Ella Mendoza has been a preschool teacher for two years now.
She’s also an undocumented immigrant, an asterisk that hovers over her every achievement. Born in Lima, Peru, Mendoza, now 25, was brought to the United States in elementary school by her father. Like many undocumented people, they overstayed their visas.
Since discovering she was undocumented, Mendoza, who has a big web of unkempt brown hair that encircles a round face and twinkling, downturned eyes, has done what she can to deflect attention from her status, to remain undetected. She has stayed out of trouble, graduated from high school and plans to enroll in college.
But her status still kept her from driving, pursuing a career and, she said, living confidently, comfortably. So when the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program was enacted three years ago this month, intended to provide a reprieve from deportation and giving her work authorization for at least two years, she thought — finally! — the light at the end of tunnel.
At the same time, she quickly realized, DACA heightened the anxiety that is a part of her life for undocumented people in the United States. The temporary status of the program, which could be alleviated through comprehensive immigration reform, leaves people like Mendoza unable to live beyond the next reprieve. And the debate on immigration now pulsing through the GOP doesn't leave much hope for an immediate resolution.
“Everyone was so happy for me when I got my DACA, but what next?” she asked. “We’re expected to build a life that could crumble in a second.”
DACA was implemented through executive action by President Obama in the summer of 2012. Its coverage extends to people who entered the country as children, have lived here for at least five years, are in school or have a high school diploma and have not been convicted of a felony, among other conditions.
Upon DACA’s announcement, Mendoza and 1.2 million others were eligible to apply, a fraction of the 11.3 million undocumented immigrants living in the U.S., according to a Pew Research estimate. Now almost 2 million people qualify, according to data from the Migration Policy Institute, an immigration think tank.
Since 2012, fewer than half of all eligible people have applied, a point Margie McHugh, director of MPI’s National Center on Immigration Integration Policy, attributed to the program’s “cap-and-gown outreach.”
“In local communities, the program is associated with high academic achievement and college going,” when, in reality, the program’s reach is more broad. Plus, she said, there’s the underlying unwillingness to submit to government oversight, to “turn your family in.”
DACA is impermanent. Obama acknowledged as much in his June 15, 2012, announcement of the program. “This is not a path to citizenship,” he said to the Rose Garden gathering. “This is a temporary stopgap measure.”
Criticism that Obama overstepped his presidential powers was immediate (even the announcement of DACA drew heckles from an audience member). He acted unilaterally, which is to say, without congressional approval. New York Times columnist Ross Douthat accused Obama of practicing domestic policy “caesarism.” In the following weeks, months and years, a swell of frustration surfaced over the substance of the action and the perceived amnesty.
The initial sign-up
Mendoza, who lives outside of Salt Lake City, had a grueling application process, especially because she completed it without a support network. It also cost $465, a prohibitive sum for Mendoza, who was homeless and unemployed at the time. She and her father are estranged.
She slept on park benches and in Wal-Mart bathrooms, positioning herself on the ground in such a way so that she could sleep, or at least nap, with one leg propped against the door to keep customers out. At 21, after a year and a half on the streets, she moved in with her boyfriend in spite of reservations about their relationship.
It took her seven months to collect the money needed to apply. She nannied and cleaned houses, eager to flee her abusive boyfriend. Between jobs, she completed the necessary paperwork.
“When you’re applying for DACA, they ask you to go back and find proof of your life in the United States,” she said. “For people who have lived in the shadows their whole lives, to ask them to go back and find evidence of their existence that’s not easy.” She ultimately submitted letters written to her by her mother, who lives in Peru, and report cards from high school.
In December, three months after the program was implemented, money finally in hand, Mendoza filed her application.
She began volunteering with the Salt Lake Dream Team around the same time, then still a nascent collection of young organizers working to spread awareness of the DREAM Act. The legislation, which has cycled through Congress in several iterations since 2001, aims to provide a pathway to citizenship for DREAMers, undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children — people like Mendoza.
“When you’re undocumented, you come to this country and people tell you you’re a criminal,” she said of her rationale for joining the Dream Team. “I wanted to be that person who told undocumented people, ‘No, you’re OK. Your existence is important.’”
Three months later, in line with the time frame provided by the office of United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, Mendoza received her ticket to temporary freedom in the mail — red, white and blue permit, a Social Security number and a driver’s license. Within a week, she donated blood, something she couldn’t do without proper identification, then rushed to apply for work.
Her first year-and-a-half as a preschool teacher was wonderful. She enjoyed her students and co-workers, and savored the independence a regular paycheck provided. She was good at her job, too — proof, she thought, that she wasn’t “another lazy Mexican,” as she said some might rush to define her.
