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Editor’s note 6/18/20: The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a 5-4 decision that the Trump administration may not immediately carry out its plan to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.
It was the summer of 2012, and Fort Lewis College sophomore Marissa Molina was getting ready to drop out. Molina was an undocumented immigrant, and not eligible for in-state tuition. She and her family had exhausted their savings paying to attend the Durango school, and furthermore, Molina saw no point in trying to obtain a degree when her job opportunities after undergrad would be extremely limited.
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“It’d been a tough year for me. I went home for the summer and told my parents I wasn’t going to go back to college,” the Glenwood Springs native says. “It didn’t make sense for me to get a degree that was going to be nothing more than a pretty piece of paper on a wall because I didn’t have the opportunity to use the degree.”
Before she got the chance to drop out, though, she got a call from a friend, who told her to turn on the news. President Barack Obama was announcing a new program for undocumented immigrants: Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. DACA, created by executive order, granted protections to undocumented immigrants who had arrived in the United States as children, including the ability to legally go to school, obtain work, and avoid deportation.
“I don’t say this lightly, but DACA turned my life around that summer,” says Molina, who now lives in Denver. “I had felt so trapped. I’d been a high-achieving student and had a 4.0 in college. But I was not able to follow my dreams despite how hard I was working. I felt betrayed by the idea of the American Dream.”
Molina applied to the program, which allowed her to get in-state tuition, and she eventually graduated. As a DACA recipient, she was also able to acquire a teaching job; she’s now the Colorado Immigration Director at FWD.US, a bipartisan political organization that lobbies for immigration reform.
Molina and her fellow DACA recipients enjoyed benefits for about four years until trouble arrived. First, it came in the form of the Republican presidential candidate, who promised to scrap the program if he were elected. That, according to some, was when they started to get anxious that protections could soon be taken from them.
Then, on November 8, 2016, that candidate, Donald Trump, was elected. It took President Trump a few months after his inauguration, but in September 2017, he finally announced his administration would begin phasing out DACA. Since then, several lawsuits have been filed against the decision, and in June 2019 the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to review the case. By the end of this month, the court is expected to deliver a decision on the lawfulness of Trump’s order to end the program—effectively deciding the fates of more than 800,000 DACA recipients nationwide.
Thanks to injunctions issued by U.S. district courts, DACA recipients have been able to keep and renew their status. But they’ve remained in limbo over the longterm availability of the benefits that allow them to work and live lawfully in the United States.
“It’s been four years of ups and downs,” says Jorge Resendez, a DACA recipient and Denver Public Schools teacher. “There’s been a lot of stress and a lot of anxiety. Not knowing what’s going to happen and waiting for another court and then another court to take it up. It takes a toll on your mental health.”
Resendez came to America from Zacatecas, Mexico at the age of four. After growing up in Los Angeles and earning his degree at UCLA in ethnic studies in 2013, Resendez applied for DACA protections. After receiving them, he was able to apply for a position at DPS through Teach For America and was then hired permanently by DPS. He has taught social studies in the district for the past six years.
The impact of the novel coronavirus only compounds the stress of the impending decision. Around 200,000 beneficiaries of DACA are essential workers employed in the healthcare, food, education, and retail industries.
Denver DACA recipient Lu Pacheco, for example, currently works with COVID-19 patients at Platte Valley Medical Center in Brighton. She came to Colorado from Costa Rica at 13, and, to combat the culture shock and isolation she felt after moving, quickly threw herself into her studies.
“You could call me a nerd,” she jokes. “I’m okay with that.”
Pacheco realized she wanted to work in healthcare after not having easy access to it as an undocumented immigrant. “At my house growing up, one of the essential rules was don’t break an arm. Because we couldn’t afford it,” she says. After doing just that—breaking her arm—while snowboarding, Pacheco visited a clinic in Silverthorne that tailored to low-income immigrants.
“I started getting this idea in my head that if I could be in this field, I could make some kind of difference,” she says.
After earning a degree in molecular biology and genetics, Pacheco served two years as an EMT, and eventually decided to become a nurse. She went back to school at Regis University and graduated this spring with her nursing degree. At Platte Valley, she works with many Spanish-speaking coronavirus patients and is one of the few staffers who can communicate in Spanish with them. Pacheco says she’s angered at the thought of having to leave her patients due to an unfavorable Supreme Court decision.
Molina—who works with DACA recipients, many of whom are essential workers—on a daily basis at FWD.US, echoes Pacheco’s statement.
“I think it’s beautiful to see the way that DACA recipients, even at home in a time when their lives are in limbo, are saying, I’m willing to do what it takes to fight for my community, and I’m going to continue to show up,” says Molina. “That exemplifies the spirit of the DACA recipient.”
Even if the Supreme Court does not rule in favor of DACA recipients, Molina adds that they’re still going to fight.
One such avenue is through Congress. Last year, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the American Dream and Promise Act, which would provide DACA recipients and other undocumented immigrants with protection from deportation and a way to obtain permanent legal citizenship status. The bill is currently waiting to be taken up by the Senate.
Pacheco thinks more than a moral choice, the court’s decision is a practical one. “We have to be working or in school. We can’t sit on our butts at home. We have to pay taxes. We have to have a clean criminal record. We are upstanding citizens. We just had unlucky circumstances. It would be such a waste to just let us fall through the cracks. We have too many skills, too much knowledge. We are essential in many ways. Making a decision that wouldn’t help us wouldn’t help the country.”