Seventeen years ago, Lea Sandoval and her little brother, Gersón, boarded a van and left their home country of El Salvador. She was just six years old and said it seemed like they were going on a family vacation, except the two kids didn’t really know any of the other passengers, all of them adults.
“I felt like I had to protect my brother because at that point he was the only immediate family link I had,” Sandoval said.
Her parents were already in the U.S. and had arranged for her and her brother to join them. They wanted the children far away from increasing gang violence in their country. The van traveled more than 3,500 miles over four days from San Salvador through Central America and through Mexico.
“The way my brother and I made it to the United States is pretty luxurious compared to the hundreds of children that have it otherwise, that either cross the dessert, have to swim across rivers, pass through environments that are, like, the heat is intense,” Sandoval said.
They ended the journey in El Paso, where the siblings met up with their dad. Then, all three headed to New York to join Mom.
Today, Sandoval is a college match counselor in the Dallas area for KIPP Texas, a network of charter schools in the state. She works with high school students from underrepresented communities, helping them plan their future.
She's also one of more than 100,000 Texas residents enrolled in the program known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA. The policy was implemented in 2012 under the Obama administration and has been a political football since then. Last month, in a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court ruled against the Trump Administration's planned to end the program.
Sandoval has a bachelor’s degree from Texas Christian University in Fort Worth and a master’s degree from Southern Methodist University in Dallas. She also studied abroad in South Korea and learned some of the language. DACA, she said, helped make some of those opportunities possible.
Having DACA protections has also meant keeping up with a lot of things – the political see-saw over the policy, filing the proper paperwork and remembering to renew on time. That can create a lot of uncertainty and stress.
Sandoval said she now deeply appreciates what she didn’t understand when she was younger.
“When I was growing up, I didn’t realize what it meant to be undocumented,” she said. “Like, I knew the word existed. I knew what it technically meant, but I didn’t realize how limited we were in the opportunities we had available to us.”
Those opportunities included a social security card, a work verification card and a driver’s license. These were her tickets, she said — but those tickets cost time, effort and money. Every year, Sandoval saves up to cover the $495 renewal fee.
Then, there’s the disclaimer she gives before a job interview.
“I would always be upfront with the employer and be like, ‘Hey, just so you know, I’m not a resident or citizen,” she tells person hiring. “I do have DACA status. I don’t want y’all, like, let’s say DACA gets canceled and … then you’re like, ‘Why didn’t you tell me? Now I don’t have an employee.”
DACA recipients like Sandoval have a lot at stake when it comes to keeping everything current and they shoulder a lot of stress. Felix Villalobos, managing attorney of RAICES in Dallas, sees it all the time. The organization provides legal assistance to refugees and immigrants.
“When somebody renews, their concern is always, you know, ‘What happens if I lose DACA? Or what happens if it lapses while I’m waiting to apply?’” he said. “Because those driver’s licenses have the same expiration date as their current DACA application.”
And no DACA status means no work, at least not with permission. Recipients also have to stay out of any trouble that could disqualify them, like a DWI or unlawfully possessing a firearm.
“People get very jittery whenever they get stopped by the police because it directly affects their potential ability to continue having DACA and also being able to work,” Villalobos said.
Then there are unforeseen bureaucratic problems. RAICES often helps pay the $495 DACA renewal fee for its clients, but Villalobos said one client’s application is still in limbo.
“We provided the check. They mailed off their DACA application and it was actually rejected stating that the inappropriate amount was included,” he said. “The one problem with mailing applications — with any immigration application — is that if anything is off or wrong, they just reject the whole packet.”
Villalobos said there was nothing wrong with the check, but the problem still hasn’t been resolved.
For Lea Sandoval, keeping track of certain dates — like when her DACA status is up — is crucial. And until DACA recipients have permanent legal status, she said she’ll continue to keep track.
“In my brain. I’m like, okay, by this date, I need to have everything submitted, the application fee done, my license renewed,” she said. “So it’s just one of the dates you have to remember, kind of like you remember your birthday, remember when your DACA status expires.”
This story was part of a special episode of Think looking at the future of DACA after last month’s Supreme Court ruling.
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