On the cusp of a bachelor’s degree in biology at Florida International University, Juliette Herrera faces a more uncertain future than most college seniors.
During the years she has spent in school, the 28-year-old Venezuela native has seen the country she was born in — but moved away from by the time she was 5 — spiral further and further into economic collapse and political chaos. Meanwhile, the United States, the country she calls home, is still working out whether Herrera and other young people like her belong here at all.
“I’m closer to 30 than I am to 20 and I’m trying to make moves to solidify my position in this country, but that becomes increasingly harder when you don’t know what’s going to happen,” she said. “There’s fear running in all of the circles that I’m in.”
Herrera is a recipient of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA), which provides protection from deportation to undocumented immigrants who arrived in the U.S. as children. Along with other so-called DREAMers — they number 27,000 in Florida and nearly 700,000 across the country — Herrera has an important court date coming up: Nov. 12.
That’s when the Supreme Court will begin hearing arguments in the long-simmering legal battle over DACA, the start of a process that will end with the program being either allowed to stay in place, or eliminated. At issue is whether then-President Barack Obama had the legal authority in 2012 to launch DACA without congressional approval.
“Honestly, I don’t feel good about it. Everything that I hear in the support circles that I’m in, in the different group chats that I’m in, revolves around that it’s not looking good and that they are likely to strike it down,” said Herrera. “Honestly, in my head, I’m just trying to ignore it at this point so that I can do what I need to do on my end without having a breakdown.”
DACA’s path to the nation’s highest court began in September 2017, when the Trump administration first announced its intention to gradually dismantle the program. As a result, the Department of Homeland Security stopped accepting new applications from once-eligible people — unauthorized immigrants who came to the U.S. under the age of 16 and before June 2007.
But lawsuits kept DACA from being completely terminated, with three nationwide injunctions issued by U.S. district courts — in California, New York, and the District of Columbia — allowing immigrants who already have DACA to renew their status every two years, as the program originally called for. Appeals followed those rulings, and late last year, the Supreme Court agreed to take up the case.
If the conservative majority on the court decides DACA was unlawful, it would prevent any future presidents who follow Trump in office from starting the program up again.
“It’s all a matter of politics being completely personal,” Herrera said.
MIAMI DREAMERS SAY GETTING DACA WAS LIFE-CHANGING
For Analleli Gallegos, there’s life pre-DACA and there’s life post-DACA.
Now 31, Gallegos moved to South Florida from Mexico when she was 10, along with her mother. She said she hadn’t fully realized how much her status as an undocumented immigrant would hold her back until 2007, when she graduated from high school.
“That’s when I really got struck with reality,” she said.
At the time, undocumented students in Florida were not allowed to pay in-state tuition at public colleges (that changed in 2014), and scholarship opportunities were almost nonexistent. That made getting a degree unaffordable. While former classmates went on to school to become teachers and doctors, Gallegos followed her mother to the fields in Homestead, where she picked tomatoes. She also spent time working at restaurants, always getting paid off the books.
“I thought, man, if I did so well in high school, it was because I wanted to have a better job, and look at me,” she said. “My years after high school were very depressing. ... I thought that the dream my mom had for me when she got us here, it wasn’t being accomplished.”
It’s an experience that Herrera can relate to.
“From the time I graduated high school, six years passed before I got DACA and those six years, I call them the limbo years,” she said. “It was just like floating around, waiting for something to happen.”
Herrera was also forced to put off going to college. Too scared to drive without a license, which could have potentially led to arrest and deportation, she relied on her friends for rides. “It was always a matter of being hyper-vigilant,” she said.
When President Obama announced the creation of DACA in 2012, “it was the best moment of my life,” said Gallegos. The program offered relief from deportation, but also a chance to secure work authorizations and driver’s licenses. To be eligible, young undocumented immigrants had to either have obtained an American high school diploma or GED, or have served honorably in the military.
“When DACA passed, it was amazing. I immediately got on the ball,” Herrera said. “I got my work permit, I went and got a state ID, and as soon as I got that I applied to my first ‘legal’ jobs. I got DACA in January and by March I already had a [customer service] job lined up.”
Thanks to their DACA status, both Herrera and Gallegos won scholarships to attend FIU. “No more manual labor,” Gallegos said.
