President-elect Joe Biden promised on day one of his presidency to protect young immigrants who’ve been living in the country for over a decade from deportation.
Some of those immigrants, often known as dreamers, are currently covered under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which was created through executive action in 2012 to shield from deportation undocumented immigrants who arrived in the country as children by 2007. It doesn’t give its beneficiaries, who must have a clean criminal record, an immigration status. The program does grant them a renewable, two-year work permit.
But thousands more, like Darian Benitez Sanchez, a senior at Brophy College Preparatory in central Phoenix, haven’t benefited from the program because of changes made by the Trump administration to deny all new DACA applications. Benitez Sanchez said it’s “surreal” to know a set date in January could open up DACA for him and grant him opportunities to get a job, access reduced tuition in Arizona, and a driver’s license.
Even though he can’t vote, Benitez Sanchez spent the summer organizing young voters with Aliento, a community group founded by local DACA leaders that advocates for undocumented students. He believes his calls made the difference in Biden’s win over Trump in Arizona.
“That demonstrates the power that we have. There is a cultural shift going on,” Benitez Sanchez said. “I think we can finally really start imagining realities that we couldn’t before.”
But Biden alone doesn’t hold the future of DACA or of the 645,000 people who currently get temporary benefit from the program, and of the thousands of young undocumented immigrants like Benitez Sanchez who are ready to apply for it if the new president lifts restrictions.
A federal lawsuit in Texas challenging the lawfulness of the program could make or break DACA, said Karina Ruiz, executive director of the Arizona Dream Act Coalition. The lawsuit, filed in 2018 by attorneys general in seven states, claims DACA is unlawful and places a burden on states’ healthcare and education systems. According to the Washington Post, the judge in that case, U.S. District Court Judge Andrew S. Hanen “has signaled in the past that DACA is probably unlawful.” A hearing is scheduled for Dec. 22.
“To me right now, the biggest thing is the Texas case,” Ruiz said.
Ruiz is unsure whether the Biden administration will reinstate DACA to its 2012 rules on day one as promised because the Texas case could declare the program unlawful.
“We know that that was one of his promises to bring back DACA, but we are also very conscientious that there is a case in Texas that could stop that,” she said. “We are just telling people to be patient, gather the documents, because we are not sure how things are going to develop.”
For months, Benitez Sanchez, who lives in west Phoenix, has been gathering documents that prove he arrived in the U.S. before June 15, 2007, has since been living continuously in the country, and was physically present in the U.S. on June 15, 2012, all requirements to qualify for DACA. He and his family have kept a file of school enrollment records, awards and receipts from martial arts classes he took for years at a community center. These pieces of paper document what Benitez Sanchez knows to be true: that Arizona, and the U.S., is the only home he’s ever known.
His family left a small town in the Mexican state of Guanajuato when he was four years old. His sister was two. It was 2007, the final year of eligibility for the DACA program.
“All I remember was leaving my house and having my grandma being really sad to the point where she chased our car … asking us to please stay,” Benitez Sanchez said. “She asked us to stay, but also knew that we needed to go.”
He was too young to remember, but he’s been told they arrived in the country walking through the border, his mom carrying him on his back.
Benitez Sanchez doesn’t dwell on whether his parents made the right choice.
“The exact decisions they made brought me here to where I am today,” he said.
At 17, Benitez Sanchez should have a work permit and deferred deportation because DACA originally allowed applicants to be 15 at the time they submit their application. With the work permit in hand, he could also get a state drivers license. But because the Trump administration announced it was phasing out the program in September 2017, newly eligible immigrants have been barred from applying to DACA.
The DACA program has been involved in several lawsuits, one that made it to the U.S. Supreme Court, which in June found the 2017 phase-out was illegal. After that, there was a small window of time when advocates encouraged people to submit DACA applications.
That changed in July when a new memo from Chad Wolf, the acting secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, said work permits would only be valid for one year instead of two, and no new DACA applications would be processed. In November, a federal court in New York found that memo was invalid because Wolf’s ascension to DHS chief was illegal.
Reyna Montoya, founder of Aliento, said there’s a possibility DACA could be reinstated before January. She expects decisions on important court cases to come by Christmas.
But court orders and Biden’s promise alone won’t bring permanent relief to young immigrants, DACA recipients and their families, Montoya said.
“We really need Biden to not only reinstate DACA, he needs to use his power as a leader of the nation to really work with Congress,” she said. “At the end of the day we need a congressional solution.”
The solution, she said, has to include a broader scope of immigrants, not just DACA-eligible ones.
“There have been so many different attempts… more than a decade around having some permanency,” Montoya said. “Right now we are in a place that the Biden administration has a responsibility to really include the immigrant community as part of his agenda of healing the nation. I hope he doesn’t take this issue for granted, and considers pathways for the undocumented community at large.”
Benitez Sanchez, who has found his voice as a leader and a visible advocate for undocumented immigrant communities, remains hopeful. He encouraged other children of immigrants not to be silent or complacent.
“The least we can do is everything because the alternative is nothing and for so long communities have done nothing,” he said. “It’s not. … None of it is normal. It’s depression and it’s suffering and we can do better.”