El Paso filmmaker Juan Paul Flores Vazquez was brought to the United States from Mexicali, Mexico, when he was 3. At age 16, he became a recipient of the federal Deferred Actions for Childhood Arrivals program, an Obama-era initiative that allows some undocumented immigrants to apply for a renewable, two-year work permit and a reprieve from deportations proceedings.
Upon learning that a federal court found DACA unlawful earlier this month, Florez Vazquez, now 22, said he felt a familiar wave of anxiety wash over him.
“I have to get a renewal (of DACA) at the moment,” he said. “There’s always that fear that I’m going to wake up or I’m going to get a text or I’m going to see a tweet that says pending (renewals) are now denied. That’s always in the back of my mind.”
The latest ruling by Texas-based U.S. District Judge Andrew Hanen doesn’t affect current recipients or renewals but bars new and pending applications. For El Paso’s immigrant community, Hanen’s decision was just the latest heartbreaking development in what has been a saga of varying rulings and executive orders about the federal program.
“It has just been devastating for our clients,” said Brooke Bischoff, a contract attorney at Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center. Bischoff represents more than a dozen clients who were in the process of applying for DACA prior to the new ruling.
As of March 2021, there were 101,970 DACA recipients in Texas and 231,000 people immediately eligible to apply for the program, according to the Migration Policy Institute’s analysis of United States Citizenship and Immigration Services data. As of the end of June, there were 81,000 pending first-time DACA applications, according to CBS News.
“These are people who DACA would have given them access to getting a driver’s license, or to applying for school, or having healthcare,” Bischoff said.
DACA recipients may also be able to access health insurance through employment or university healthcare plans. Although DACA recipients are not eligible for Affordable Care Act benefits, they are able to access state-funded Medicaid or CHIP programs in some states outside of Texas.
Bischoff said she has several client cases where the DACA applicant is either physically or mentally disabled, and is in the care of someone who is assisting them in their application.
“Having DACA would have opened up a range of medical and educational and possible other social services for them that now are potentially off the table again,” she said.
This is not the first time that the DACA program has been in jeopardy since former President Barack Obama announced the program through an executive memorandum in 2012. Former President Donald Trump announced plans to end the program in 2017, which prompted multiple lawsuits challenging his administration’s plans.
What followed was a teeter totter of court rulings, presidential actions and failed Congressional efforts to pass legislation like the DREAM Act that would protect immigrants who don’t have legal status. In July 2020, the Trump administration announced that it would stop accepting new DACA applications, despite an earlier Supreme Court ruling that blocked the administration’s efforts to stop the program. Among President Joe Biden’s first executive actions upon taking office in January 2021 was a memorandum to reinstate DACA and re-open the application process.
“The public interest of the nation is always served by the cessation of a program that was created in violation of law and whose existence violates the law,” Hanen wrote in his ruling. He found that DACA violated the Administrative Procedure Act, which governs the process through which federal agencies can make rules, and was therefore unlawful.
Hanen’s decision prompted a pledge by President Biden that the Department of Justice would appeal the ruling, and a call to Congress to pass legislation providing a path to citizenship for Dreamers.
Flores Vazquez said the new court ruling is “very triggering,” and described the back-and-forth policy changes to DACA as feeling like an “abusive relationship” between the government and the Dreamer community. Flores Vazquez, an aspiring filmmaker, reflected on the immigrant experience in his short film “Out of the Shadows (With Tears of Joy),” that he made as a high school sophomore shortly after becoming a DACA recipient.
Then four years later, during an interim when he needed to renew his DACA, he lost his job and had an employer threaten to call the Border Patrol on him.
“It’s been years since Congress hasn’t taken action and I, quite frankly, feel like it’s irresponsible. They have made a promise to all of our immigrant communities and we deserve a pathway to citizenship,” said Claudia Yoli Ferla, executive director of MOVE Texas, a nonprofit organization that promotes voter engagement among young Texans.
Yoli Ferla arrived in El Paso at age 8 after she and her mother fled Venezuela, and has been a DACA recipient since 2013. Yoli Ferlas underscored how significantly DACA has shaped opportunities in her life.
“Personally, DACA meant for me to have the ability to one, continue my education in this country; two, have the ability to legally work in this country and provide for my family; and three, be protected from deportation,” she said.
U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-El Paso, said her heart sank when she saw Hanen’s decision.
“I have spoken to many DACA recipients, and they are emotionally drained and exhausted,” Escobar said. “They have suffered disappointing blow after disappointing blow. And they have been given promise after promise that Congress will finally fix it.”
Escobar pledged that she is “100% committed” to providing Dreamers a pathway to citizenship, and said the Congressional imperative extends beyond Dreamers to the broader undocumented community.
“We have to do more than just take care of Dreamers, we have to finally provide a path to citizenship for the millions of residents that we have in our country,” Escobar said.
For Yoli Ferla, this distinction is critical.
“Democrats in Congress have to deliver and can deliver on the pathway to citizenship for millions of undocumented people now,” she said. “And ensuring that stays in the reconciliation package before the office recess, this package must protect undocumented people including DACA recipients, (Temporary Protected Status) holders, farmworkers and essential workers,” she said.
Cover photo: DACA supporters rallied outside the Supreme Court in November 2019 as the court heard arguments about the future of the program. (Photo courtesy of Victoria Pickering)