Still, the undocumented struggle wasn’t out of mind, since most relatives, including both women’s parents, lacked documentation (last year, one of Gallegos’ siblings was deported back to Mexico, leaving a daughter behind). That struggle became even more palpable over the course of the last couple of years, as the escalating legal battle over DACA grabbed headlines.
“It has definitely felt like a return to limbo,” Herrera said. “There’s all these long-term or semi-long-term choices that I want to make that are constantly put on hold.”
Added Gallegos: “My future is in the hands of the people [on the court]. They are going to decide what’s going to happen to me. I either stay or I go.”
UNDOCUMENTED YOUTH ACTIVISTS MAKING THEIR VOICES HEARD
Romina Montenegro is a 20-year-old DACA recipient from Argentina. She came to Miami with her family when she was just 2 years old. On Nov. 12, when the Supreme Court will begin hearing arguments on the legality of DACA, Montenegro will be in Washington, D.C., protesting outside the court along with activists from a broad alliance of immigrant rights organizations.
“I’m headed to that rally because I just really want people to understand why [DACA] is so important,” she said. The scheduled Supreme Court protest is part of a national campaign meant to showcase the benefits of DACA, called Home Is Here.
This won’t be Montenegro’s first time in D.C. The FIU junior has already spent many hours inside the U.S. Capitol, where she spoke with Florida representatives — an example of the outpouring of activism by undocumented youth since DACA was first put in jeopardy. She also participated in a Nicky Jam documentary and spoke with Alejandro Sanz about the struggles DACA students face. (At a concert, the latter would go on to dedicate a performance of his song “Looking for Paradise” to Montenegro and other activists.)
“In Congress, I was just trying to tell [House members] our stories, and get them to understand that we are U.S. citizens everywhere except on paper,” she said.
NO PATHWAY TO CITIZENSHIP
There’s a cyclical aspect to life under DACA.
Every two years, DREAMers have to undergo a renewal process to keep their status. That includes filing renewal application forms with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), undergoing a background check, and paying a $495 fee. (For many, that’s a significant expense, and applicants have to rely on financial assistance from nonprofits or even GoFundMe campaigns.) There’s no provision anywhere to become a citizen.
“Although I would really love it if DACA wasn’t taken away, I’m really ready for a pathway to citizenship, [even] if that means removing DACA and having that issue be at the forefront,” said Herrera. “At this point, I’m still very grateful for [DACA]. But I’m fed up with the system.”
Montenegro echoed that sentiment: “There’s no reason why there shouldn’t be a pathway to citizenship for people who have been here since they were children,” she said. “That’s pretty much what we are trying to convey.”
For Gallegos, the way forward is clear. “It would be best for Congress to move forward with the solution that is there already,” she said, referencing the stalled DREAM Act legislation, which would give permanent legal status to DREAMers, along with a pathway to citizenship.
In June, the House of Representatives passed the DREAM Act, thanks in part to advocacy organizations like United We Dream, an immigrant youth-led network. But there are no plans in the Republican-controlled Senate to take up the bill, even though granting legal status to DREAMers is something polls show an overwhelming number of Americans approve of.
AN UNCERTAIN FUTURE
Speak with DACA-holders, and you’ll realize they’re brimming with contingency plans, a product of the sense of displacement many felt growing up with. But it’s still hard for people like Herrera to wrap their heads around the prospect of potentially losing their protected status, which could happen when a decision from the Supreme Court comes down in 2020.
“I graduate in the spring, and if DACA is no longer, then I don’t even know what that means,” she said. “I don’t know if that means my work permit will automatically be invalid or if it will gradually phase out. I don’t know how much time if any they will give us. Just the logistics of going back to that state of complete undocumented-ness, I don’t even know how that would look like.”
Post-graduation, Herrera knows what she would like to do.
“I want to go into the physician assistant master’s program and hopefully work in a hospital setting. But, but…,” she trails off.
Gallegos said she’s trying to stay positive.
“When I think of my future, I envision being a citizen,” she said. “I’d love to travel back to my home country and hopefully visit my grandpa and the people I left behind. But I see myself with my family here, being able to purchase a home and start my own business. I just want to continue working and providing for this country. This is my home. This is where I belong.”
Besides studying for her college courses, Montenegro is currently doing an internship with U.S. Rep. Donna Shalala. She says her dream is to one day be able to follow in her boss’ footsteps.
“I definitely want to go to Congress one day and just fix things that I believe are broken,” she said. “Like the immigration system.”