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Cut off from DACA, new generation faces uncertain futures

As legal challenges to the Obama-era program continue, undocumented teens coming of age in U.S. aren't even eligible

From left, House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., Reps. Sylvia Garcia, D-Texas, and Nydia Velazquez, D-N.Y., conduct a news conference in June on legislation that would give immigration protections to undocumented immigrants who came to the country as children.
From left, House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., Reps. Sylvia Garcia, D-Texas, and Nydia Velazquez, D-N.Y., conduct a news conference in June on legislation that would give immigration protections to undocumented immigrants who came to the country as children. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Alondra, a 19-year-old born in Mexico who came to the U.S. about a decade ago, grew up believing she could one day apply for an Obama-era immigration program that protects those who came to the country as children.

But the Arizona resident took a closer look when she heard one of her friends would not be eligible for the program first introduced in 2012, known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. She discovered it excludes anyone who has entered the country, or been born, after June 2007 — now 16 years ago.

“That is where I kind of realized what my situation was — that I was actually undocumented and in a very vulnerable position,” said Alondra, whose last name is being withheld because she is undocumented.

While court challenges and congressional inaction have made uncertain the fate of so-called Dreamers who have been covered under DACA, there’s a new generation of immigrants who have come of age in the U.S. and face a future without legal immigration status, and few options to live and work legally.

According to a recent report by immigrant advocacy group, the majority of the nation’s approximately 120,0000 undocumented high school graduates this year are not eligible for DACA because of the cutoff date. And by the class of 2025, most graduates will not have been born in time.

“There will be an entire generation coming into the workforce and having to work in the shadows again,” said Juliana Macedo do Nascimento, deputy director of federal advocacy at United We Dream, an immigrant advocacy group, and a DACA recipient herself.

“I see every day when I talk to our members who are these kids. It’s really disheartening for them,” Macedo do Nascimento said. “They grew up thinking that they were going to have access to these benefits, and they don’t. And they don’t have any other recourse.”

Alondra said her inability to qualify for DACA has limited scholarship and other job and educational opportunities for her and her peers. She has graduated high school and is currently attending community college near her home, but said she has struggled to choose a major because she does not know whether she could work in her chosen field.

“Obviously I want to get an education,” Alondra said. “But it’s really hard trying to choose one when I don’t even know if I would be able to be financially stable using it.”

Court case

A Texas federal judge is poised to rule any day on a challenge from Republican-led states to the legality of DACA, which protects roughly 600,000 individuals. Judge Andrew Hanen of the Southern District of Texas already ruled against the program once, closing it to first-time applicants for the past two years.

Now the judge is considering a newer version of the program the Biden administration issued after putting it through the full administrative process. He is widely expected to rule against the latest version again but keep the policy it in place while appeals continue.

A potential ruling against the program by the Supreme Court would likely result in hundreds of thousands of current DACA recipients losing protections.

But even if the high court rules in favor of the program and allows the Biden administration to resume processing first-time DACA requests, those who missed the 2007 cutoff date would remain ineligible.

According to the report, roughly 18,000 undocumented high school graduates live in Texas, one of the states leading the challenge against DACA.

Macedo do Nascimento said the Biden administration’s decision not to update the 2007 cutoff date when issuing the formal DACA rule now under court review was a “missed opportunity.”

If DACA survives litigation, there are some “discrete policy changes” that the Department of Homeland Security could enact to ease the process for undocumented immigrants to use existing legal channels, including by streamlining access to work permits, said Kerri Talbot, deputy director of Immigration Hub, an immigrant advocacy group.

But Talbot also cautioned that none of these fixes would represent a permanent solution for the undocumented population without congressional action.

Knowledge gap

Some immigration experts said while the American public generally supports the DACA program and legislation to put Dreamers on a path to citizenship, much of the public is unaware how the program falls short for children today — or even how many of those children labeled as Dreamers are not eligible.

Proposed bills to provide a path to citizenship have generally included more recent arrivals to the country. A bipartisan comprehensive immigration bill proposed this year by Florida Republican Rep. Maria Elvira Salazar and Texas Democratic Rep. Veronica Escobar would provide a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants who entered the country under 18 and have lived there for the three years prior to the bill’s enactment.

But legislation on immigration has been gridlocked for decades.

“The plight of Dreamers is not painful enough for a lot of politicians to have a sense of urgency,” said Laura Collins, a director at the George W. Bush Institute specializing in immigration policy.

“We talk about Dreamers and DACA recipients as kids. But because they’ve been waiting on legislation and a solution for them for so long, they’re my age. They’re in their 30s. Some of them are starting to be 40. A lot of them have American citizen children. They’re well into prime working age, they’re well into their careers,” Collins said. “Talking about it as this just one population neglects that we’ve got this other group.”

Talbot said while many Americans are familiar with legislative efforts to protect DACA recipients, “they probably are not aware that there’s so many kids who really have no options to be able to get green cards and be able to work.”

“I think probably most Americans would be very upset to learn that there are young people in our schools, and who want to be able to work and contribute but are blocked from doing so by our immigration system,” Talbot said.

Sen. Bob Menendez, a Democrat from New Jersey and vocal proponent of bills to help undocumented immigrants, said he’s seen a lack of awareness of DACA’s limits from his own colleagues.

“I don’t think that, except for a few of us, there is an awareness of that. And unfortunately, I don’t think, except for a few of us, there’s a desire to do anything about it,” Menendez said. “If we can’t get DACA done, either for the current recipients or for future recipients, then I don’t know what you get done on immigration.”

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