Erin Schaff / The New York Times
Thursday, April 26, 2018 | 2 a.m.
For many of the young unauthorized immigrants whose futures have seemed to be hitched to a roller-coaster in recent months, Wednesday was a day of unusual hopefulness: The night before, a federal judge had signaled his readiness to open applications once again for a program that protects some young unauthorized immigrants, known as Dreamers, from deportation and allows them to work.
“First thing this morning, I opened up my email to find inquiries from potential applicants. We’re telling them to get all their paperwork together, let’s get ready,” said Fernanda Durand, communications manager at Casa, an immigrant advocacy organization. “This is the first ray of hope that these Dreamers have had in a very long time.”
Not so fast, she had to tell her clients. Judge John Bates of the U.S. District Court in Washington was not going to make his order effective for 90 days. Much could change in the meantime. It might not happen at all.
Since the early days of the 2016 presidential campaign, young people who benefited from the Obama-era program, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, have seen their hopes alternately elevated and dashed, sometimes in the space of a single week. President Donald Trump canceled the program, some judges revived it, politicians negotiated deals to save it — but none of them closed.
How nerve-racking has it been?
Just ask Arlette Morales of York, Pennsylvania. “I turned 15 in September, right at the time the program started to shut down,” she said. “When I heard that news, I teared up and didn’t want to believe it. I lost hope.”
That all changed on Wednesday after she heard the news about the judge’s latest decision.
“I feel empowered. I am motivated again. I have to continue thinking positive,” she said.
What has this crazy roller-coaster ride been like for the 700,000 immigrants, brought illegally to the United States as children, whose fate depends on DACA? Here’s a glimpse.
The Dream Begins
2010: Much of DACA had its seeds in a piece of legislation known as the DREAM Act that would have given a path to citizenship to more than 1 million young immigrants brought illegally into the country as children.
More than 100 of them packed the Senate gallery. They held hands as the vote was taken, many of them praying. In the end, the bill passed the House but fell an excruciating five votes short in the Senate. The Dreamers were ushered out into the Capitol hallway, hugging and weeping. They began to defiantly chant: “What do we want? The DREAM Act! When do we want it? Now!”
Something had changed. Until now, unauthorized immigrants had stayed out of the spotlight, leaving others to speak on their behalf to avoid exposing their illegal status. No more.
“We were thinking no matter what, this vote doesn’t define us,” said Lorella Praeli, director of immigration policy and campaigns at the ACLU, who was then a Dreamer in Connecticut. Our lives will never be the same, because we’ve come out of the shadows.”
Praeli, then 23, and several other Dreamer leaders would play an instrumental role in persuading President Barack Obama that young unauthorized immigrants could be shielded from deportation even without congressional action.
“We wanted to be everyday Americans,” recalled Gaby Pacheco, then 27, a leader of a fast-growing group of young immigrants called United We Dream. She arrived in the United States from Ecuador when she was 8 years old.
Pacheco, Praeli and their fellow activists campaigned for more than two years with marches and sit-ins, arguing that they were Americans in every sense but their birthplace.
Obama Steps In: DACA is Born
June 2012: Under pressure from the young immigrants and their allies, Obama took executive action to create DACA, providing the young people with protection from deportation and work permits renewable every two years.
When Obama made the announcement in the Rose Garden, Dreamers around the country — many who had been glued to their televisions — were elated. They embraced and cried, this time in celebration.
“I received a call from a White House official telling me that I should turn on the TV,” recalled Juan Escalante, an activist who was working at his computer in Tallahassee, Florida. “When the president was speaking, my jaw dropped to the floor. I ran out of the office to call my mother crying, because I knew it was going to help me, my brothers and thousands of other Dreamers.”
Escalante and two younger brothers signed up for the program as soon as they could. “Our applications were among the first, I am sure,” Escalante said.
Thanks to DACA, his brother, Daniel, was able to work legally for the first time, pay for more college classes and afford a car. Escalante, 26, expects to graduate on April 30 from Florida International University and plans to become a high school teacher.
The same year DACA went into effect, attempts to end the program began to surface. They went nowhere.
