MIAMI — A smorgasbord of emotions flooded Grisell Mendoza when her mom’s barrage of texts popped up on her phone Friday night.
“There was hope. Joy. Skepticism,” the 19-year-old said between tears. “I hope this time it’s for real.”
The text broke the news that a federal judge had just ordered the Department of Homeland Security to restore the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival program, which former President Barack Obama initiated and since 2012 has allowed hundreds of thousands of young adults brought to the U.S. as children to avoid being deported back to their home countries.
Mendoza is one of them. From Honduras, her parents trekked through Central America and crossed the southern U.S. border. She was 2.
When she started her second year at Coral Gables High School in 2017, Mendoza, who recently graduated in the summer, said her dreams of becoming a surgeon were “shattered” when the Trump administration slashed the Obama-era program known as DACA.
The student couldn’t qualify for federal financial aid because of her undocumented immigration status: “My family can’t afford to pay for school so I’m working as a restaurant server to help pay the bills.”
But then, her hopes rose again this past June — almost three years later — when the U.S. Supreme Court blocked the Trump administration’s 2017 effort to end DACA. Less than a month later those hopes were destroyed again when Acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf issued a memo saying the agency would reject all DACA applications despite the Supreme Court’s ruling.
Things changed once more last month when Judge Nicholas George Garaufis of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York vacated that memo, ruling that Wolf had unlawfully ascended to the agency’s top job and had no authority to make any changes to DACA, which led to Friday’s ruling. On Monday night, United States Citizenship and Immigration Services complied with the recent ruling but didn’t dismiss the possibility of an appeal.
“DHS will comply with Judge Garaufis’ order while it remains in effect, but DHS may seek relief from the order,” the agency posted on its website.
“That’s why I’m scared to put my faith in Friday’s ruling. Though it’s a victory, I’m praying that I don’t get my heart broken again,” the teen said.
“Like so many across the country, I’m preparing to file my application ASAP, but I’m also petrified to be let down.”
Mendoza’s mixed emotions echo those of about 1.3 million people nationwide who are hanging onto President-elect Joe Biden’s commitment to reinstate DACA on day 1 of his presidency. He also has said he would work with Congress to pursue legislation to provide citizenship for immigrant youth.
On Monday, the first day to file DACA applications, immigration policy experts and attorneys scrambled to contact eligible immigrants to help them apply.
“The roller coaster of changes has been challenging for our clients, and we are still waiting for the government to post official notice to their website, as required by the order,” said Adonia Simpson, director of family defense for the nonprofit group Americans for Immigrant Justice.
Simpson also works with the South Florida chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, or AILA, a voluntary group of attorneys and law professors. “The future of DACA remains uncertain, so we encourage young immigrants to explore all their options.”
In 2012, Obama signed the DACA executive order after the DREAM Act — short for Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act — did not pass Congress. Sens. Dick Durbin, a Democrat from Illinois, and Orrin Hatch, the former Republican senator from Utah, first introduced the Act in 2001, but Congress has repeatedly failed to pass variations of the legislation over the nearly 20-year period.
The young people impacted by DACA and the DREAM Act are often referred to as “Dreamers.” The program was shut down in 2017 after President Donald Trump took office.
Thursday’s decision to leave the program in place for now means that about 76,000 people in Florida — and 1.3 million people nationwide — who could have become eligible for DACA in the past three years before it was terminated, could soon apply for the protection, according to data from the Migration Policy Institute.
Immigration experts say it also means that those already in the program could take a sigh of relief — at least for now.
“It is true that another legal challenge to the program is around the corner. However, what is important is for new DACA recipients to take advantage of this new development, and use the opportunity to obtain deportation protections, a work permit and the ability to drive,” said Juan Escalante, a 31-year-old DACA beneficiary and longtime immigration activist. Escalante was raised in Miami-Dade after arriving from Venezuela at the age of 11.
He moved to Tallahassee, where he attended Florida State University and earned a master’s degree in public administration. He was approved for DACA in 2013 and now helps lead fwd.us, a nonprofit immigration and criminal justice lobbying group based in Washington, D.C.
Gaby Pacheco, director of advocacy, communications and development at TheDream.US, a college scholarship program for DREAMers, says the “tide is turning.”
“We are nearing the end of a painful year for immigrant youth, during which the pandemic has hit their families disproportionately hard, on top of a challenging four-year stretch that saw the DACA program and DREAMers’ futures in this country under attack,” she said.
According to U.S. government data, the majority of DACA recipients are from Mexico, which means Florida’s share of the nation’s DACA population is somewhat smaller than that of other large states.
Florida is home to about 25,000 DACA recipients, with 11,000 of them in Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade counties. Texas and California are home to about half of the country’s estimated 690,000 DACA recipients.