Cristina Guerrero doesn’t have any memories from Mexico, her home country, where at 2 years old her parents carried her across the border into the U.S. and eventually settled in Utah.
But she vividly remembers former President Barack Obama announcing the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, 14 years later. Her parents were at first skeptical — then her older sister applied, was issued a Social Security number and found a job.
“We were just in shock,” said Guerrero, who applied shortly after her sister. “My parents were in a state of relief, like this is actually possible.”
Guerrero eventually earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Utah, and now works at Salt Lake Community College as an admissions adviser — all possible through DACA, which granted her work authorization. But even now, her future in the U.S. is murky.
Wednesday marked a decade of DACA, which protects children of undocumented immigrants from deportation and allows them to work. Called “Dreamers,” they could apply if they arrived in the U.S. at 16 years old or younger, and before 2007, were enrolled in a school and had a clean record. Anyone serving in the U.S. military was eligible, too.
But 10 years later the law has gaps that continue to grow — for one, there is no pathway to citizenship for Dreamers, who for years lived in a state of limbo. And because of the 2007 cutoff, young Dreamers are ineligible for the program. Roughly 100,000 will graduate high school this year unable to legally work.
The law was also never meant to be permanent, Obama himself calling it a “stopgap measure” in 2012.
“For the first few years, we just presumed it would be a policy that stayed in place until Congress did something better,” said Matthew Soerens, the U.S. director of church mobilization and advocacy for World Relief’s refugee resettlement agency.
But Congress didn’t, and the last decade has been marred by uncertainty for the country’s roughly 600,000 Dreamers, with DACA becoming a political football punted back and forth between the courts and three different presidents.
Dreamers win under Trump, but could lose under Biden
Former President Donald Trump tried to rescind DACA, but a federal judge in 2020 ruled that the administration cut corners in its attempt. The Department of Homeland Security then started to scale back the program, including its protections on deportation and work authorization, while tightening restrictions on who could apply.
In December 2020, a federal court dealt another blow to Trump, ruling that acting DHS secretary Chad Wolf was improperly appointed and did not have the authority to make changes to DACA. The law was again restored.
But DACA remained in the crosshairs for some Republicans, and in 2021 a U.S. District Court judge ruled in favor of nine GOP-controlled states, spearheaded by Texas, that argued Obama violated federal immigration law in 2012.
The Biden administration appealed the ruling and on July 6, the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals will hear the case. The court has not been kind to the Biden administration’s attempts to overturn immigration policies of his predecessor, and it’s expected to go all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
In 2016, the Supreme Court reached a split decision on a similar policy, Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents, or DAPA. The 4-4 verdict in the wake of Justice Antonin Scalia’s death left in place an appeals court ruling that blocked the law, which would have granted work authorization to millions of undocumented immigrants.
Six years later the Supreme Court’s makeup is more conservative, and DACA’s future is uncertain at best. If Congress doesn’t act, it could leave a 600,000-person hole in a labor market already struggling to retain workers.
“That means they’ll rejoin the undocumented, which doesn’t mean they’ll get deported on day one — most of them probably wouldn’t be deported — but they would lose their jobs,” said Soerens.
‘A state of constant limbo’
For DACA recipients, that’s an unsettling prospect.
“I’m young, I’m trying to figure out what my adult life is going to look like, what my career is going to look like,” said Guerrero. “But then to think all of this work, all of this passion and drive could be uprooted ... that is something that terrifies me, every single day.”
The campus where Guerrero works is home to Salt Lake Community College’s Dream Center, a resource for mixed-status families — including DACA recipients, undocumented students, refugees and asylum-seekers.
“It’s really for anyone that is from an immigrant background, and is having a hard time navigating higher education,” said Brenda Santoyo, the center’s manager, who helps students with admissions, scholarships and financial aid, while connecting them with resources both at the college and the broader community.
And generally speaking, the “morale is not great” among the Dreamers Santoyo works with, some of them fixated on the looming July court date.
“They’re very upset about it because they don’t know where their future is going. And being undocumented means you are in a state of constant limbo. You don’t know where you’re going to go, right? ... getting an education, working, having a family, a lot of those things go up in the air.”
For Dreamers who have little to no recollection of life in their home country, the debate “doesn’t make sense,” says Estefania Zavala, who came to the U.S. with her parents when she was 5.
“A lot of us Dreamers, we’re American in every single way, except in paper,” she said. “We’ve built our life here. I have a son who’s 3 years old, and I could not imagine what it would be like to have to leave him.”
A permanent solution
In 2021, the U.S. House passed the American Dream and Promise Act, which gives Dreamers the opportunity to apply for permanent legal status and eventually citizenship. All four of Utah’s Republican congressmen voted against the bill.
The Senate version of the bill, the Dream Act, was introduced in February 2021 by Sens. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.
A 2021 Deseret News/Hinckley Institute of Politics poll showed that 55% of Utahns supported the House bill — 38% opposed it, while 7% were not sure.
Most surveys suggest widespread support for creating a path to citizenship for Dreamers, regardless of who is polled and where it takes place — a 2020 Pew Research Center poll found 74% of Americans were in favor; in Texas, the state leading the charge to repeal the law, 63% of voters say DACA should continue; and 69% of Trump voters want to protect Dreamers, a 2020 Politico/Morning Consultant poll found.
“Really, the issue right now is in the Senate,” said Soerens. “There’s very few members of the U.S. Senate who will explicitly say we don’t want Dreamers to have a path to citizenship. They start fighting over the details — how do we define a Dreamer?”