Dreaming in limbo: how DACA recipients are faring one year later

The Trump administration announced its decision to end the DACA program in September 2017. One year later, program recipients continue to volunteer, raise families, and advance their careers despite the constant threat of deportation. 

Bryan Terry/The Oklahoman/AP
Amanda Sandoval, with Dream Action Oklahoma, bows her head in prayer during a vigil at Sacred Hearth Catholic Church in Oklahoma City. Ms. Sandoval and other DACA recipients have gathered to mark the one year since the Trump administration announced it would end the program.

Last September, Cynthia Garcia was handed a ticket to a roller coaster ride that she didn't want and she didn't purchase.

Ever since, she and other recipients of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program have been stuck on that wild ride of uncertainty, caught in a political tug of war with their lives and their futures hanging in the balance.

"It's a roller coaster of emotions, frustration, waking up every day trying to keep updated to what's happening," said Ms. Garcia. "It's almost like you dream in spasms. It's always this constant, draining back and forth of what should happen, what shouldn't happen."

This month marks one year since the Trump administration announced it was ending the DACA program. The program, created by the Obama administration in 2012, allowed qualifying undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as children to apply for renewable, two-year permits that would protect them from deportation and allow them to work. The program does not provide a path to citizenship.

One year later, the program remains in limbo, and Garcia said she no longer feels like she has control of her future.

"Somebody else is dictating what happens in my daily life by pushing legislation that affects my status, by pulling from legislation that will help my status," she told The Oklahoman. "It's a constant toggle back and forth on whether I should make plans [for] the future or where I should make emergency packages in case I'm at risk of deportation."

Garcia and other DACA recipients and allies recently gathered inside the gymnasium of a Catholic church and school in south Oklahoma City for an emotional vigil to mark one year since the rescission of DACA. Speaking in a mix of Spanish and English, they said prayers, shared about their experiences, and advocated for a permanent solution.

As of July 31, there were about 6,580 active DACA recipients, often called Dreamers, in Oklahoma, according to US Citizenship and Immigration Services. The term "Dreamers" is based on never-passed proposals in Congress called the DREAM Act that would have provided similar protections for young immigrants.

Last September, the Trump administration called on the US Department of Homeland Security to phase out the DACA program by letting two-year protections and work permits issued under the program expire without the option to renew them. At the time, DACA recipients whose permits would expire before March 5 were given a month, until Oct. 5, to renew.

However, several federal judges blocked efforts to end the program, temporarily requiring the Trump administration to allow qualified undocumented immigrants to renew their protected status under the DACA program.

US Citizenship and Immigration Services currently is accepting requests for DACA renewals but is not accepting requests from those who have never been granted deferred action under DACA.

Standing in a circle inside the gym, Angelica Villalobos held a candle in her left hand and touched her right hand to her chest.

"I am somebody," she said, pausing between two of the words to allow the rest of the group to echo her message.

"And I deserve full equality," she continued, again pausing after certain words so the rest of the group could chant along. "Right here, right now."

Ms. Villalobos has a family that she said is just like anyone else's. Like any caring mother, she gets up each morning and helps her children get ready for school. But Villalobos also faces the difficulty of having to explain to her children what's happening with immigration.

"Every time I have to do that, it reminds me that I'm constantly afraid of being ripped apart from my own kids," she said.

Her five children are all US citizens, but Villalobos and her husband are DACA recipients. She doesn't want her children to be surprised by what's happening, which has meant having some tough conversations to keep them informed.

"At any given moment, this administration could not just terminate the program like they did last year, but also I can end up being in deportation proceedings in some way even though I've been in the US for more than half of my life," Villalobos said.

She came to the United States from Mexico with her mom and siblings in 1996 when she had just turned 11. In 2013, she received DACA protections. When she did, Villalobos said she felt herself for the first time. It helped alleviate fear she felt and allowed her to become more involved in the community.

Villalobos volunteers with a number of organizations. She said she wants to give back to the community that has given her so much.

She said the way politicians "are using people of color as punching bags and trying to use us as scapegoats" makes her feel inferior. She urged politicians to open their minds and their hearts and get to know the people around them.

"We all have the right to dream," she said. "It doesn't matter your skin color. It doesn't matter who you are. This country has the opportunities for anyone who dreams to be able to achieve those goals and those dreams. But at this moment, it seems like we don't matter and that we are not people. And I want everyone to know that we are just like anyone else. We are working hard every day to continue providing for our families and continue providing to this country."

Dream Action Oklahoma, a community-based organization that works to empower local immigrants through advocacy and education, organized the vigil.

During the past year, the organization has been holding DACA renewal clinics to assist people in the community.

From September 2017 to June 2018, the organization deployed 88 filing fee scholarships that totaled more than $43,500. From mid-July to early-August, the group helped 65 Oklahomans during four free legal clinics and deployed 40 filing fee scholarships that totaled $19,800.

Garcia, who serves as deportation defense director for Dream Action Oklahoma, said she doesn't want to keep dreaming in two-year lapses.

She came to the United States from Mexico with her mom and younger sister in 2003, when she was 14 years old. Garcia was old enough to remember crossing the border, not knowing if her family would make it to the other side.

She first received DACA protections in 2013. She said she didn't apply for the program right away because at first she didn't trust it. Those who applied for DACA had to provide the government with personal details about themselves, and Garcia worried about that.

Once she did receive DACA, she was able to get a driver's license for the first time and to advance in her career. She said she was no longer forced to work low-paying jobs, and she became more involved in community service. She recalled the first time she went to get an ID, the first time she boarded a plane, and the first time she got sick and was able to seek treatment at a hospital instead of from a "bootleg doctor."

"It just opened a field for me to really explore something that I wanted to do rather than just what I could do," she said. "Having that opportunity, that chance opens doors.... I never had that chance before."

Garcia said she was heartbroken when the Trump administration announced it was rescinding the program. For her, receiving DACA protections was like "fresh air whenever you've been suppressed under water the whole time."

"Now you want to tell me that I have to get back under water when I already know what it is to come up for air," she said.

Garcia closed out the vigil with a prayer and a hope that Sept. 5 will eventually be just another day and their tears will be replaced with joy.

"We deserve to be here," she said, choking up. "We deserve to live unafraid, and we deserve to dream just like everyone else. My parents didn't travel thousands of miles to be criminalized. They traveled so I could dream."

This story was reported by The Oklahoman.

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