples for cancer. He says it’s rare that his immigration status isn’t on his mind.
Suasnavas, who was born in Ecuador, is a recipient of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA) that provides protection from deportation. He’s one of nearly 700,000 so-called DREAMers, or undocumented immigrants who arrived in the US as children who are waiting for the US Supreme Court to decide their fate next month. (The name refers to stalled DREAM Act legislation that would codify their protections and give them a pathway to citizenship.)
DREAMers have been living in limbo since September 2017, when President Donald Trump ordered his administration to stop renewing the temporary work permits for those in the DACA program. The president’s order was blocked by the courts, but now three cases have made their way to the Supreme Court, where justices will hear arguments on November 12. At issue is whether it was legal for then-President Barack Obama to create DACA without congressional approval in 2012.
The fierce debate over immigration — and DACA in particular — raises existential questions for young immigrants like Suasnavas who’ve lived most of their lives in the US. Where do they belong? Will they be deported to a country they hardly know?
Public support is on Suasnavas’s side. An overwhelming number of Americans approve of giving legal status to DREAMers, who grew up in the US and often seem as American as anyone else. But public support means little if the Supreme Court’s conservative majority believes DACA is unlawful.
“It’s really hard honestly. It’s an anxiety I live with every day,” Suasnavas tells me over the phone. He moved with his family to Utah from Ecuador when he was 12, overstaying a tourist visa for the chance to live in their version of paradise — a town with clean streets and safe neighborhoods. His father found work washing dishes at a local restaurant. His mother cleaned hotel rooms. The family converted to Mormonism.
Twenty years later, Edison says home to him is Saratoga Springs, Utah, a lakeside town outside Salt Lake City. He went to college nearby and met his wife, who is from Mexico, in the area too. They have a daughter and bought a house together. Now his wife, who is pursuing a master’s degree, is expecting their second child.
Suasnavas has everything he’s ever wanted, he says, and still can’t feel at peace.
“We’re creating all of these memories here together, but then I remember that it may all be over,” he said. “It’s bittersweet.”
The Supreme Court has the power to upend DACA recipients’ lives
Obama created the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals in 2012, which was open to unauthorized immigrants who came to the US under the age of 16 and before June 2007. If they applied and passed background checks, they were given a two-year grant of protection from deportation and a work permit. They could renew it every two years.
But on the campaign trail in 2016, Trump vowed to end the program as part of his anti-immigrant agenda. And since becoming president, he’s taken many steps to make good on his promise.
In September 2017, Trump ordered the Department of Homeland Security to stop taking new applications and to wind down the granting of renewals for people already covered under DACA. The first order was successful, and the agency stopped accepting new applications.
The second Trump order — ending renewals for current DACA recipients — was thwarted in January 2018, when a California judge put a hold on Trump’s plans. That ruling was appealed, and it, as well as several other lawsuits against DACA, is what the Court will hear next month.
As Vox’s Ian Millhiser explains, the legal issue at the heart of these cases is a tiny one:
There’s no real doubt that the Trump administration may rescind DACA. Indeed, one of the opinions now being reviewed by the Supreme Court states explicitly that the administration “indisputably can end the DACA program.” And yet, multiple courts blocked the administration’s attempt to do so, largely due to a glorified paperwork error.
The Department of Homeland Security can end DACA for any policy-based reason. But that’s not what the administration did. Officials said they were winding down the program because they claimed DACA was illegal to begin with, an abuse of executive power. And because they questioned the legality of the program, the courts have weighed in. The Trump administration seems to want the conservative majority on the Supreme Court to determine whether it was illegal to create DACA. If it decides the program was unlawful, that would bar future presidents from starting it up again.
That uncertainty is why thousands of DACA immigrants are so anxious right now.
“People are scared because they don’t know how the courts are going to rule,” said Leezia Dhalla, a spokesperson for FWD.us, an immigration advocacy group. Dhalla has DACA protection too. “There is a lot of fear about how the Trump administration is going to handle our information if DACA ends.”
If the courts rule that the program is unlawful and DREAMers can’t renew their work permits, they may have to give up their livelihoods. They will also be left vulnerable to deportation. For Suasnavas, and hundreds of thousands like him, that could mean leaving his parents and siblings behind and starting over in a country he hardly knows.
DREAMers are proud of their success but scared for their future
Despite the Trump administration’s attacks on immigrants, DACA recipients have not gone into hiding. Many have, instead, become a powerful force in shaping the national immigration debate. One by one, they’ve come forward to tell the world that they are undocumented. They are teachers, lawyers, engineers, and doctors who are culturally American, who identify as Americans, and who know no other home than America. Their stories have redefined what it means to be undocumented, and they’re unashamed of their status.
