Three Faces of DACA

A year after Deferred Action for Child Arrivals was launched, young people are having very different experiences with the program.

By Von Diaz Sep 17, 2013

Last year Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals or DACA emerged as a long-awaited saving grace for undocumented youth or so-called DREAMers who were brought to the United States as children or teenagers. When DACA went into effect last August it offered them a temporary reprieve from deportation, authorization to work and the ability to get a temporary social security card and drivers license.

But a year into it, the program is starting to show weaknesses. And since immigration reform will almost certainly not pass this year, it’s possible the earliest recipients of DACA could time out of the two-year program before a more permanent solution is in place. 

Immigration attorneys say that the number of DACA applications have stalled in recent months, suggesting that the initial flurry of applications and approvals was temporary. Perhaps more significant, in some cases DACA is not accomplishing its primary goal–to suspend deportation and provide job opportunities for undocumented youth–because many DREAMers find the application cost and the strict requirements prohibitive. In order to qualify for DACA you must be 30 or younger; have arrived in the U.S. before age 16 and resided here continuously since 2007; have a clean criminal record; and have or be pursuing a high school diploma or GED.

Studies show that the program truly is a Band-Aid approach that barely addresses the majority of eligible recipients. The Migration Policy Institute points out that nearly half of the undocumented immigrants believed to be eligible for DACA do not meet the educational requirements, and that there are 392,000 young people who are about to turn 16 and thus come of age for DACA who are not currently being counted. The Brookings Institute also found that there are disparities between the proportion of applicants from certain countries of origin and the nationalities reflected in the pool of recipients. Mexican immigrants make up the lionshare of applicants at approximately 75 percent, but only a little over half of those accepted are Mexican.

DACA is also creating fissures among undocumented youth according to some DREAMers, producing a rift among those at differing levels of the application process, and between those who choose not to apply. The following stories of three DREAMers highlight the varying experiences young immigrants have had with this program.

From the joy of receiving it, to the disappointment of being denied, to the deep political dilemma of participating in a program that is insufficient, these young people provide a glimpse into what it means to an undocumented immigrant at this particular juncture, where the policy that seemed to solve their immigration woes could time out before there is comprehensive immigration reform.  

Frisly Soberanis, is 19 years old and a current sophomore at Brooklyn College. His family moved from Guatemala when he was 7 years old, and he grew up in Brooklyn, New York. He now lives in Queens with his mother and  four brothers.

Like many DREAMers Soberanis discovered his undocumented status when he was given the opportunity to travel abroad, although he says he had always suspected.

While in high school he discovered an interest in filmmaking, and was later accepted to the Tribeca Film Institute as a film fellow, where he produced a short work titled "Madurando." He’s currently working on a project at the Tribeca Institute to commemorate the legacy of Nelson Mandela.

Soberanis was approved for DACA in January this year, and found out via text message. He has since been able to get freelance videographer jobs, and travel within the U.S. He was thrilled to receive DACA, and says he and his family have celebrated the opportunity. But he says he’s still anxious to see what will come for his parents, who remain undocumented.

Listen to Soberanis talk about his experience with DACA:

Sonia Guinansaca is a 24-year-old student at Hunter College studying Africana, Puerto Rican, Latino and women and gender studies. She moved to New York City from Ecuador in 1995, and has lived there ever since. In addition to being a college student, she works on the Undocuwriting project at CultureStrike, and is on the board of the New York State Youth Leadership Council.

Guinansaca supports other people applying for DACA, but says she hasn’t applied for it and doesn’t plan to. She says the program doesn’t address the needs of undocumented immigrants and notes that it has created divisions within the undocumented youth movement.

Listen to Guinansaca talk about her experience with DACA:

"Eduardo Ramos" declined to give his real name or provide an audio interview because he’s currently in the middle of a second application for DACA. He is a 19-year-old college student living in Georgia. He applied for DACA in November of last year and was soon after asked for more documentation to prove his residence. "I sent my current grades from this college. I sent letters and newspaper articles. I didn’t know what else to send," he says.

Ramos feels that he’s done everything right. He got good grades in school, participated in extra curricular activities, and refrained from driving or any other activities that were illegal. When it came time to apply for DACA, he worked all summer to save money and he hired a lawyer. He expected that it would take four to six weeks for his application to be processed.

But that didn’t happen and because he was declined he had to start from scratch. He completed his second application on July 9, but has yet to hear back. So far he’s spent about $1,600 on both DACA applications and legal fees.

"I know people that have committed crimes like stealing and driving [without a license], people who have dropped out of school, and I’m just here doing everything correctly and I still got denied. That’s what makes me the most upset," Ramos says.

His family moved from Mexico to Atlanta when he was a year old, and he’s lived there ever since. He had ample paperwork from his schools, as well as additional documentation from extracurricular activities, and from a medical injury.

Ramos hasn’t told many people about his denial. "I guess I was a bit embarrassed. Because when I told them I had applied they were like, ‘Oh man you’re going to get it in like two days. You’re going to be approved right away!’"

He is currently in school for business, and wants to become a corporate lawyer. In many ways Ramos fits the bill for the ideal DACA candidate. He’s an outstanding student with no criminal record who longs to remain in the U.S. so he can pursue his career.