The Supreme Court ruled that DACA was improperly terminated, but will new applicants be allowed to enroll in the life-changing immigration program?
Jack Miralrio and his younger brother, Owen, were born in Mexico and brought to the United States illegally by their mother when they were little. Growing up, both enjoyed video games, soccer and building toy cars. Both excelled at school.
Now, Jack, 20, is on his way to becoming a mechanical engineer. Owen, 17, is resigned to becoming a mechanic.
Their paths have diverged because Jack is a beneficiary of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, which enabled him to obtain a work permit, a driver’s license and financial aid to attend college. Owen was preparing his paperwork to apply in September 2017 when the Trump administration rescinded the program — just days before his 15th birthday, when he would have become eligible.
“I had to drop my dream career and settle for being a mechanic,” said Owen, who lives with his parents, older brother and two U.S.-born sisters in Milwaukee.
Owen is among 66,000 potentially eligible young people who have been shut out of DACA since it was terminated nearly three years ago, according to an estimate by the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank. Those who already qualified, like Jack, have been able to renew every two years, but no new applications have been accepted.
In June, the Supreme Court rekindled hope among those waiting to apply when it ruled that the Trump administration’s rescission of the program lacked sufficient justification. Though it did not opine on the underlying legality of the program, the court preserved the program at least temporarily for the 650,000 current beneficiaries.
But the decision left the fate of undocumented young people — like Owen — who are hoping for permission to apply hanging in the balance.
President Barack Obama created DACA in 2012 to offer temporary legal status for undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as children. It granted a reprieve from deportation and offered work authorization to these young immigrants, often known as “Dreamers,” provided that they met certain qualifications. These included being in school or in the military, maintaining a clean record and residing in the United States for several consecutive years.
At its peak, 800,000 people were enrolled.
In September 2017, the Trump administration announced that it would wind down the program, which it deemed illegal. Lawsuits by advocates and immigrants resulted in court orders that forced the government to keep accepting renewals — but not the new applications that would have allowed young immigrants such as Owen to apply.
Chad F. Wolf, the acting secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, has said that after the Supreme Court’s decision, the government would continue to process renewals, but the question of new applications remains up in the air. President Trump pledged on Twitter after the court’s ruling to try anew to rescind the entire program, a move the administration could initiate at any time.
“If you are relying on a new application to be approved, you should have real concerns about whether that will happen,” said Ian Macdonald, a lawyer who is a chair of Greenberg Traurig’s immigration compliance practice in Atlanta.
Most legal scholars believe that to comply with the court’s decision, the administration must revive DACA, which would mean that new applications would have to be accepted. Refusal to accept them would incite lawsuits, they said.
“The Supreme Court decision makes it clear that the original program is still in place,” said Geoffrey Hoffman, director of the immigration clinic at the University of Houston Law Center, who has written extensively about the program. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, Mr. Hoffman said, was “required to accept new applications.” “It’s not a political question,” he said. “It’s a legal question.”
But the financial woes of the immigration agency, which is in the process of furloughing a large share of its work force, could have the effect of preventing new applications in any case.
“The Supreme Court decision requires the government to take new applications, but there are many, many ways that the administration can slow that down to such an extent that it doesn’t really happen,” said Michael Kagan, who teaches immigration law at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
Research has shown that DACA has had a transformative impact on recipients, offering them access to higher education, jobs and temporary protection from deportation that otherwise would be unavailable to them.
A 2017 survey by Tom K. Wong at the University of California, San Diego, found that 69 percent of DACA recipients moved to a job with higher pay and 54 percent to one that better suited their education after enrolling in the program. Many have bought homes, cars and started new businesses.
“The evidence couldn’t be clearer,” said Mr. Wong, director of the U.S. Immigration Policy Center at the university. “DACA helps create a more prepared and competitive work force by allowing young people to pursue education, build their skills and purse the careers they envisioned.”
Those goals are not within reach of those, like Owen, who face similar life circumstances but who do not have access to the program’s guarantees.
The Miralrio brothers’ mother, Miriam Inez, who moved to Milwaukee with her sons from Mexico when they were 5 and 2, remembers hearing about DACA on Spanish-language television. She and her husband, who are undocumented, saved to afford the $495 fee for Jack’s application in 2014.
Once he had employment authorization and a Social Security number, Jack was able to find a part-time job with benefits, rather than work for cash. He obtained a driver’s license. Most important, he could plan to attend college.
“The program is beautiful,” Ms. Inez said. “Jack could reach for the stars.”
Three years later, Ms. Inez was helping Owen gather the documents to apply. Owen had been a stellar student who skipped a grade in school. He was motivated to succeed.
“They ended it exactly when he became eligible,” Ms. Inez said, her voice breaking. “As parents, it has been very difficult,” she added. “We want Owen to have the same opportunities as Jack.”
Owen said he felt like he had hit a wall.
“I was going to get a driver’s license,” he said. “I was going to be able to work at what I wanted. I was going to be able to start college.”
He shifted out of a college-prep track in high school, deciding that it made more sense to train as a mechanic.
“College would be way too expensive, and then I wouldn’t be able to use my degree,” said Owen, who graduated from high school in June.
“I know people who own garages and hire mechanics without papers,” he said, sounding defeated.
His older brother realizes that the differences in their lives now are a coincidence of timing and politics, nothing of their own making.
“I see a clear view of my future,” Jack said. “After I graduate, I will join the work force as a professional,” he said, while Owen will remain an “underdog” who is destined to be “living with uncertainty."
Since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, the brothers have been helping their unemployed parents cover the rent and household expenses, in addition to saving money for tuition.
Jack works six-hour shifts at a grocery store for $13.10 an hour and has a 401(k). Owen works 12-hour shifts, from 2 p.m. to 2 a.m., cutting meat and chopping vegetables for food trucks, earning about half as much. He has no workers' compensation or sick leave if he gets injured, and Owen’s late hours, he says, mean he barely has time to spend with his sisters or friends.
Owen sometimes tells Jack that he should do more household chores because he does not work as hard as he does. When they get in arguments, Owen reminds his brother of the many advantages he holds over him.
Once when Owen was making a delivery for work, he points out by way of example, he got into a fender bender and had to go before a judge because he was caught driving without a license.
Convinced that he would be handed over to the immigration authorities and deported on the day of his court appearance, Owen bid farewell to his friends at school. A teacher called his mother to express concern about his emotional state, Ms. Inez said. The judge said it was not Owen’s fault that he could not get a driver’s license and let him go.
There have been other such instances. “Jack can have more of a normal life,” Owen said.
After the recent Supreme Court ruling on DACA, Jack celebrated. For Owen, however, the decision will change nothing — unless the administration decides to allow new applications.
“I don’t see a reason to get my hopes up,” he said.