But Politics Intervene
Aug. 20, 2016: It was election season, and on the campaign trail, Trump in Phoenix struck a hard line on immigration and reaffirmed his commitment to terminate the DACA program.
There would be “no amnesty,” Trump declared. “For those here illegally today who are seeking legal status, they will have one route and one route only. To return home and apply for re-entry like everybody else.”
DACA participants were heartsick, but consoled each other: Trump would never be elected, they said.
Jan. 20, 2017: Trump took office.
“Everyone was like, is he actually going to do it? We were biting our nails and worried he would end DACA in the first few days,” said Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voices, an immigrant advocacy group.
But then Trump did an about-face.
At a White House news conference on Feb. 26, 2017, Trump said, “We’re going to deal with DACA with heart.” Dealing with the issue, he said, was “a very difficult thing for me. I love these kids. I love kids.”
Attorneys General Threaten to Sue
June 29, 2017: The attorney general of Texas, Ken Paxton, wrote a letter threatening to sue the federal government over DACA unless the administration phased it out. The notice was signed by nine of his counterparts in other states.
Trump’s attorney general, Jeff Sessions, and his chief of staff, John F. Kelly, met with the president and warned him that the DACA program was unconstitutional. You had better take action to end it, they advised him, according to administration staff members.
The End of DACA
Sept. 5, 2017: Sessions announced the administration’s decision to end DACA.
Later that evening, Trump called on Congress to pass a replacement.
Trump wrote on Twitter: “Congress now has 6 months to legalize DACA (something the Obama Administration was unable to do). If they can’t, I will revisit this issue!”
For participants in the program, the abrupt decision was stunning. DACA had enabled them to get jobs, attend college, obtain driver’s licenses and even get 401(k)s. Everything was at risk.
Heyra Avila, 22, who arrived in the United States from Mexico at the age of 4, donned a T-shirt emblazoned with “Here to Stay” and joined a DACA rally in Cincinnati outside the office of Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio.
She was feeling defiant.
“No matter what the administration says and does, I am going to keep fighting for justice for thousands of immigrants here in the United States,” said Avila, who is a paralegal in Florence, Kentucky. “We’re not going anywhere.”
Democrats: We Have a Deal
Sept. 13, 2017: About a week after the announcement, Trump hosted a working dinner with top Democrats — the Senate minority leader, Chuck Schumer of New York, and the House minority leader, Nancy Pelosi of California — to discuss immigration.
Schumer and Pelosi declared that they had a deal with Trump to quickly extend protections for Dreamers, an announcement that led to widespread elation in the Dreamer community.
But then the president contradicted those statements.
He wrote on Twitter: “No deal was made last night on DACA. Massive border security would have to be agreed to in exchange for consent. Would be subject to vote.”
The courts speak
In Congress, a number of bipartisan proposals that would protect Dreamers were either rejected by the White House or failed to gain enough support among lawmakers.
But the big action has been in the courts.
Jan. 9, 2018: A federal judge in San Francisco ruled that the Trump administration had ended the DACA program improperly and ordered the government not only to keep it in place, but to allow DACA participants to apply for renewals.
On the first day, legal-aid organizations were deluged. In Los Angeles, people started lining up at 2:30 in the morning at the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles.
“I wanted to take this opportunity while the window lasts,” said Mario Hernandez, 29, who was whisked across the Mexico-United States border when he was a 1-year-old, and then raised in Los Angeles.
Hours later, his sense of urgency seemed prescient. The Department of Justice filed a notice of appeal.
April 24, 2018: This week, in the biggest blow yet to the Trump administration’s move to kill the DACA program, Judge John D. Bates of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, found that the decision was “virtually unexplained.”
He gave the government 90 days to come up with sufficient legal justification, or be forced to begin accepting new DACA applications.
Yehimi Cambron, an art teacher in Atlanta and a DACA recipient, spread news of the latest court decision among students at her school, many of whom she believes are unauthorized.
Some of them were celebrating; others were skeptical. All of them were exhausted by the breathtaking twists and turns of the past year or so.
“Any time there is one of these decisions, there’s a feeling of hope,” said Cambron, 25.
But maybe, she knows by now, not for long. “Even if there are small victories,” she said, “people are now in survival mode.”
She added: “We can’t continue living this way.”