After receiving death threats from a gang, Estefany Pineda left her home in El Salvador at a moment’s notice. Confused and afraid, 9-year-old Pineda and her family took a dangerous 22-day journey to the United States, a country that represented safety and opportunity to them.
They are now among the 44.8 million immigrants already living in the U.S., 10.5 million of them undocumented. Over the years, the government has made many attempts to reform immigration to provide a path for legal stay and citizenship to qualified immigrants. It has been a hot topic for many presidential debates and court cases as officials seek to balance safety and security with the promise of opportunity for those seeking hope and livelihood in the U.S.
In 2012, then-President Barack Obama created the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program by executive order. DACA granted legal work status and renewable protections to people like Pineda who were brought to the United States illegally as children and teenagers. These so-called “Dreamers” do not have legal status in the U.S. nor does DACA provide a path to citizenship for them.
Under DACA, Dreamers can remain in the country with benefits including Social Security, work permits, and protection from deportation, renewing every two years—Dreamers cannot age out of the program. However, DACA is not an affordable option for some because of the $495 fee for the application and each renewal. The Immigration Policy Center estimates that there are a total of 1.8 million people living in the United States who are DACA-eligible, yet less than half have actually applied for the program.
In order to qualify for DACA, applicants must pass a background check and meet a set of requirements including arrival before their 16th birthday, having no felony or certain misdemeanor convictions, and either currently studying or having completed high school or obtained a GED.
DACA has provided temporary protections for over 800,000 undocumented immigrants across the U.S. Studies have found that Dreamers contribute significantly to society and the economy. Around 5,000 of those Dreamers live in Massachusetts according to 2019 census data.
Donald Trump’s election in 2016 was led by promises to change immigration policy including building a wall at the Mexico border, defunding sanctuary cities and employing three times as many ICE agents.
In 2017, the Trump administration announced it would file suit to end DACA, arguing it was an overreach of Obama’s authority. This announcement left many Dreamers worried for their fate in the country they have known as home for so long.
On June 18, 2020, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that it was unlawful to rescind DACA, prompting Trump to promise to refile the case in the future.
After the Supreme Court halted Trump’s order, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announced that it would stop accepting DACA applications until the future of the program is decided. This suspension of the program was invalidated in November 2020 after U.S. District Court Judge Nicholas Garaufis ruled that Acting Secretary of DHS, Chad Wolf, was placed in his position illegally and could not lawfully invoke any actions while lacking proper authority.
The Migration Policy Institute estimated that there are 66,000 people who aged into DACA eligibility were prevented from enrolling in DACA while new applications stopped being accepted. These people are now eligible to apply for DACA, giving Dreamers another victory.
Despite the Supreme Court win for Dreamers, the future of the program was thrown up in the air once again with the death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. As one of the five votes to keep the program, Justice Ginsburg’s vote could well be flipped as Trump’s pick for her replacement, Amy Coney Barrett. Barrett’s conservative stance on many issues may make her as reliable to the right as Ginsburg was to the left.
Barrett has largely ruled against immigrants in cases brought before her in the past. In 2018, she refused to review a case for humanitarian protection for a Salvadoran man who testified that he fled to the United States after witnessing gang members kill his friend. In 2019, Barrett cast the deciding vote to deport a Mexican immigrant who had been a lawful permanent resident for 30 years, not giving him a chance to defend his rights.
With Biden’s election win, Dreamers and other immigrants are looking to him for support. In stark contrast with Trump, Biden has been an advocate for Dreamers, tweeting on Nov. 3, 2020, “Dreamers are Americans — and it’s time we make it official.”
Many of the people in DACA, no longer very young, are far from “angels.” Some are very tough, hardened criminals. President Obama said he had no legal right to sign order, but would anyway. If Supreme Court remedies with overturn, a deal will be made with Dems for them to stay!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 12, 2019
Here’s my promise to you: On day one, I’ll send a bill to Congress that creates a clear roadmap to citizenship for Dreamers and 11 million undocumented people who are already strengthening our nation. It’s long overdue.— Joe Biden (@JoeBiden) June 18, 2020
Biden has pledged to reinstate DACA and add new benefits including eligibility to apply for federal student loans and Pell grants and allowing Dreamers to be included in his proposal to eliminate tuition for two years of community college.
Immigrants across the United States have celebrated Biden’s win as their hope for the future of DACA is bolstered. However, the push for a more permanent solution and path to citizenship is still a concern for Dreamers.
"I really love to help people, I don't find it as a job. I honestly find it really soothing to be at someone's beck and call...So I would love to work at Planned Parenthood, where a girl, no matter what age, can come for advice or education, which a lot of girls that are young lack."
"The way people define being an American is like being a citizen...This country was founded on immigration, like immigrants were here first. So I feel like being an American is just accepting everyone and...just giving back to the community and doing all those things."
"A lot of people that are here that have DACA, they're here for a better future. And many of them came here so young...so it's not really our fault...many of us who have DACA we are going to school, we're trying to do something. I think it can benefit the country as well."