Looming court ruling on DACA has Texas recipients on edge
Sign up for The Brief, The Texas Tribune’s daily newsletter that keeps readers up to speed on the most essential Texas news.
Itzayana Mondragon is a 23-year-old mother who works at a health clinic in Austin. Juan Carlos Cerda is a 30-year-old Yale grad who’s the state director of a Fort Worth-based advocacy group that lobbies for immigration reform. Cristhian Ordaz-Deanda is a 22-year-old who works as a mason and plans to finish his anthropology degree in San Marcos.
All three came with their families to the U.S. when they were children and lived undocumented for years. All three now depend on a federal program, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals — known as DACA — to support themselves and their families. But their livelihoods are uncertain as a federal judge in Houston is expected to rule for the second time that DACA is illegal, upending their lives and the thousands of others enrolled in the program.
In the 11 years since the program started, the young immigrants who were high school or college students when they enrolled in DACA are now adults with careers and businesses and families of their own. Many have been living in the U.S. since they were small children and say they feel as American as anyone born in this country but feel shunned by the place they call home.
“We have learned to love this country, so why can’t this country learn to love us?” said Mondragon, who has a 3-year-old son.
They’re waiting on a decision from U.S. District Judge Andrew Hanen, who in 2021 ruled the program illegal — a ruling that allowed current recipients to renew their DACA status but blocked first-time applicants from receiving DACA.
Last week Hanen heard arguments on whether to continue the Obama-era immigration program that allows qualifying young immigrants to apply for a two-year renewable work permit and get a Social Security number and a driver’s license.
His initial ruling was appealed and the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed his decision but sent the case back to Hanen’s court after the Biden administration changed the program from one created via a memo by the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security to one enshrined in federal regulations.
DACA ended up in Hanen’s court because a coalition of nine states, led by Texas, filed a lawsuit in 2018 claiming that the program is illegal because the Obama and Biden administrations have given immigration benefits to undocumented immigrants that only Congress can approve.
In court last week, a lawyer for Texas argued that the nine states have had to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to provide social benefits such as health care and education to DACA recipients.
Lawyers for the Biden administration, New Jersey and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund — which are defending DACA in court — argued the program is legal because Congress has given presidents authority to set immigration enforcement priorities.
Cerda, who is the state director for the American Business Immigration Coalition, said if Hanen rules against DACA again, “I would probably lay low. I would be back in the shadows as I was nine years ago.
“I would have to protect myself from ICE (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement) and ensure that I do not ever come in contact with ICE or with Border Patrol,” added Cerda, who is married and said he and his wife plan to have children soon.
DACA has survived legal challenges before, including a narrow, 5-4 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in June 2020 after the Trump administration attempted to rescind it.
Lawyers defending DACA and immigrant rights advocates are expecting Hanen to once again rule that the program is illegal. That could lead to another yearslong court battle that could go to the Supreme Court, which has tipped even more conservative since DACA was first argued before the justices in 2019.
The uncertainty frustrates not only DACA recipients but their families as well, said Eliana Fernandez, a DACA recipient and the immigrant justice director for Faith in Action, a national immigrant rights advocacy group.
“I am tired of having to continue to hold my breath as DACA continues to be under threat,” Fernandez said. “Every time there is a hearing or as we await a verdict, I not only have to prepare myself but also my children, my parents, my brother and the rest of my family. This is exhausting and terrifying.”
Congressional efforts to protect DACA recipients fail
If DACA were ended, 5,000 workers would lose their jobs monthly in Texas over two years, many of them health care and teaching positions, according to a report by FWD.us, a lobbying group founded by Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg that advocates for immigration.
Ordaz-Deanda, who lives in San Marcos and works in masonry, said he worries that if DACA ended, job and educational opportunities would close to him.
“I feel like people would maybe look at me differently by thinking, ‘Oh, he’s not from here. So you can’t do this or you can’t do that,’” he said. “It kind of minimizes my chances.”
