When Katia Escobar finally got the money to pay her application fee for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, a federal program that provides some undocumented immigrants work permits and temporarily protects them from deportation, it was a moment of relief for the 18-year-old, who has lived as an undocumented immigrant in California and Texas since she was a child.
She was eager to find a job to help her pay expenses as she started classes at the University of Houston. After she dropped her application with a $495 check for the processing fees in the mailbox, Escobar anxiously waited for an acceptance letter.
But four months later, she received a notice saying her application would not be processed because a federal judge in Houston had ruled that DACA was illegal.
As part of U.S. District Judge Andrew Hanen's order, immigration officials could process DACA renewals but had to stop accepting new applications for the Obama-era program that defers deportation for some qualifying young immigrants who were brought to the country as children and provides them with a renewable two-year work permit.
"At that moment, it felt like I was back to my starting point. All of my efforts to help support my family, start a new chapter in my life and get new opportunities, it all crumbled away in an instant," Escobar said.
In 2018, Texas and other Republican-led states filed a lawsuit against the federal government arguing that the Obama administration overreached its power by creating an immigration program without Congress' approval. The lawsuit has led to a yearslong legal battle.
Now the program, which has approved more than 800,000 people over the past decade — including 101,000 current DACA recipients who live in Texas — could be canceled altogether. Across the country, 93,000 first-time applicants like Escobar have had their DACA applications halted as a result of Hanen's ruling.
After Hanen's ruling last year, the Biden administration appealed his order to the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals. After arguments from both sides to the appellate judges in July, legal analysts and immigrant rights advocates expect the three-judge panel to affirm Hanen's ruling in the coming days or weeks — which could scrap the program and likely would prevent recipients from renewing their DACA status.
Anticipating a loss in the appeals court, the Biden administration this week codified DACA into regulatory law and rescinded the 2012 memo by then-U.S. Department of Homeland Secretary Janet Napolitano that created DACA — a legal move to help counter Hanen's ruling, which said the government hadn't properly implemented the immigration program in 2012.
"Thanks to DACA, we have been enriched by young people who contribute so much to our communities and our country," Alejandro N. Mayorkas, secretary for Homeland Security, said last week. "Yet, we need Congress to pass legislation that provides an enduring solution for the young Dreamers who have known no country other than the United States as their own."
Opponents of the program say it rewards migrants who broke the law by entering the country illegally and creates an incentive for others to do the same.
"This lawsuit was about the rule of law – not the reasoning behind any immigration policy," Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, whose office filed the 2018 lawsuit, said last year in a statement. "The district court recognized that only Congress has the authority to write immigration laws, and the president is not free to disregard those duly-enacted laws as he sees fit."
Immigrant rights advocates have been pushing Congress and President Joe Biden to come up with a permanent solution. They want Congress to create a pathway for citizenship for immigrants who are DACA eligible and their family members who are undocumented. Biden has proposed a plan to overhaul the country's immigration laws, including creating a pathway to citizenship for current DACA recipients. But Congress has not acted on it.
"DACA has provided temporary protection for hundreds of thousands of immigrants and their families who have built their lives here. They are integral to our society, and while DACA has given some protection to Dreamers, it is not long term," said Edna Yang, co-executive director of American Gateways, a Texas-based organization that provides immigration services to low-income people.
"Hopeful that things are going to work out"
Not every young undocumented immigrant qualifies for DACA, which is open to migrants who have arrived in the U.S. before 2007, were under 16 when they arrived and were under 31 when the program was created in June 2012. Applicants must be high-school students or high-school graduates and cannot have a serious criminal history.
Escobar was a year old when her family left Michoacán, Mexico, with four children and moved to California. Her parents later had two more children who are U.S. citizens. When Escobar turned 9, her parents moved to Houston to work in agriculture.
Javier Quiroz was 3 when his parents brought him to Nashville from San Luis Potosí, Mexico. His dad began to work in construction, building houses, while his mom sold tacos and gorditas to construction workers from a minivan on job sites.
Now 31, Quiroz is a college graduate and works as a registered nurse at Houston Methodist Hospital. His younger brother, who was born in the U.S., was able to sponsor their parents to become permanent residents and live and work legally in the U.S.
His brother could do the same for Quiroz, but that would take at least 20 years under current immigration laws.
After high school, Quiroz said, he applied to various colleges but was denied because being undocumented meant he couldn't prove U.S. residency, or because he couldn't apply for scholarships that required students to show they were in the country legally.
Lipscomb University, a private Christian university in Nashville, accepted him and gave him a partial scholarship despite his undocumented status at the time. Quiroz was excited at the chance to go to college and study nursing, but he wondered if he was wasting his time. He knew that being undocumented meant he wouldn't be able to get a state license to work as a nurse.
Before he graduated in May 2013, the Obama administration launched DACA, which changed everything for Quiroz. He applied and was accepted, and for the first time he was able to get a driver's license and a Social Security card. It also allowed him to get his nursing license — and work legally as a nurse.
"It was incredible that this door was opening up for me, so I felt significantly better about graduating," he said.
Quiroz married his high school sweetheart, who is a U.S. citizen. They have a 3-year-old daughter and a 7-month-old boy. His wife helped Quiroz apply for his permanent residency, commonly known as a green card. He recently renewed his DACA status, and it could be several more months before he receives his green card.
He's still concerned about how the appeals court will rule on DACA's future.
"The timing might be a problem in the near future," he said, "but I’m hopeful that things are going to work out."
Escobar also has ambitions to work in medicine. She's studying biology and wants to attend medical school to become a surgeon.
After DACA's launch, Escobar's parents could only afford to pay the $495 DACA processing fees for their two oldest children. Escobar's parents wanted to wait until Escobar graduated from high school to pay her application fee. She had waited four years when United We Dream, a national immigrant advocacy group, agreed to pay the processing fees — but it was too late to get her application considered before Hanen's ruling.
Escobar won a scholarship to help pay for four years of college, but she depends on relatives to help her pay for meals and other living expenses. She said she's been offered work-study jobs, but because she can't work legally, she's had to turn them down.
"It’s definitely been a little bit discouraging when I see so many of my peers be able to partake in so many opportunities," Escobar said.
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