BRANDON — Luis Quixtan experienced a childhood full of mixed feelings. From his native Guatemala, he has memories of his friends, Christmas and birthdays. But he also remembers the horror of the insecurity that existed in its streets.
He grew up in a country where violence, gang activity and police corruption are common. At age 11, he was nearly kidnapped as he was leaving a store in his neighborhood. Two men followed him and tried to stop him. Quixtan managed to evade them until he got home safely.
His family came to the United States 18 years ago, fleeing the violence. He couldn’t sleep well, Quixtan said, thinking he could be deported and sent back to Guatemala.
A decade ago, when Quixtan was 20, he first applied to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA. Former President Barack Obama established the program for undocumented immigrant children on June 15, 2012, through an executive order. Now, an estimated 611,470 people fall under its protection.
Quixtan thought it was a temporary solution that would allow him to stay in the country without getting deported.
But after a decade of the program, Congress still has not passed legislation for young immigrants to apply for permanent legal status.
“We’ve been waiting so long,” said Quixtan, who is 30 now.
Immigration advocates and local activists marked the 10th anniversary of the program by asking for a definitive solution.
“This DACA anniversary must be the last without action from Congress to provide Dreamers with a pathway to citizenship,” Ted Hutchinson, Florida director for FWD.us — a bipartisan organization working to reform immigration and criminal justice systems — said in a statement.
According to the FWD.us, 23,600 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals recipients in Florida alone pay $290 million in annual federal, state, and local taxes. Dreamers encompass 21% of Florida’s undocumented immigrant population, and 60% have lived in the U.S. for over a decade.
The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program is open to those who were brought illegally to the United States as children before they were 16, have a clean record and have lived in the country at least five years. The program provides recipients a Social Security number to work and invites them to renew their status every two years. It doesn’t offer a path to citizenship or the right to vote.
So-called Dreamers, known for the Dream Act — a proposal to grant legal status to young people — had been targeted by former President Donald Trump and Republican lawyers for deportation. Last July in Texas, U.S. District Judge Andrew Hanen ruled against the program, prohibiting new applications but leaving it intact for existing recipients. More than 600,000 young immigrants cannot have their applications processed because of the judge’s decision.
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Next month, the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals will hear arguments regarding the program’s constitutionality. The appeals court will likely rule on the policy later this year, opening up the possibility that the legal battle could end up in the Supreme Court, according to advocates.
Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program recipients have increased high school attendance and graduation rates, according to the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute. Because of their jobs and incomes, the institute said, Dreamers contributed nearly $42 billion to U.S. gross domestic product each year and added $3.4 billion to the federal balance sheet.
But thousands of Dreamers have seen delays in their renewal requests, jeopardizing the legal status that enables them to remain in the United States. Some recipients have reported losing their jobs or being furloughed while they wait for their applications to be processed. Others work for employers willing to give them more time.
For many years, activists, spiritual leaders and advocates have urged Congress to work together for immigration reform.
Cirenio Cervantes, 28, a community leader with Faith in Florida, a nonprofit that advocates for immigrants, said the program has provided an opportunity for many, including him.
Cervantes came with his parents from the Mexican state of Guerrero when he was 7. He was accepted into the program in 2013 and used his legal status to study at the University of South Florida, where he received a biology degree. The program, he said, has allowed him to feel like he is part of his community. He can drive and live without the constant fear of being deported.
“DACA is only a temporary solution, and we will keep advocating for something more permanent,” Cervantes said. “Not only for us but also for our parents.”
Quixtan’s parents, Angel and Sandra Quixtan, 60, were both family doctors who ran a medical clinic in Guatemala. They fled to the U.S. in 2004 because of unrest and chronic violence in their country. They said they saw armed robberies and men shot in the middle of the street. Many times, they had to save the lives of people in their clinic, men and women who fell victim to violence and street insecurity.
The couple said they left their medical practice after being assaulted at home by gangs and paramilitaries. The trigger, however, was the attempted kidnapping of their eldest son and threats that they would be killed if they did not pay a ransom of $5,000. In the U.S., Luis Quixtan’s parents got different jobs and survived by working as much as they could. Angel painted houses and worked in stores. Sandra became a caregiver.
Fleeing to the United States was not an option. It was a matter of life or death, Luis Quixtan said.
He graduated with honors from Brandon High School, in an unincorporated community east of Tampa. He was a member of the Youth Orchestra at the Patel Conservatory in Tampa and was living in Brandon with his parents and siblings, three of them also Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals recipients and musicians: Christian, 27, Kevin, 25, and Sandra, 23.
Luis Quixtan now works full time taking care of the elderly. Over the past two years, he has often worked up to 80 hours caring for patients in the middle of the pandemic. He never fell sick until a couple of weeks ago when, he said, he contracted COVID-19.
He also is studying to receive a biology degree from St. Petersburg College so he can become a doctor. In 2020, he married his girlfriend, Michelle, a U.S. citizen, and they have an 11-month-old son. Now he can fix his legal status through his wife, but Luis Quixtan said the pressure and the emotional challenge never ends for Dreamers.
“When DACA came to us, it was like a dream come true,” he said. “But it can change any time.”