If Daniela Reyes were to dwell on the status of her Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals application for too long, it might consume her.
The 24-year-old Tacoma mother had all her documents ready in 2017. But the program stopped accepting applications before she could apply. When it reopened, Reyes once again prepared her paperwork.
Despite reviewing her application for what seemed “like a hundred times,” she said it bounced back due to a missing signature. She submitted it once more — only to be left waiting again after a federal judge this summer questioned the legality of the Obama-era program.
Reyes is among the tens of thousands of DACA applicants caught in a backlog of cases after U.S. District Judge Andrew Hanen barred the federal government from approving new applications.
The ruling has highlighted the transient nature of the protections afforded by DACA and has strengthened calls for comprehensive immigration reform that includes immigrants beyond those eligible for the program.
“It’s just been this devastating uncertainty. Even for folks who have DACA, it’s been this roller coaster of emotion of fighting to get this status in the first place,” said Jorge Barón, executive director of the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project.
He estimated that 2,000 of the 55,000 first-time DACA applicants in the country, as of March, reside in Washington state.
“Every time there’s news like this your heart drops,” Reyes said, calling it a never-ending battle to be given a shot at permanent residency.
Her family left Monterrey, Mexico, when she was 2. When Reyes got married in 2016, she tried to apply for citizenship through her husband, a U.S. citizen, but was told DACA was a safer bet.
With two young children and having been raised by a single mother for most of her youth, Reyes said she’s learned to advocate for herself and remain positive — even when it seems like all odds are against her.
“My memories, my whole life is here,” Reyes said. “Sometimes I feel scared because I want to keep moving forward, but doors just keep shutting on me.”
After graduating from high school, Reyes wanted to go to college. But she felt that she couldn’t because she didn’t have permanent residency. Six years later, she’s still hoping to one day work in the medical field and show her children that they can accomplish anything they set their minds to.
She said she wants the opportunities many Americans can take for granted, like going to college or working a stable 9–to–5 job. “We’re just as American as anybody.”
In a state of ‘limbo’
While U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services is still accepting first-time DACA applications, approvals can’t be granted until the Supreme Court decides on the fate of the program. And renewal applications filed before the decision may be further delayed.
“Now we’re in this limbo where their application is probably not going to be denied but it’s also not going to get approved for who knows how long,” Barón said.
He said he hopes the Biden administration will work to ensure there is not a long delay, and that work permit extensions will be granted amid the backlogs.
Backlogs often make it seem like “your life is on hold or in purgatory,” especially if one is left unable to work, visit loved ones or go to school, said Xiao Wang, CEO and co-founder of Boundless Immigration.
Wang helped create the Seattle-based startup to help offset the difficulties of navigating the legal system, expensive fees and other obstacles for immigrants looking to gain their citizenship or residency.
“When my family came up from China, we spent almost five months of rent money on our immigration attorney because we didn’t know any better,” he said.
DACA a ‘Band-Aid solution‘
Advocates point to DACA as a temporary solution and continue to call for a broad legalization program for the more than 11 million people living in the country without authorization.
Linda Vargas, a DACA recipient and Washington State University student, said she did not fully contemplate the fragility of the program and its shortfalls when she was younger.
Vargas’ family left Tepalcatepec, Mexico, when she was 4.
“I think at the root of it is the fact that DACA is a Band-Aid solution for the perforating wound that is America’s broken immigration system,” she said.
The “good” immigrant versus “bad” immigrant fuels divisions among the immigrant community and beyond, Vargas said, with a sentiment that only those who seek out higher education or are eligible for DACA deserve to be in the country.
It pressures people, she said, into thinking they must mold themselves into an “acceptable” version of an immigrant.
“Our parents, our uncles, our aunts deserve protection as well. They’ve left everything behind and this country is what they know now,” she said. “We will not truly feel protected until our whole community has had an opportunity to feel safe.”
Advocating for a clear pathway to citizenship
U.S. Senate Democrats passed a $3.5 trillion budget resolution Aug. 11 that includes about $100 billion for a pathway to citizenship extending to DACA recipients, individuals with temporary protected status and farmworkers and other essential workers in the U.S. without legal permission.
House lawmakers passed the budget resolution Tuesday. Democrats can continue with the budget reconciliation process, which allows Congress to pass legislation on a one-party line vote to avoid a filibuster.
“We have a chance to get this done with reconciliation, and I’m going to be making every argument there is to make. I think there is a real plain case to be made that immigration reform directly impacts our budget,” Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., said in a statement to The Seattle Times.
The immigration system has forced millions to “live in the shadows as Americans in all but name,” she said.
Gilda Blanco joined the Domestic Workers Alliance in Seattle in 2011 and began to advocate for worker rights and immigration reform. Four years later, she joined the alliance full time, eventually becoming a representative on the international domestic worker federation executive committee.
Earlier this year, she met with Vice President Kamala Harris to discuss immigration reform and a pathway to citizenship that extends to undocumented essential workers who lack protections when they are exploited on the job.
“I think about every single one of them when I’m advocating and I want the world to know their faces too and that they deserve respect,” Blanco said.
Blanco hears daily from people facing workplace abuses and harassment who feel they have no recourse because of their legal status. It’s something she is all too familiar with.
Blanco came to the U.S. in 1999 without legal permission a year shy of completing her university degree from Rafael Landivar University in Guatemala and cleaned homes for work, leaving her vulnerable to exploitation and wage theft.
It took her 16 years to receive her residency, and she blew through her savings to make it happen.
“In all that time I didn’t see my mom, just only talked on the phone or FaceTime,” Blanco said. “She’s now 82 years old. I missed so much.”
Resources and legal help for immigrants living in the country without authorization and DACA recipients have proven to be vital, Vargas said. But perhaps just as important, she added, is the attention given to mental health. The uncertainty of DACA and future for immigrants is a hard reality to live with, she said.
“We’re always fighting to be seen,” Vargas said. “Nothing was given to us just because.”