With the door to apply for DACA open for the first time in more than three years, hundreds of high school and college students in California are rushing to apply, fearful it will be slammed shut again.
“We’re on a mad dash to put out as much educational content for folks as possible,” said Juliana Macedo do Nascimento, the state and local policy manager for United We Dream, the largest immigrant youth-led organization in the country. “We know that this window is open, but we don’t know for how long.”
A federal judge ordered the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services on Dec. 4 to fully restore Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, the program that provides temporary protection from deportation and permission to work for about 700,000 young people who came to the U.S. as children.
Court battles ensued after the Trump administration attempted to end DACA in September 2017, and first-time applications have not been accepted since then. Although the attempt to end the program was described as “arbitrary and capricious” by the U.S. Supreme Court in June, the Trump administration continued denying new applications until Dec. 7, after a federal judge ordered them to begin accepting them.
Still, the future of DACA is uncertain. A hearing on a separate lawsuit, in which Texas and six other states sued to end DACA, is scheduled for Dec. 22 in a Houston federal court. Some attorneys are concerned that the agency could again stop accepting new applications sometime after that date.
“We are trying to get as many applications in before there’s a ruling in the Texas case, which is hanging out there,” said Maria Blanco, executive director of the University of California Immigrant Legal Services Center. “Everybody’s working literally weekends and late at night.”
An estimated 300,000 people are now eligible to apply for DACA for the first time. This includes some 55,500 people who have turned 15, the minimum age to apply, since the government stopped accepting new applications. To be eligible for DACA, applicants must have come to the U.S. before they turned 16 and have lived here since June 15, 2007, in addition to attending school or having graduated high school and not been convicted of certain crimes.
Ines Martinez, 18, a first-year student at Cabrillo College in Aptos, near Santa Cruz, turned 15 just a couple of months before DACA was rescinded in 2017. Martinez was brought to the United States right before she turned 2 years old and has lived in Santa Cruz ever since. In high school, she had been excited to apply for DACA to be able to work and help her family and have some protection from deportation. Her family began contacting lawyers and saving up to pay the fee, but just a couple of months after her 15th birthday, the Trump administration stopped accepting new applications.
“I was heartbroken that it was taken away as soon as I was able to apply. That was what I was depending on, that I would be getting DACA,” Martinez said.
She is now working to collect school and medical records needed to prove she has been in the country since 2007.
“Actually going through the process is something really exciting for me, you know, because it’s like, ‘Oh, it’s actually going to happen this time,’” Martinez said.
Counselors and attorneys working with undocumented students at high schools, community colleges, California State University and University of California campuses say this month they have seen a huge increase in the number of students requesting legal services or help applying for DACA.
‘Tremendous pent-up demand’
At the nine UC undergraduate campuses, Blanco estimates there are 400 to 600 students who are eligible for DACA, but were not able to apply until now, because they were too young before.
“There’s tremendous pent-up demand,” Blanco said. “All the undocumented students pretty much that started this year, unless they’re a transfer student, none of them were ever able to apply for DACA. So they all started the year without DACA.”
At Rio Hondo College, a community college in Whittier, in Los Angeles County, the wait for legal appointments for undocumented students has stretched out to two weeks, said Angel Aguilar Garcia, student services assistant for undocumented students at the college.
The mood among undocumented students is a mix of excitement and uncertainty, said Fina Espino, office coordinator for the Cal State San Marcos DREAMer Resource Office, which offers counseling and legal services to undocumented students. Espino said having DACA will help students be able to work and support themselves while completing their studies, and will also allow other opportunities for students, like the ability to attend graduate school in other states, even if they do not offer in-state tuition for undocumented students, like California does. Still, the looming Texas case and the lack of a permanent solution that includes a path to citizenship makes students feel unsafe.
“I had one student who said, ‘But is this for real though? Because on the 22nd there’s that other court hearing.’ For our office, not knowing for sure, it’s a roller coaster for us also, because we don’t know how to advise our students. And it’s a temporary thing that we’re giving them. We have to tell them, ‘This can change at any time,’” Espino said.
The pandemic has made it harder for attorneys and counselors to help large numbers of students at a time in one place. In addition, applicants now have to prove 13 years of residency in the United States, which can prove challenging, especially if back in 2007 they were infants or toddlers and not yet enrolled in school.
“This is going to be a big challenge. It’s like a big puzzle we need to solve,” said Eleazar Valdez, outreach and workshops coordinator for the Central Valley Immigrant Integration Collaborative, which runs the Dream Resource Center to help students and families in the Fresno Unified School District. Valdez says he tells people to think back, “What were you doing in 2007? Did you take your child to the dentist? Maybe you went to the library to check out a book. Anything that has the name and date.”
Teacher fights the good fight
When a court ordered the federal government to accept new DACA applications again, Los Angeles middle school teacher Miriam González Ávila said her first thought was of her younger sister, who will now be able to apply, and her former students.
González Ávila, who has DACA status herself and was one of the plaintiffs who sued to keep the program in place in the case that went to the Supreme Court, was teaching eighth grade when DACA was rescinded in 2017. Her students inspired her to fight for DACA in court, she said. When the Trump administration canceled the program, some of her students were visibly upset, either because they would no longer be able to apply or because they had older siblings with DACA.
She often thinks about those who had just started their freshman year of high school and were about to turn 15 and be able to apply for DACA when the Trump administration canceled the program.
“Even though I’m not in direct contact with them, I think about them all the time. I think about one specific student whose mom was saying she was really worried about him because he felt like giving up,” González Ávila said.
González Ávila is relieved more people will be able to apply for DACA, but she said it is time for Congress to enact a permanent solution with a pathway to citizenship.
“These past couple of years since the rescission of DACA, it’s been a back-and-forth, you can’t ever feel completely comfortable,” González Ávila said. “It’s this game that the government keeps playing with us, and I think it’s time for a permanent solution, so we can live our lives and go to school without the pressure of, ‘Am I going to be safe today? What about tomorrow?’”
Advocates, teachers, counselors and DACA recipients from across California all voiced the same sentiment.
“We hear a lot from young people who thought they would be eligible but entered the country a little late. They’re just as deserving, but because of an arbitrary date, they’re kept outside,” Macedo do Nascimento said. “We’re going to continue to fight for protection for as many people as possible and also for permanent protections through Congress.”
* EdSource reporter Betty Márquez Rosales contributed to this article.