Any Day Now, The Supreme Court Could Upend These Young Immigrants' Lives

DACA recipient Christine Park, 27, demonstrates in Washington, D.C. (Photo courtesy of Christine Park)

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The last few weeks have been wearing Christine Park down. It's the pandemic. It's police brutality. It's also the fear of losing her ability to work and stay in this country legally.

Any day now, the Supreme Court will rule on the fate of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, known as DACA. The program gives temporary legal status to roughly 650,000 young immigrants who arrived in the country as children.

The decision looms large in California, which has the most DACA recipients, about 200,000. A decision is expected by the end of June.

"I'm not gonna lie to you," said Park, a DACA recipient who was brought to the U.S. from South Korea by her parents when she was 10. "I have not been coping well."

The Obama-era DACA program not only offers protection from removal for these immigrants — the oldest are in their late 30s — it also authorizes them to work legally and apply for college loans.


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Park, who is 27, was approved for DACA in her late teens.

"I felt like I could stretch my legs a little," Park said. "I could travel. I could work, and feel like I contributed to society in a small way, like being able to pay taxes."

DACA recipient Rodrigo Mijangos Aguilar, 28, plans to keep fighting for a path to citizenship regardless of the Supreme Court decision. (Photo courtesy of Rodrigo Mijangos Aguilar)

Fellow DACA recipient Rodrigo Mijangos Aguilar, 28, said that the work permit gave him the opportunity to wade into the business world — first working in clothing retail. Now, he's seeking a master's degree in business administration.

He's also been able to expand his world, he said, to be with other people from other backgrounds.

"I've gained more of an understanding of what it is to be a part of something greater than myself, of being a part of the community," said Mijangos Aguilar, who was brought to the U.S. as a baby from Mexico.

The DACA program began in 2012, after various failed attempts in Congress to pass legislation known as the Dream Act which would provide a pathway to permanent legal status for young immigrants brought to the U.S. illegally.

At one point, there were an estimated 800,000 DACA recipients nationwide.

While initially President Trump at times spoke positively about these young immigrants — known as "Dreamers" — he has been trying to end the program since shortly after taking office in 2017, calling it an abuse of executive power by his predecessor.

Trump officially rescinded DACA in September 2017. But his action was blocked by lower courts, and the program has continued on life support since. The White House brought the DACA case to the Supreme Court last fall.

Based on the justices' line of questioning during oral arguments, the majority appeared to side with the White House, said Louis DeSipio, a political scientist at the University of California, Irvine.

"This is sort of a low point over the last 15 years for the Dreamers," DeSipio said.

DeSipio said that Trump is unlikely to start deportation proceedings against DACA recipients overnight, given strong public support for the "Dreamers" who had to meet stringent requirements and background checks to qualify for the program.

But DeSipio said if the court strikes DACA down, their lives could quickly become very difficult.

"The work authorization for DACA recipients could end very quickly, and that would be a very severe challenge to their status in the U.S. and to their families," DeSipio said.

There has also been speculation that Trump could use the fate of DACA recipients as political leverage to negotiate broader immigration proposals with Democrats.

Rodrigo Mijangos Aguilar went to DC last year to lobby for Dreamer legislation. (Photo courtesy of Rodrigo Mijangos Aguilar)

Mijangos Aguilar said regardless of what the Supreme Court decides, he is hopeful that the coalitions of organizations that have supported DACA recipients over the last two decades will keep fighting for a way to let them permanently stay in the U.S.

"I just know that there are options to continue forward," he said.

More immediately, the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles is recommending that DACA recipients whose two-year-long work permits are expiring in the next year to go ahead and renew.

"At least they would have a work permit for two more years until we figure out what the next steps would be for DACA recipients," said Eden Velasco, who runs the DACA clinics for CHIRLA.

The cost of renewing a DACA is high — $495 — so Velasco knows that might not be an option right now for everyone. He suggests that DACA recipients consult an immigration lawyer or a Department of Justice-accredited representative like himself if they have questions about what to do.

CHIRLA has been offering financial assistance with renewal fees for hundreds of recipients, although Velasco said that will likely stop after this month.

In May, the Korean Resource Center covered renewal costs for about 200 DACA recipients before funding ran out.

"They're scared, they're tired, they're exhausted," said Christine Park, who has been helping other DACA recipients with their renewals.

Park left a career path in real estate development and this year joined the staff of KRC, a nonprofit that provides assistance to immigrants in her community. When everything else is so unknown, providing answers is the least she feels she can do.