Ordaz-Deanda said he lived in fear of being deported as a child after his parents brought him and his older brother to Texas from Guanajuato, Mexico, two decades ago. In 2016, he applied for DACA and began working as a cashier at a Long John Silvers, then stocking produce at a small supermarket, saving enough money to buy his first car, a 2006 Chevy Cobalt.
Having DACA gave him more confidence in high school, he said, allowing him to focus on school work and enjoying time with his friends without fear of deportation. He wants to finish college and get a degree in anthropology.
He said he hopes Congress comes up with a long-term solution for DACA recipients.
Congress has previously taken up legislation that would provide a pathway to citizenship for immigrants brought to the U.S. as children. But it has repeatedly failed to pass a bill.
U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-El Paso, along with Republican Rep. María Elvira Salazar of Florida, have introduced the Dignity Act, which includes enhancements in border security but also would provide a path to citizenship for DACA recipients.
“Decades of congressional inaction on immigration law has real consequences, and the humanitarian crisis unfolding before our eyes requires a bipartisan solution,” Escobar said. “I have seen the toll our broken immigration system has on federal personnel, local representatives, nonprofits and the migrants themselves, and the need for a realistic, common-sense compromise could not be more urgent.”
From electrician to Yale graduate
Cerda, whose family brought him and his two younger brothers from Mexico to the U.S. 27 years ago, worked with his father as an electrician throughout high school, earning $9 an hour. Even though he was undocumented, he applied to Yale University, where he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in history in 2015.
His freshman year was emotionally and financially tough for him, he said. He received a scholarship to cover his tuition and board, but because he couldn’t legally work, he had little money for food or travel back to Texas to see his family during holiday breaks.
“I remember most of my classmates finding paid internships and study abroad opportunities I could not do because I did not have DACA or legal status at that time,” he said. “So it was easy to get disillusioned. It was easy to lose hope.”
After his freshman year, he successfully applied for DACA and landed a job in the university’s IT department earning $15 an hour, which allowed him to support himself through the rest of college. After graduating, he returned to Dallas and became a kindergarten teacher.
In 2021, he married his wife, who also is a DACA recipient, so both of their jobs are at risk if DACA is struck down, he said. Still, he is staying optimistic.
“We think that if we lose DACA, we just have to pray to God that there will be a solution for both of us,” he said. “We hope that it will be Congress that does something about the situation.”
“I really depend on DACA”
Mondragon, who is three months pregnant, is originally from the State of Mexico but her family moved to Austin when she was 11 months old. She is the oldest of five siblings and the only one who wasn’t born in the U.S. Her father works as a cook at an Austin Tex-Mex restaurant and her mother cleaned tables at a Burger King before she stopped working to be a stay-at-home mom.
Mondragon said she began working at 14 as a cashier at a small grocery store. The following year, she applied for DACA and worked at a different grocery store, where she met her boyfriend, who is the father of her children. Since graduating high school, she’s studying to become a medical assistant.
Her boyfriend works in construction and is also undocumented after leaving his home and family in Mexico 12 years ago. They plan to get married and she worries that DACA could soon come to an end, which could result in losing her job and not being able to provide for her son or help her parents financially.
When she was a child, her parents constantly worried about being deported and told the children that if it happened, they would be raised by an uncle who lives in Austin. Getting approved for DACA gave her some confidence that she wouldn’t be put in the same situation.
But now, Mondragon feels she may have to prepare to have the same talk with her 3-year-old that her parents had with her.
“It’s just a lot of stuff that gets in my mind: What’s going to happen to my school? What’s going to happen to my job?” she said. “I really depend on DACA. If it ends and I don’t have a driver’s license, what if I’m stopped by the police? What are they gonna do?”
Mondragon said she dreams of the day that she can be a U.S. citizen so she can sponsor her parents and boyfriend to become citizens, too.
“The first thing I would do is I would help my boyfriend so he can see his mom again,” she said.
Go behind the headlines with newly announced speakers at the 2023 Texas Tribune Festival, in downtown Austin from Sept. 21-23. Join them to get their take on what’s next for Texas and the nation.