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Looming Court Ruling Weighs On This LA DACA Recipient

A Latina woman with long, dark hair in a braid resting on her left shoulder, wears a teal dress with long-sleeves and white flowers while standing against a white counter top. Her face is lit by a flash coming in from the right of frame. She looks towards the left of frame. On the white marble counter top there's a glass vase with an orange, white, and yellow flower arrangement. In the house there are pale wood floors and the windows have white and beige curtains.
Edith Nájera in the kitchen of the Gardena home she bought with her sister in 2019.
(Pablo Unzueta
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Edith Nájera’s house is simple and tidy. It sits on a quiet Gardena street lined with postwar homes and neat green lawns. And for Nájera, it’s the house that DACA built.

A DACA Recipient Struggles To Keep On As Courts Weigh Program's Fate

She was able to save up enough to buy her home because DACA allowed her to step out of the shadows and work openly, eventually becoming a manager. All that rested on the legal foundation laid in 2012, when former President Barack Obama introduced the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.

DACA was designed to help people like Nájera: young undocumented immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children. Over the past decade, it has let more than 800,000 people live and work in the U.S. legally on a temporary, renewable basis.

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The program has also faced a string of legal challenges, especially in recent years after former President Trump tried to end it in 2017. Legal briefs are due this week in a pivotal Texas case that could ultimately decide the program’s fate.

If DACA is thrown out, everyone in the program — including Nájera — could eventually find themselves without protection from deportation again.

‘I grew up being afraid’

Eleven years ago, Nájera was 25. She was coaching soccer and working in fast food after attending community college, her possibilities limited.

Nájera was 3 when her mother brought her and another sister here from Mexico to reunite with their father. They didn’t have visas. All these years later, Nájera remained undocumented. She remembers growing up under the radar.

“Most of my childhood, I grew up being afraid of saying who I was,” Nájera said.

Her parents were so worried she’d be taken away that for years she wasn’t allowed to go on school field trips. They would instruct her to lay low: “If they ask you, say, ‘American citizen, American citizen! Don't talk to police, don’t talk to the fire department.’”

Then Obama introduced DACA.

‘Anything is possible’

Nájera applied right away. Before long, she had a work permit — and she didn’t have to hide anymore. She remembers a feeling of “anything is possible, like, I wasn't afraid to show up and ask for opportunities.”

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She did just that, and got her first job on the books at a Starbucks. Pretty soon Nájera made her way from barista to management. She was getting raises and learning about saving and investing.

A Latina woman with long, dark hair in a braid resting on her left shoulder, wears a teal dress with long-sleeves and white flowers and stands next to an older Latina woman with a black long-sleeve shirt, jeans, hair in a ponytail, and black-rimmed glasses. They both stand outside at the entrance of a dark gray house with a white wooden door. They are both looking out towards right of frame.
Edith Nájera, left, and her mother, Oralia Muñoz, in front of their home in Gardena.
(Pablo Unzueta

“My goal was to continue to make more money,” she said, “continue to have savings and eventually purchase a home.”

Nájera reached that point in 2019, when she and her sister bought their 1,500-square-foot Gardena house. It’s large enough for their parents and a younger sibling to live there as well, enabling them all to escape the cramped two-bedroom rental condo they grew up in.

One recent morning Nájera gave me a tour, stopping in the bright, airy kitchen. A plate of Mexican pan dulce sat under a glass cake dome on the marble kitchen island.

“We love the island,” Nájera said with a smile. “That was one of the first things that we got excited about, ‘cause we never had an island.”

The big, grassy back yard is a novelty, too — a place for their two dogs to play, and for the family to breathe.

A Latina woman with long, dark hair in a braid resting on her left shoulder, wears a teal dress with long-sleeves and white flowers and stands near a large window with white and beige curtains while holding a small white dog. Next to her, on the right of frame an older Latina woman with a black long-sleeve shirt, hair in a ponytail, and black-rimmed glasses, sits on a dark gray couch with a beige and light brown long hair dog on her lap. They both look towards the lens.
Edith Nájera, left, and her mother, Oralia Muñoz, at home with the family's two dogs.
(Pablo Unzueta

“I'll come out here and just lay in the grass,” Nájera said. “That's something that I always dreamed of, just to go out, read or lay down, take the sun, stretch, do some yoga sometimes.”

DACA has let her do so much, said Nájera, now 36. But the life she’s built remains fragile because of DACA’s continuing legal limbo.

‘We’ve had administrations that act foolishly’

In 2021, a federal judge in Texas declared DACA unlawful, saying Obama violated the Administrative Procedure Act in creating it. The ruling stemmed from a legal challenge to DACA brought by several GOP-led states.

The decision was appealed. Last fall, a panel of the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with the lower court’s ruling, but sent the case back to it for review in light of new DACA regulations drawn up by the Biden administration.

The same lower court judge will now decide if the new DACA rules pass legal muster. Final briefs are due Thursday; a ruling is expected sometime afterward. (Meanwhile, the program is blocked to new applicants; for now, only existing DACA applicants may renew.)

Attorney Thomas Saenz, president and general counsel of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, is representing DACA recipients in the case. He said if DACA is struck down, the case will be again appealed, ultimately to the Supreme Court.

While it’s unlikely DACA recipients would face immediate danger of deportation or losing work permits, Saenz said, things could easily change.

“The concern is that a new administration may come in that would somehow target these young immigrants for removal,” Saenz said, “and that would be foolish. But we've had administrations that act foolishly, in the very recent past.”

Living in limbo takes a toll

Nájera is trying to stay hopeful.

“The best thing I can do is continue to believe that change is going to come,” she said, adding that she’s become more active advocating for immigrant rights, even traveling recently to Washington, D.C. as part of a group calling for broader immigration reforms.

But Nájera admits that after so many years, in spite of all she’s accomplished, trying to stay upbeat is getting harder to do.

A Latina woman with long, dark hair in a braid resting on her left shoulder, wears a teal dress with long-sleeves and white flowers and stands in a backyard with the dark gray stucco wall of a house to the right of frame and a grassy area of with a rock path to the left of frame. On the ground there are various green plants lining the stucco wall. The photo is taken from below as she looks out towards the right of frame.
Edith Nájera in the back yard of her family's home, a place where she can decompress. "I'll come out here and just lay in the grass," she said.
(Pablo Unzueta

Some time ago, she began struggling with depression: “Like not wanting to get up, not wanting to show up to work, things that I love to do,” she said.

Nájera can pinpoint when it started — back in 2017, the year Trump first tried to do away with DACA and the legal battles began.

“What triggered it was the uncertainty,” she said. “Like, what’s next?” She worried about having to go back to Mexico, a place she doesn’t know. Then there was Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric, which Nájera said made her feel unwanted.

“I can't believe another human can hate somebody so much, [someone] that they don't know,” Nájera said. “That's when my depression started to hit the walls. That triggered a lot of people.”

Nájera recently decided to take some time off work to heal. But she said it’s been especially tough emotionally in the past months, as tension over the upcoming court decision builds. She’s taking it one day at a time, trying to focus on her accomplishments.

“Right now I'm working on being in the present,” she said. “I have to remind myself that I’m here.”

What questions do you have about immigration and emerging communities in LA?

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