They also become a powerful force in national politics, organizing and lobbying for immigration reform. Advocacy organizations like United We Dream helped pass the American Dream and Promise Act through the House of Representatives in June. The bill offers permanent legal status for DREAMers and thousands of immigrants with Temporary Protected Status, even though the Republican-led Senate currently has no plans to vote on it.
“[DREAMers] have been able to create a very powerful movement,” said Dhalla, of FWD.us. “I think they have really humanized this issue for a lot of people.”
But that doesn’t mean they’re unafraid of losing their protected status. DACA recipients tell me how hard it is to imagine a future outside of the United States or a future without the right to live and work legally in the US. For many undocumented young people, DACA created a sense of hope that hadn’t been there before — and now it could be ripped away.
Ritu Patel, for example, never thought she would have a career. The 25-year-old makeup artist moved to Wisconsin from India with her family when she was six years old and grew up without legal status. She didn’t really have plans for after high school.
“I didn’t think I could do anything because I’m undocumented,” she told me recently. Then, right after she graduated high school in 2012, the Obama administration announced its deportation relief program for young immigrants like her.
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She immediately applied and enrolled in college to study pharmacy. She eventually moved to Florida but realized that she didn’t like working as a pharmacy technician. So she changed careers to pursue her passion: makeup. Thanks to her work permit from DACA, Patel has worked as a makeup artist at Macy’s and MAC Cosmetics. Now she’s a manager of a Tampa Bay MAC Cosmetics store and hopes to climb the corporate ladder. But that could all be over soon.
She said her co-workers were shocked to find out that she was undocumented.
“Everyone was talking about going on cruises and vacations, and I said I can’t leave the country because I might not be able to get back in,” said Patel, who posts makeup tutorials and tips on Instagram. “They couldn’t believe it, especially because they’ve seen how successful I’ve been.”
If she loses DACA, she could eventually lose her job. Supervisors know when an employee’s work permit expires and must let them go when that happens. It could also leave countless businesses and corporations without workers at a time of super-low unemployment. At least 72 percent of the top 25 Fortune 500 companies employ DACA recipients. That includes IBM, Walmart, Apple, General Motors, Amazon, JPMorgan Chase, Home Depot, and Wells Fargo.
Right now, Patel is the primary breadwinner in a home she shares with her boyfriend and his younger siblings. Patel has a plan for everything, but she doesn’t have a plan for how to survive if she can’t renew her work permit.
“I think about it every day, every night before I go to bed,” said Patel, who also volunteers with United We Dream.
Patel said she gives out her personal business card to clients in case she loses her job and needs to take on side work as a makeup artist. “Fifty dollars here and there could help,” she said. “I don’t know. I try not to think about it. No matter what plan I might create, everything is going to change.”
Undocumented immigrants have long been told they don’t belong.
Sana Altaf finds herself getting annoyed with her co-workers these days. Like when they describe unauthorized immigrants as “illegal.”
“I’ve been getting offended, upset, and angry a lot, even though they are otherwise well meaning,” says Altaf, who works as an innovation designer for a multinational firm in New York City.
Altaf told me she’s been open with her co-workers about her status, but that it’s hard for them to understand what she is going through, constantly worried about the future of DREAMers like herself.
Altaf, who was born in Pakistan, moved to the US when she was 13 years old. Her father got a temporary work visa to open a business, which covered her too until she was in college. Then, one day, she was too old to maintain legal status through her father’s visa. So she became undocumented. But she qualified for DACA and was able to finish her studies, earning engineering and business degrees.
Getting the work permit from DACA helped Altaf land her a job at her current firm, though she had to take a leave of absence for five months when the renewal was delayed. During that time, she worked as a barista at a coffee shop.
Now she’s back at work at her job but wonders what will happen in the next few months. Several years ago, she got married to a US citizen, so she may apply for citizenship if she loses DACA. Having that option often makes her feel guilty, she said, as not all DREAMers have the same privilege.
“I’ve felt a profound sadness in the last two years,” she told me. “It just keeps getting worse. I am privileged to work and have a career, but I deal with the guilt and the sadness all the time.”
One of the ways she has dealt with those emotions is by speaking out as an ambassador for United We Dream. Altaf even recorded a video as part of the amicus brief the group filed in the Supreme Court case.
“I want to fight this fight because I have a voice, and I’ve been given that because of DACA,” she says in the recording.
While the Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in just a few weeks, it could be months before the justices come to a decision. DACA recipients, meanwhile, will remain in limbo.
Altaf says a verse from Nigerian poet Ijeoma Umebinyuo has been on her mind a lot these days: “So, here you are, too foreign for home, too foreign for here. Never enough for both.”
It’s a sentiment of displacement many DREAMers can relate to. Whether they can truly call America home has never felt like their decision to make.
Author: Alexia Fernández Campbell