“Mayela, prende la tele!” he said.
She turned on the TV to see President Barack Obama had signed an executive order called “Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals,” or DACA for short.
“I just … my heart. It was a feeling that I’d never experienced before,” Rocha said.
For Rocha, and hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants who were brought to the United States as children, DACA would allow them to obtain a driver’s license, a social security number, and grant them the opportunity to live, work and study here without looming fear of deportation, in the form of two-year work permits.
Rocha had graduated from the University of Texas at San Antonio just a few months earlier.
“I remember thinking, what am I going to do? Am I gonna continue cleaning houses? Am I gonna continue babysitting?” Rocha said. “Why even go through this hardship if I’m not gonna be able to work legally and use my degree?”
DACA changed everything: Within a few months of applying, (a $495 payment to Homeland Security and $500 for her lawyer later) Rocha received her approval letter with a date for her biometrics appointment, where she had her fingerprints taken for security clearance and a background check.
“That’s when I told myself, I’m finally somebody. I’m worth something,” Rocha said. “I cried to the lady there. I was like, ‘Miss, es que usted no sabe,’ and I was hugging her, like yes! I’m in the system now!”
Her work permit and social security number followed. Finally, nine years after she had completed driver’s ed, she was able to take her driving exam.
Rocha, who has been a teacher in San Antonio for four years, left Torreón, Mexico when she was 3 years old. She considers herself American, and is one of 15,000 DACA recipients living in Bexar County.
Now, Rocha’s future, like that of the 800,000 DACA recipients in the U.S., 124,000 of whom live in Texas, is uncertain. In September, President Donald Trump announced he’d be rescinding DACA, leaving it up to Congress to come up with a solution to protect ”dreamers” who have relied on the program for five years. For most dreamers, deportation means being exiled to a country they never knew: a national survey estimated most of them arrived to the U.S. when they were 6 and a half years old.
Michelle Mancha hardly remembers the beginning of her life in Mexico City. The only memory her 6-year-old mind held onto was of her, her older brother and her mother packing up to leave their home, and the sinking realization that her father wouldn’t be joining.
“I remember asking my mom, 'When is daddy gonna meet up with us?'” Mancha said. “I didn’t know that she was running from him because he would abuse her physically when he was drinking.”
When they reached the Mexican-American border near Piedras Negras, Mexico, they crossed the Rio Grande using car tires to float, since they didn’t know how to swim. Her aunt was waiting for them on the other side.
Mancha said that if she had been in her mother’s situation, she would have done the same thing.
“Think of somebody judging you for wanting to do something that’s literally the best thing for your kid. As a parent, all you want to do is watch your kid succeed, and keep them safe. In our situation in Mexico, we were not safe,” Mancha said. “I think people need to have open minds, and realize there are situations you don’t know about, or couldn’t even imagine what people are going through.”
DACA was created for people like Mancha: children who had no say when they were brought to the U.S. by their parents. When Obama announced DACA in 2012, he said it would give a “degree of relief and hope to talented, driven, patriotic young people.”
It wasn’t amnesty, it didn’t guarantee a path to citizenship, or grant immunity. It allowed these children, most of whom were now young adults and had spent the majority of their lives in the U.S., the ability to live, work and study here legally by applying for two-year work permits. DACA was never meant to last — the idea was it would be in place until something better came along.
It was a short-term band aid until Congress passed the DREAM Act, a bill that would offer undocumented immigrants the same rights as DACA while allowing them to apply for permanent residency. It gave undocumented immigrant kids a new nickname: “dreamers.” The decades-old DREAM Act, however, remains pending in Congress.
Applying for DACA can be tedious and lengthy: applicants have to provide a lot of proof and paperwork, and cover the $495 application cost (renewals cost the same).
To be considered for DACA, applicants need to have arrived in the U.S. prior to their sixteenth birthday; be under 31 years old in 2012; have lived in the U.S. for at least five years; have a high school diploma, be enrolled in school, or actively serve or have been honorably discharged from the military; and have not been convicted of a felony or multiple misdemeanors.
Despite all these hurdles, registering for DACA is far less laborious (and hopeless) than applying for U.S. citizenship through the traditional system. With remarkably low caps on how many immigrants are allowed in from each country per year (and millions on the waiting list), it often takes applicants a decade to finally gain citizenship. For those without family living in the U.S. or a job willing to sponsor them, it could be a fruitless mission.
For many dreamers pre-DACA, their undocumented status hit hard when they reached significant milestones as teenagers, like obtaining a driver’s license, or applying for colleges and financial aid without a social security number.
“[DACA] gave me the freedom to be a normal teenager,” Mancha said. “That’s all I really wanted. I knew I wasn’t normal, but just living life day to day and not having to worry about ‘I’m gonna get a speeding ticket,’ or ‘there’s a cop there, I need to get away from him.’ I just don’t think living in fear is a way to live at all.”
When friends and classmates began talking about applying for universities, it seemed like yet another closed door to Mancha. Even after years in the Texas public school system, her status would make it difficult, if not impossible, to apply for and afford higher education, and to have a career.
