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As ‘dreamers’ renew status, they face both opportunities and fears

As they reapply, participants worry about the future of a program instituted in 2012 by the Obama administration.

Without a work permit from DACA, Irma Márquez-Trapero would not have been able to work legally. She is now the recruitment coordinator for Hiawatha Academies.
Photo by Simeon Lancaster

Two years after President Barack Obama initiated the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, undocumented young people across Minnesota and the nation, known as dreamers, are facing new opportunities and fears regarding their future.

Many were disheartened by the president’s recent decision to delay taking executive action on immigration until after the November elections. Meanwhile, DACA provides opportunities for those who qualify.

The program, which offers a work permit and protection against deportation to eligible undocumented immigrants, went into effect in June 2012. The president acted administratively after the DREAM Act failed to pass in Congress.

Since then, 673,417 young people have applied to the DACA program and 553,197 have been approved, according to a national study in June by the American Immigration Council. Applicants must be between 15 and 30 years old, and must have arrived in the United States before they were 16, among other requirements.

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Among those dreamers is 23-year-old Irma Márquez-Trapero of Minneapolis, one of more than 4,000 DACA recipients in Minnesota. Márquez-Trapero came to the U.S. legally on a tourist visa with her parents and younger brother from Culiacán, Mexico, when she was 9. Her family made a life in St. James, Minnesota, and put the kids in school, eventually overstaying their visas.

After graduating from Gustavus Adolphus College with degrees in political science and gender studies, Marques-Trapero now lives in Minneapolis and is the recruitment coordinator at Hiawatha Academies.

Working through renewal process

As Márquez-Trapero and other dreamers work through a mandatory renewal process every two years, the U.S. House of Representatives voted to end the DACA program in July. Though the Senate has not taken up the bill, the House action raised only more uncertainty for Márquez-Trapero. Not only is she concerned about the political future of the program, she’s worried about the safety of her family and friends who are ineligible for DACA. She is also concerned about her own legal status.

“It’s very common and it’s very justifiable to fear DACA,” Márquez-Trapero said. “Really you are giving all your information about yourself that you have in the U.S. since you came here. It can be very scary — but at the same time I was just tired of living the way I was.”

Márquez-Trapero first understood what it meant to be undocumented when she tried to borrow books from the library in St. James when she was 11. She tried to fill out the form for a library card, but had to leave the Social Security number blank because she didn’t have one. Then she started asking her mother questions.

“That’s how I found out I was undocumented, and how from then on it’s when you’re advised not to say anything about your status, not to tell anybody you don’t have papers,” Márquez-Trapero said. “That’s when I found out.”

Opportunities opened up

After the Obama administration instituted the DACA policy in 2012, Márquez-Trapero, who was slightly skeptical before, suddenly had opportunities she never thought were possible for undocumented immigrants — more than just borrowing books. “I just can’t comprehend my life without DACA or being able to contribute to this country the way I am now,” Márquez-Trapero said.

Even though DACA has allowed her to get a job, driver’s license, and much more, Márquez-Trapero thinks applicants still have reason for concern. Despite Márquez-Trapero openly revealing her undocumented status in high school, she acknowledges that exposing your illegal status to the government is risky.

“I think that fear of putting yourself out there is a decision that’s extremely personal,” Márquez-Trapero said. “It’s a fear of going back to a country you don’t know. Fear that you won’t know what to do. Fear that you’ll never be able to come back. Fear that everything you’ve done just stops at the moment that either your DACA isn’t approved or if somebody wants to do something with all your information.”

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Weighing the risks

Sally Silk, a Minnesota lawyer who does pro bono work in immigration law, says undocumented immigrants have reason to fear.

“Anybody who is undocumented here knows that there can be severe repercussions, the most severe would be getting deported,” Silk said. Nevertheless, she thinks applying for DACA is worth the risk.

“It means they can get a driver’s license, a Social Security card, and a work permit. All of those things enable someone to find employment, support their families and themselves, live here legally, pay taxes, and contribute to the well-being of American society.”

The United States Citizenship and Immigration Services issued a statement saying that DACA applicants’ information would not be shared with Immigration and Customs Enforcement unless there was a security concern. In that case, families’ personal information could also be shared.

Márquez-Trapero’s mother, who has been working at a factory for 15 years to provide for her family, believes that the risk is worth it.

“I’m very happy that my kids are not going to be known as people who hide. They’re not going to be known as people who are afraid like I am,” she said. “In many ways I don’t have a name and I cannot have a name at the moment. To me it means the world that they are able to speak out and show their identity.”

The issue of potential DACA expansion

Márquez-Trapero says while DACA has provided temporary relief for her, she would like to see the program expand to protect her family, as well as undocumented immigrants who haven’t been able to get an education.

“It’s definitely for this ideal type of dreamer, and it doesn’t show the diversity that exists within the undocumented community,” Márquez-Trapero said. “It doesn’t show the dreamers who may not have finished high school but are still doing other incredible things, and are not eligible. The program is focused on this perfect copy version of the perfect immigrant child that obviously not a lot of people fit.”

Spurred by the massive recent influx of minors from Central America, House Republicans are acting to stop DACA expansion, which has been blamed for attracting youth to the United States. Mark Krikorian, the director of the Center for Immigration Studies, an organization that advocates immigration reduction in the United States, is not in favor of expansion.

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“It (DACA) should never have existed to begin with and should certainly not be expanded,” Krikorian said. “It’s an unconstitutional exercise of the president’s authority and it’s given amnesty to at this point almost 600,000 people.” Krikorian argues that the Obama administration overstepped its authority by issuing DACA, among other policies. 

‘It’s just a big question mark’

Márquez-Trapero says she is uncertain about the program’s future; whether it will expand, or whether it will be discontinued entirely by a new administration. Dreamers’ lives are caught in an unpredictable political battle without any end in sight. According to Silk, there is a possibility that a new administration’s actions could severely impact dreamers’ futures.

“It’s just a big question mark,” Silk said. “Nobody really knows what will happen. We just really don’t know. There’s certainly a concern that the program would be severely restricted if not eliminated.”

“We’re relying on the fact that it’s going to continue,” Márquez-Trapero said. “If DACA was discontinued, and there was no way for me to work, and no way for me to drive, I don’t think there would be enough incentive for me to stay. I think that without DACA I would make the decision to move and go back to Mexico and try to do something there.”

Krikorian thinks it is most likely that there will be no further expansion of DACA, but that the program will continue to allow DACA recipients to keep renewing year after year.

From Silk’s experience, DACA is only partial relief. “I think they would like to see some kind of additional form of relief that would allow the parents to stay here,” Silk said. “Something to allow undocumented parents to stay here, without fear of being deported and destroying the family unit.”

“I think that the community as a whole has shown that DACA is just a band-aid,” Márquez-Trapero said. “Ultimately that is not why we voted Obama into office. We did not vote him into office to get DACA; we voted him into office to get a comprehensive immigration bill almost six years ago. So because of that reason I don’t think there’s ever going to be a stop until immigration reform happens. This is years of grassroots movements. This is years in the making. We’ve already waited for so long.”

This story was produced in association with Round Earth Media, which mentors and supports the next generation of global journalists while producing under-reported stories for media outlets around the world.