When Ximena Zamora was a junior in high school, her teacher suggested a summer internship at a law firm. As she filled out the application, Zamora paused before the question: “What is your Social Security Number?”
Zamora, who is an undocumented immigrant, doesn’t have one. The next day, she told her teacher she couldn’t pursue the opportunity. “It was the first time the extent of [not having DACA relief] really sunk in,” Zamora, 18, told ELLE.com. “I was so upset.”
The United States is the only home Zamora knows. She was born in Puebla, México, and came to New York City with her family when she was two years old. While she prepared to apply for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA), in 2017, Trump’s administration abruptly terminated it—leaving her unable to obtain a work permit or Social Security Number. “The internship,” Zamora said, “is only the first of many things I’ll have to miss out on if we don’t [fully reinstate] DACA right now.”
Now, in an election year, DACA hopefuls like Zamora are left wondering what the results of the presidential race will mean for their future.
In 2012, Barack Obama signed an executive order offering a temporary reprieve from deportation for certain undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children. Through DACA, these immigrants were also able to obtain a drivers license and work permits, and to seek higher education with the help of financial aid. When Trump was elected five years later, he attempted to dismantle the program — a move blocked by the Supreme Court in June.
It felt like a victory for Zamora, who was preparing to apply for DACA for a second time. But her excitement was short-lived. Despite the ruling, young undocumented immigrants continue to be denied, even as hundreds of thousands remain eligible. Some applicants, like Zamora, never got the chance to submit their paperwork in the first place. Others, having turned 15, now meet the minimum age of eligibility.
The Trump administration’s stance on DACA was reinforced this summer when acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf issued a memorandum 41 days after the Supreme Court ruling that barred first-time applicants from applying. It also reduced renewals for current recipients from two years to one year, essentially doubling the applicantion fee.
Zamora is one of nine DACA-eligible New Yorkers challenging Wolf’s changes in federal court. Their joint complaint, filed on August 28 and reviewed by ELLE.com, is an amendment to a court case previously filed after Trump tried to terminate DACA back in 2017. Represented by the National Immigration Law Center, Make the Road New York, and the Worker and Immigrant Rights Advocacy Clinic at Yale Law School, Zamora and the other plaintiffs want the government to process new DACA applications and revert back to biennial renewals.
“I worried at first about speaking out and putting my name out there [out of fear of deportation],” Zamora said. “But thousands of kids are in the same situation as me, so I needed to help out.”
DACA has provided work authorization and temporary relief from deportation to 643,560 immigrants since it was enacted. According to a study published by Harvard Professor Roberto Gonzales, who has been chronicling the effects of DACA for eight years, beneficiaries feel more secure in their identities and are better able to obtain financial independence.
In his memo, Wolf noted the positive impacts DACA recipients can have on society, including in the recent fight to contain the coronavirus, but justified denying new applicants due to a lack of “reliance interests” of current beneficiaries. He wrote that, “Whatever the merits of these asserted reliance interests on the maintenance of the DACA policy, they are significantly lessened, if not entirely lacking, with regard to aliens who have never before received deferred action pursuant to the policy.”
Zamora doesn’t see it that way. She graduated high school last year and has been accepted to Baruch College in New York City to study accounting and criminology. If the changes to DACA remain in place, Zamora says she won’t be able to get a job to help offset costs like her textbooks. “I study hard, I have goals and plans,” she said. “I’m not looking to cause any harm. I’m just looking to have the opportunity that the U.S. is supposed to give me.”
Right now, the fate of DACA is precarious. While Trump claimed a “great love” for Dreamers before a White House meeting on tax reform back in 2017, the president more recently called “many” DACA recipients “hardened criminals.”
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Trump has made his hardline stance on immigration a central platform of his re-election campaign. In July, he reportedly told Telemundo about a plan to “take care” of DACA by signing a “big” immigration bill. “We’re working out the legal complexities right now, but I’m going to be signing a very major immigration bill as an executive order, which the Supreme Court now, because of the DACA decision, has given me the power to do that,” Trump said. A White House spokesman later clarified that the president is “working on an executive order to establish a merit-based immigration system to further protect U.S. workers” that could “include citizenship, along with strong border security and permanent merit-based reforms.”
In contrast, Biden vowed during the last presidential debate to re-establish DACA in the first 100 days of his presidency by “send[ing] to the United States Congress a pathway to citizenship for over 11 million undocumented people. And all those so-called Dreamers, those DACA kids, they’re going to be legally certified again, to be able to stay in this country, and put on a path to citizenship.”
This could be the most important election of Zamora’s life, but it’s one she won’t have a say in. Instead, she’s relying on her registered friends and family to make a difference at the polls.
“This is something that needs to be fixed right now,” Zamora said. “It’s putting many lives on hold, and preventing us from reaching our goals and dreams.”
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