“I was a good student, and then it was discouraging to know, what’s the point of working so hard in high school and college, if I’m not going to be able to actually work in the degree that I got?” said Mancha, who is an aspiring psychologist.
Mancha was a high school junior when DACA was set in motion. Some time after the news had sunk in, Mancha’s English teacher asked her students to pick a word that best described them.
“I chose the word ‘free,’” Mancha said, “because whenever [Obama] came out with [DACA], I felt like I could finally live my life. Before that, I was living in fear. Now, I’m scared that I’m going to have to live like that again.”
Seven Flores, a DACA recipient and teacher from Laredo, Texas, wasn’t surprised when he heard that DACA was ending.
“I had already prepared myself for it. I knew since November that this was very, very likely to happen, regardless of what Trump said, because I knew it wasn’t just about Trump — it was other people who wanted it to end, too,” said Flores, who currently lives in San Antonio.
After hinting for months during his presidential campaign that he would do away with DACA, Trump seemed to have backed off once he was in the Oval Office. In January, he told recipients they “shouldn’t be very worried,” and he promised to look at “the whole immigration situation” with “a great heart.”
But, like several promises out of the White House since Trump’s election, his stance on DACA wavered. In February, Trump said that some DACA recipients are “gang members, and they’re drug dealers too.” From then on, he played at being torn about how he would proceed with DACA.
On September 5, the day his decision was announced, Trump avoided cameras and reporters, opting instead to shoot out a cryptic tweet before the announcement: “Congress, get ready to do your job - DACA!”
It was Attorney General Jeff Sessions who let the country know DACA was being rolled back. A written statement from Trump ensued, followed by another tweet: “Congress now has 6 months to legalize DACA (something the Obama Administration was unable to do.) If they can’t, I will revisit the issue!”
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton helped expedite Trump’s decision.
In a letter written by Paxton and signed by nine other attorneys general and the governor of Idaho, Paxton warned Trump if DACA was not terminated by September 5, he would be facing a lawsuit. Sessions hinted at the pressure, saying DACA was reviewed “in light of imminent litigation.”
“We cannot admit everyone who would like to come here,” Sessions said. “It’s just that simple.”
Azua came to the U.S. from Tampico, Mexico when she was 14 years old — now, she works for the Texas Organizing Project, a nonprofit organization that helps low-income and working class Texas families.
“As dreamers, this is our home,” Azua said. “We have been here our entire lives, and we’re happy to contribute. I don’t know why they don’t see us as who we are. We live in the same neighborhoods, go to the same churches.”
As it turned out, rescinding DACA only welcomed new litigation: 15 states filed a lawsuit against Trump, asking a federal court to throw out his memo rescinding DACA and to block information gathered through DACA from being used for immigration enforcement.
With 78 percent of DACA recipients being of Mexican descent, the states argue that Trump’s decision to end DACA was “to punish and disparage people with Mexican roots,” whether that was to appease his base or because of personally-held beliefs.
San Antonio leaders also condemned the decision and stood up for DACA recipients. San Antonio City Councilwoman Shirley Gonzales urged constituents to pressure members of Congress to pass legislation to protect dreamers, and City Council passed a legal aid fund for low-income, undocumented immigrants. State Representative Diego Bernal, who helped break up a heated argument over immigration deportation on the Texas House of Representatives floor in May, said he was angry and “heartbroken” when he first heard the news. But it didn’t slow him down.
“It’s okay to feel like that, but you just can’t relent. You have to be persistent. There’s no victory in history that came overnight, and we have to have stamina, and ultimately, we will win,” he said.
San Antonio’s dreamers are banking on that stamina.
“We’re being played with back and forth. They don’t know how it affects us emotionally, mentally, physically. We’re drained,” Rocha said. “It’s hard to be in front of students and having to think about our future, and telling yourself ‘I’m not gonna be here for their graduation. I’m not gonna be here when they move on to middle school’ — because this man wants me out, pretty much.”
It’s too soon to tell what Congress, or Trump, will ultimately decide for dreamers. Two days after his announcement, Trump tweeted: “For all of those (DACA) that are concerned about your status during the 6 month period, you have nothing to worry about - no action!”
A week later, Trump dined with U.S. House and Senate Democratic leaders Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer, where they discussed DACA. The following morning, Trump tweeted, “No deal was made last night on DACA. Massive border security would have to be agreed to in exchange for consent. Would be subject to vote.”
Seventeen minutes later, he tweeted: “Does anybody really want to throw out good, educated and accomplished young people who have jobs, some serving the military? Really!.....”
“They didn’t have a deal; they agreed to agree, details to be worked out later, that they would exclude the wall funding from any agreement they would reach concerning the dreamers,” said Texas Congressman Lloyd Doggett, who’s been at the frontlines of DACA’s defense. ”What we need is to let democracy work, and have the majority of members of the House determine this, not just the majority of the Republican Caucus.”
Regardless of how these next few months play out for dreamers, they aren’t giving up without a fight. Rocha said the outpouring of support has been great, but they need more than sympathy.
“This is when you need to make action and bombard these [lawmakers’] landlines, emails,” she said. “Take action and let them know how you feel.”