A offer for a promotion coincided with the beginning of the period for DACA renewal, 150 days before her original permit was set to expire. Without DACA, she would once again become an undocumented person, susceptible to deportation and unable to legally work or drive.
Mendoza’s reapplication in January (which cost another $465) came one month before the anticipated launch of a major DACA expansion, issued via executive action at the end of 2014. Set to take effect on Feb. 18, the directive would open DACA to all undocumented people brought to the country before turning 16 and bump the coverage period to three years. Undocumented parents of citizens and permanent residents would gain eligibility, too, under a separate program called Deferred Action for Parents of Americans. In total, protections and work permits would be extended to approximately 3.9 million undocumented people, according to MPI.
In response, a federal judge in Texas preemptively issued an injunction against Obama’s expansions on behalf of 26 states, temporarily blocking them from implementation. Until a verdict is reached, DACA trudges on in its original form.
While USCIS, the office in charge of immigration policies, reassured undocumented people that the lawsuit did not put their status in jeopardy, fear and confusion was rampant anyway.
On the Facebook page Deferred Action, young people post dozens of frustrated posts each day with questions concerning their status and application. One member wrote to announce that he had successfully received his first permit in July — seven months after he applied. A few weeks after Mendoza had submitted for reapplication, a tweetstorm erupted concerning the 2,100 people who were mistakenly issued three-year DACA authorizations and asked to return the IDs.
Another, confused by it all, asked, “What is any of this supposed to mean?”
Shaken by the noise, Mendoza toiled over her choices: Reject the promotion and risk informing her employer of a situation that could merit termination, or accept the position, keep quiet and pray the renewal arrives before the expiration date. If it does, she would return to work as if nothing happened. If not, she figured she would cross that bridge if she came to it.
In the end, she “chose to roll the dice.”
Quickly the months-long window shrunk to weeks, and still nothing. She couldn’t sleep. Fearing the worst, she began to take precautions.
“I was putting away money, wondering if I’d lose my job when my permit expired.”
Arizona state Rep. Martin Quezada, a Democrat from Phoenix as well as an attorney in a state with a long history of anti-immigrant policies, said DACA should give families room to breathe while they figure out their next steps.
“It’s not a quick and easy fix, but it is a light at the end of the tunnel for immigrant families,” he said.
But in practice, it seems that each time a flicker appears, a segment is added to lengthen the tunnel. And it is likely to remain that way until DACA is replaced by comprehensive immigration reform. Given current political polarization in Washington, that change is unlikely to come soon.
Annaluisa Padilla, first vice president of American Immigration Lawyers Association, confessing neither optimism or pessimism, admitted that the road ahead is bleak for DACA.
“The concern is what will happen with a change of administration,” she said. “The next president could very well cancel the program. We can’t forget that DACA is a discretionary program." Her voice trailed off. “That’s a real fear for some people. It’s a constant angst.”
For the 11,023 DACA renewal requestors who had their DACA grant and work permits expire, despite having applied within their renewal window, the fear is more than an imagined feeling.
Living with uncertainty
Mendoza will never forget the moment she found out that her request for DACA renewal was approved, on April 29, only two weeks before her permit was set to expire.
“Oh my heavens — I couldn’t stop crying. I messaged my mother, started calling people — anyone and everyone who knew about the fear that had gripped me for months," she said. "I really did think I was next to be dropped.”
She returned to work the next day, finally relieved, and went on as if nothing had happened. And, really, nothing had, but the fear of deportation and unemployment she knew too well, the fear she thought DACA’s protections had rendered obsolete, had resurfaced.
She still doesn't feel her status is stable enough to enroll at the University of Utah. Meantime, she is considering a program for undocumented persons offered at the city’s main community college. Even that option won’t come easy: undocumented persons are not qualified to receive government financial aid.
The uncertainty and anxiety of living life in two-year chunks marked by applications and renewed permits has Mendoza splitting her life into halves. Before DACA, she was homeless; after it, she was a teacher.
“When I was renewing my DACA, that’s what was looming over my head," she said. "I couldn’t go back (to the streets).”
She’s not alone in her mostly positive experience with DACA. As of March, “83 percent of DACA applicants eligible to renew their applications had applied to do so,” according to MPI. But, she said, high return rates aren't an indication that life with DACA is good, merely that life without DACA was much worse.
“I’m really grateful — I really am,” she said, exhaling, as if she would snap if asked to feign appreciation one more time. “But I’d just like to be treated like a human being. At Salt Lake Dream Team, what we always try to emphasize is that asking for basic human rights is not asking for more."
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