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South Texans Bask In New Optimism Following U.S. Supreme Court's DACA Decision

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David McNew / Getty Images file
Immigrants and supporters joined the Defend DACA March in 2017 to oppose President Trump's order to end DACA. Now, almost three years later, the Supreme Court's decision is seen as a partial victory.

Recipients of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, educators, health care workers, political leaders and activists across Texas reacted with optimism to the U.S. Supreme Court's decision on Thursday blocking the Trump administration’s attempt to end the program, essentially allowing DREAMers who were brought to the U.S. as children to continue their protections from deportations.

About 650,000 people are enrolled in DACA nationwide. More than 100,000 recipients live in the Lone Star State, and more than 5,000 live in Bexar County.

The ruling had an outsized impact on education. More than 30% of DACA recipients are enrolled in college, and nearly 9,000 are teachers.

Diego Mancha Dominguez’s phone buzzed with texts and calls when news broke about the Supreme Court decision.

The academic advisor at Northwest Vista College said it was a burst of relief for him and his family. “This has been something that’s been holding over -- it’s kind of like a cloud that had been over us," he said, "and for now at least we get to see some sun.”

Mancha Dominguez has had a DACA permit since 2012, the year he turned 18. He said being able to legally work has helped his family climb the socio-economic ladder. It also lets him work at Northwest Vista, advising undocumented students.

"My goal is [to] every day ... try to support students moving forward in their path and really just kind of serve as a as an example that you can do it," he explained. "Because I think growing up -- I'm from the Northwest Side of San Antonio. I didn't know that anyone at my school was undocumented. It was not something that I was able to ... speak about.”

But he said he’s trying not to be too excited because he realizes it’s a temporary win … and there are still a lot of undocumented people without the same access he has.

“I want this to include people who ... work cleaning, working construction, people that, you know, are working in every facet of this country, but don't get recognition and are always labeled as being less than or being criminals," he said. "These are people that are hard working that really just deserve an opportunity.”

Dual language teacher María Rocha said she feels safer from deportation today than she did before the Supreme Court ruling, but she still doesn’t feel safe enough to cross state lines or attend Black Lives Matter protests.

“As much as I love to be vocal and and ... peacefully protest these issues," she said, "I've kind of stayed behind because I've heard of different DACA recipients who have been out past curfew and are being in possible deportation settings.”

She says the decision was a small victory, and there’s a long ways to go. Although her DACA status allows her to work for San Antonio ISD and theoretically protects her from deportation, every two years she has to ask the government to give her permission to stay in the U.S.

“We've been conditioned to not be able to think long term because there there is no long term solution for us yet,” Rocha said.

And she still knows many people who don’t have DACA status and can’t work or drive legally — friends and family members and parents of her students who were either too old to qualify or haven’t been able to apply while DACA was put on hold.

“So it still affects me personally because people close to me are being affected” Rocha explained. She wants to see a permanent solution to bring them out of the shadows as well.

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Credit Joey Palacios | Texas Public Radio
Courtney Balderas–Jacob, then-interim program manager for the Dreamers Resource Center, talks with Emmanuel Quiroz, a DACA recipient, in 2018.

Rocha and Mancha Dominguez are both graduates of the University of Texas at San Antonio. Two years ago, UTSA created a Dreamer Resource Center for undocumented students like they once were.

Courtney Balderas-Jacob, the center’s assistant director, said the Supreme Court decision created a sliver of stability for her students.

"It means that now they won't be hopefully targeted for removal at this point," she said. "And that impacts an entire community.”

It also makes it more likely that her December graduates will be to find a job amid all of the uncertainty caused by the coronavirus outbreak.

'I can do what I love to do'

The decision also resonated among the ranks arrayed in the frontlines of the fight against the outbreak. More than 30,000 DACA recipients are health care workers.

Josue Tayub is a nurse who works in the intensive care unit at an El Paso hospital. He has cared for both COVID-19 patients and victims of the mass shooting at a Walmart last August.​

​​“I’m happy, I’m super excited," he said. "It feels like I can do what I love to do, what I want to do with my life -- for now.”

Julio Ramos, an aspiring doctor from Brownsville, heard the news far from home, in New York City, and felt excited.

“It demonstrates the power of activism because various activist groups demanded this from the government," he said. "It wasn’t something that was handed to our community. It made us realize again that a lot of work had to be done to help America realize that this is our home too.”

Ramos said he felt this was a great moment to celebrate, but he warned that there was still a lot of work to be done, including finding a more permanent solution for them and other undocumented people, like a pathway to citizenship.

“And even more so, not just students, or the youth, but also the people that made all of these contributions to society possible, which is the generation that came before us," he said. "The people that migrated to the U.S., our parents, their livelihood, is also at stake whenever we talk about Dreamers.”

Ramos is in his fourth year of medical school at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, and for now, he said, he’ll continue working towards his goal of becoming a doctor.

It's a profession that Frank Trinity with the Association of American Medical Colleges said is desperately needed.

“We have a shortage of physicians and other health professionals in the country," he said. "We look forward that in ten years we could see a shortage of more than 100,000 physicians. Why? Because the country is getting older, physicians are retiring and so we need to fill that gap. Physicians with DACA status will help fill that gap.”

Trinity added that physicians and other health care workers with DACA status remain on the front lines of the pandemic and continue to help millions of people across the country as the pandemic spreads.

