‘I can’t plan ahead’: Dreamers speak out as US program faces new threat

<span>Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

It’s been almost 10 years since Areli Hernandez received her first US government work permit in her mailbox. Hernandez remembers staring at her own photograph and touching the scripted name on the card in disbelief, feeling that a long-sought dream had finally materialized.

Related: US court orders review of landmark immigration program for Dreamers

But earlier this week, the program that gives temporary deportation relief to Hernandez and hundreds of thousands of other immigrants known as Dreamers, allowing a chance to live and work legally in the US, came under threat once again in a federal court.

Nine Republican-led states asked Judge Andrew Hanen in Texas to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (Daca) policy, a request that if successful would stop nearly 600,000 immigrants brought to the US as undocumented children from being able to renew their work permits and continue to be protected from potential deportation.

“I can’t plan ahead because my future consists of judges’ decisions,” said Hernandez, who was born in Mexico City and brought to the US at the age of five in the late 1980s. Hernandez was referring to her own Daca status, which is set to expire later this year. “I want to make choices that don’t depend on my card and an expiration date.”

The latest filing from the coalition of states led by Texas denounced Daca as “unlawful” and “unconstitutional”. The states urged Hanen to strike down the program, which was fortified by the Biden administration as a federal regulation last year after originally being created by the Obama administration in 2012.

Since its implementation, Daca has lifted the threat of deportation for approximately 825,000 individuals lacking legal status who were brought to the US by age 16 and before 15 June 2007, have studied in a US school or served in the military and don’t have a serious criminal record.

The name Dreamers originated with a bill first proposed in the 2001-2002 Congress, the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors (Dream) Act, but which did not pass. Obama referred to these so-called Dreamers as “young people, who, for all intents and purposes, are Americans”.

Daca was meant to be a stopgap until Congress passed immigration reform legislation and put Dreamers like Hernandez on a path to US citizenship. That has not happened and instead the program – and Dreamers’ futures – end up batted back and forth by the courts.

Last year Kevin McCarthy, now speaker of the House, called “amnesty” for undocumented immigrants a “nonstarter” and the only immigration policy his Republican House majority would support was “securing” the US-Mexico border.

Donald Trump had announced as president that he was scrapping Daca. This was blocked by the courts, including the US supreme court in 2020, but still left Dreamers in turmoil.

Then-rival presidential candidate Joe Biden pledged that he would change things, saying: “As president, I will immediately work to make Daca permanent by sending a bill to Congress on day one of my administration.”

Biden did so, but immigration reform legislation is still stuck in Congress. Then states hostile to Daca persuaded Hanen in July 2021 to ban new applicants.

Hernandez was a student in southern California in the early 2000s, before Daca.

She told the Guardian this week: “I learned that I couldn’t be a social worker because in order to apply for a license I needed a social security number,” adding that as an undocumented immigrant: “I was also looking at programs that had federal grants that required US citizenship, and again, I couldn’t.”

She worked as a janitor before graduating in psychology from California State University, Northridge, then spent years working under weekly or monthly contracts in jobs unrelated to her degree.

It wasn’t until Hernandez, 39, became a Daca recipient in 2013 that she landed a full-time position at the non-profit Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles (Chirla), where she earned enough to do a master’s in public administration, and is now director of executive affairs.

Many of the almost 600,000 current Dreamers are essential workers who have supported the nation’s classrooms and hospitals throughout the Covid-19 pandemic. They are also sports stars, award-winning journalists and academics, or successful in countless other walks of life.

Dreamers pump billions into the US economy and, according to the progressive thinktank the Center for American Progress, households with Daca recipients pay almost $10bn in taxes each year.

When the Dream Act was introduced on Capitol Hill in 2001, Juliana Macedo do Nascimento coincidentally arrived in Buena Park, Orange county, California, from Brazil at the age of 14.

Since 2001 at least 11 versions of the Dream Act have been introduced in Congress but never passed.

“We really see the cruelty of what Texas and the other plaintiffs are asking for, it’s just anti-immigrant rhetoric,” said Macedo do Nascimento, who now lives in Baltimore. “It’s all part of this narrative that mostly brown people shouldn’t be in this country.”

Her current Daca protections expire in March 2024 and Dreamers once again wait in anxious limbo, first for Hanen’s ruling then, if he agrees to shut down Daca, the likely Biden appeal all the way back up to the now-conservative-controlled supreme court.

“Daca recipients are allowed to buy houses, buy cars, and have these long-term debts,” said Macedo do Nascimento, 37, referring to the typical American burdens of student loans, mortgages and vehicle financing. “But we can’t plan a family. We deserve a path to citizenship, it will allow us to have a sense of security.”