'I was almost trapped'

Other DACA recipients experienced a range of emotions before and after the decision was announced.

Daniela Rojas, a DACA recipient in Austin, said her family was nervous all week long about the decision. And then she woke up Thursday morning.

“I just looked at my phone immediately and the first news that I saw was that, you know, they didn't end DACA, so I was like, happy, but also like, ‘Okay, this is still not enough,” she said.

Still not enough, because her 16-year-old sister is undocumented — and now of age to qualify for DACA.

The Supreme Court decision this week only means the program is safe for now. And it is still unknown if the federal government will open the program to new applicants, like Daniela’s sister.

Daniela immigrated to Austin from Colombia with her family in 2006 and applied for DACA immediately after it was launched in 2012. She graduated from UT Austin in 2019 and now works for an Austin city council member.

She’s not celebrating the decision just yet. She said she’d like to see a pathway to citizenship and real change.

Seven Flores said growing up in Laredo was hard. As an undocumented immigrant from Mexico, he was always aware of the checkpoints south and north of the border city.

"I remember feeling that I was almost trapped just between the checkpoints," he said. "That was where I was always going to be. I couldn't get through a checkpoint. I couldn't go with friends to outside of Webb County."

Under DACA, he said, he was able to attend college and venture beyond Laredo. He’s now a graduate student at Boston University.

He remembered that as he waited for the Supreme Court’s decision to be announced, he wondered what would happen if the program was actually ended.

Aldo Collazo knows all too well what that is like.

"My life changed all of sudden, from fulfilling my dream of becoming a teacher to going back to the shadows," he said.

The Laredo schoolteacher and DACA recipient was denied a renewal after he was incorrectly flagged for traveling to Mexico. After eight months, he eventually regained DACA protections. But the memory still haunts him.

'The fight is not over'

Political leaders, community leaders and activists also shared their reactions on Thursday and Friday.

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Credit Martin do Nascimento | KUT
DACA supporters rally in April.

San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg celebrated the ruling and said the DREAMers have earned their right to be here.

“It’s a victory for hundreds of thousands of young Americans who have been living here, working here, fighting for our country, paying taxes," he said, "and I’m very grateful for the decision today which I think is the just decision.”

In a statement, Pedro Martinez, superintendent of the San Antonio Independent School District, said, "Hundreds of thousands of young DREAMers right now are hearing words of affirmation – that the country to which they daily contribute can continue to be the one they call home. We celebrate and embrace the joy they must be feeling."

Democratic Congressman Henry Cuellar echoed Trinity in his statement: “The Coronavirus Pandemic has shown our country how much we rely on our DACA recipients. Across the country, more than 200,000 DACA recipients are working to protect the health and safety of Americans as we confront COVID-19. They are making sure our children are still educated; food is still grown, packaged, shipped and cooked; and our patients are still cared for."

On Friday, he added that the victory gave Congress more time to find a permanent solution.

Also on Friday, President Trump vowed on Twitter to try to shut down DACA again. Cuellar was unfazed.

"The Trump administration could come back and try to come up with a rationale so they can try to terminate it," he said. "If that happens ... there'll be more lawsuits and ... that will give us enough time to elect a new president."

Republican Senator John Cornyn asserted on Thursday that "the Supreme Court has thrust upon us a unique moment and an opportunity. We need to take action and pass legislation that will unequivocally allow these young men and women to stay in the only home, in the only country, they've known."

Texas Democratic Party lauded the decision. "Our DREAMers have always deserved the same protections as anybody else and now they will get those protections they deserve," party chair Gilberto Hinojosa said in a statement. "We applaud the Supreme Court for making the right decision. Diversity is America’s greatest strength. The United States is a nation built by immigrants. DREAMers embody American values and contribute to the strength and resilience of the United States every single day."

The Texas Organizing Project's statement quoted Samantha Garcia, a TOP member and a DACA recipient. “I instantly felt a weight being lifted off my shoulders when I heard the good news,” she said. "Our fight for being fully recognized is not over, however, this decision is a significant reassurance that I can continue to contribute to and love this country that I call home.”

The American Civil Liberties Union offered a more measured reaction. “Today, we celebrate but know that the fight is not over," said Andrea Flores, deputy director of immigration policy. "For nearly three years, DACA recipients have lived in a legal limbo brought on by the Trump administration. The House of Representatives has already passed H.R. 6, the American Dream and Promise Act, and it is incumbent upon the Senate to do the same to permanently protect Dreamers. We won’t rest until Dreamers can.”

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton disagreed with the decision. “We are disappointed with today’s SCOTUS decision," he said in a statement, "but it does not resolve the underlying issue that President Obama’s original executive order exceeded his constitutional authority. We look forward to continuing litigating that issue in our case now pending in the Southern District of Texas.”  

The state's other U.S. senator, Ted Cruz, was incensed over the decision. In remarks on the Senate floor on Thursday, he said, “This decision today was lawless, it was gamesmanship, and it was contrary to the judicial oath that each of the nine justices has taken.”

Joey Palacios, HPM's Sascha Cordner, KTEP's Angela Kocherga and KERA's Mallory Falk contributed to this report.
Camille Phillips can be reached at Camille@TPR.org and on Twitter at @cmpcamille.
Reynaldo Leaños Jr. can be reached at Reynaldo@TPR.org and on Twitter at @ReynaldoLeanos

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