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DACA Recipients Brace for a World Without Legal Status

DACA recipient Raul Contreras has words tattooed on him from the famed Emma Lazarus poem on the Statue of Liberty.
“Yearning to breathe free”: Raul Contreras has words tattooed on him from the Emma Lazarus poem on the Statue of Liberty.
Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

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Even before coronavirus made its way to New York, uprooting millions of lives, Raul Contreras was already living with a tremendous amount of anxiety over his future.

Like thousands of other New Yorkers who came to the United States as children, the 27-year-old may lose the legal protections and benefits granted under the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program — the fate of which hangs on a Supreme Court decision expected in the coming weeks.

“Whether it’s me wanting to make a career move, or if I’m thinking about renewing my lease or moving in with my girlfriend or taking definitive steps in my future that will ultimately change my trajectory of my life, I have to be cognizant that ‘Hey, there’s this big expiration date over you,’” Contreras said of the possibility of DACA’s end.

And COVID-19, which both of Contreras’ parents are recovering from, has “added another layer of uncertainty.”

But the virus has also created “a shimmer of hope” for DACA to continue, Contreras noted.

That’s because roughly 27,000 DACA recipients across the country, out of 650,000 in all, work on the front lines as health care workers. On Monday the top court agreed to consider a new filing arguing that the Trump administration’s bid to end the “Dreamers” program should be blocked because of the pandemic.

“I think that’s a story that would influence whatever decision the Supreme Court wants to make on DACA,” he said.

DACA Under Attack

In New York, the number of active DACA recipients has dropped in recent years — from 32,900 in September 2017 to 28,560 this December, according to federal immigration data. The declining figures reflect the Trump administration’s push to end DACA, immigration experts say.

While the program is still accepting renewals for those who already have been granted deferred action, and has eased the renewal rules due to the pandemic, it stopped accepting new cases in October 2017.

To be eligible, applicants had to be younger than 16 when they arrived in the U.S., completed high school and not have a criminal history, among other criteria.

The outcome of the Supreme Court ruling could take many different shapes, but for DACA recipients worries of having their life upended have become the norm. Instead, they’re focused on preparing for what comes next.

THE CITY spoke to several DACA recipients about what’s at stake for them, having known no home but New York.

‘You Can’t Go Back’

When the Supreme Court was hearing arguments on DACA in November, Contreras was stressed, so he did what any millennial would do: get a tattoo.

He got the word “valid” inked across his right forearm, a nod to the words “Not Valid for Work” that were stamped on the Social Security card he received shortly after arriving from Chile in 1993 when he was just a few months old.

Tattooed on his left forearm is a line from the Emma Lazarus poem cast into the bronze plaque on the Statue of Liberty: “yearning to breathe free.”

Crown Heights resident and former City Hall spokesperson Raul Contreras is a DACA recipient.
Raul Contreras shows his “VALID” tattoo on March 5, 2020.
Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Throughout high school, Contreras was “disillusioned” and wondered what the point of college was. He was undocumented and would likely be following his father into catering work.

He was in college when DACA was announced and he was the only person left in his family who remained undocumented.

“I don’t think we had the time to celebrate. It just went straight to work,” Contreras said. “I think the first thing I did was apply to a local Radio Shack.”

In the years since his DACA was initially approved, he became a spokesperson for Mayor Bill de Blasio and is one of the few “Dreamers” who publicly talks about his immigration status.

Now that he’s confined to his Brooklyn apartment, Contreras is looking to get back into the public sector after working in corporate communications.

Despite the successes in his career, Contreras said his immigration status looms over him like a dark cloud, casting a shadow on every decision he makes.

“I hate the fact that this is the thing that may define anything I do in the future,” Contreras said of his immigration status. “And I try for it not to be. So right now I’m only focused on saving a lot of money and being able to still have some independence if the worst case scenario were to happen.”

He added, “If it does, the one thing I really want folks that are going through the same thing [to know] is you can’t go back into the shadows. You can’t.”

His DACA, along with his work authorization, is set to expire in December. The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services suggest that DACA recipients renew their status 150 days before expiration, putting Contreras’ renewal window in July, a month after the deadline the Supreme Court is expected to make a decision by.

‘I Feel Really Guilty’

If it were up to Monica, she would have “definitely waited” to get married and have a big religious ceremony that befits an Indian wedding.

Instead, the 25-year-old attorney and her highschool sweetheart went to the Queens City Clerk’s office in January to sign the paperwork that legally wedded the pair.

It marked a bittersweet moment for Monica, which is not her real name. She’s undocumented, and her marriage to her longtime boyfriend is step one in a years-long process to become a legal resident of the country she’s called home since she was 12.

Her nuptials were expedited because of concerns she could soon lose her DACA.

The work permit Monica was issued under the program expires in October, and the earliest she could renew her status is next month. Without the work permit, she could lose her job at a major Manhattan law firm.

For a while, Monica’s now-husband had been suggesting that the pair hurry up and get hitched. “He’s obviously seen me struggle with this and is happy to help out,” she said.

As the spouse of a U.S. citizen, Monica can now begin the process to apply for a green card. The couple has already hired an attorney to help navigate the complicated and expensive legal process.

She suddenly has a pathway out of being undocumented while some of her friends in the same situation aren’t as fortunate. “I feel really guilty,” Monica said.

And if Monica becomes a U.S. citizen — a process that usually takes roughly five years — her undocumented Indian parents would likely be eligible for green cards through immediate relative petitioning. If she petitioned for her younger brother, he could be waiting for close to 15 years before a visa becomes available

In the summer of 2012, when then-President Barack Obama announced DACA from the Rose Garden of the White House, Monica’s life changed.

“It was just amazing on so many levels because it felt like just that one thing completely removed so many barriers from my path,” she told THE CITY. She began taking driving lessons, something she couldn’t do before because of her immigration status, and got an internship.

Even though she recently became an attorney, Monica didn’t listen to the Supreme Court arguments last year over DACA and doesn’t keep tabs on the news.

“Once you start thinking about it, it’s hard to stop. I’ve had to deal with this, and I feel like most DACA recipients have had to, from such a young age. We’ve had to deal with that kind of trauma and that level of anxiety and the overall bad experiences that come from that,” she said.

“It’s so sad and problematic,” Monica added. “Most people turn out OK and it shapes you for the better. But to me, it also stole my childhood.”

‘Pushes Me to Go Further’

Diana is the only one of her siblings who is undocumented. The 22-year old was born in Mexico, while her older sister and two younger siblings were born in the United States.

Her mom had returned to her native Mexico after her eldest was born, thinking the family would settle in their home country. “Little did she know that two years later she would come back,” said Diana, who did not want her last name published.

DACA recipient Diana Rodriguez says her involvement with the Emmanuel Charismatic Church in Astoria has provided her a strong sense of community.
Diana says her involvement with the Emmanuel Charismatic Church in Astoria has provided her a strong sense of community, seen on March 9, 2020.
Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

She never felt left out because of her immigration status. Diana’s parents are also undocumented, and it’s not like they did a lot of traveling, she recalled.

The family had been watching Univision when they first heard the news about DACA in 2012. The next day Diana and her parents left their East Elmhurst home and went to the Mexican consulate in Manhattan for more information.

She was too young to apply and had to wait until she turned 15 to file the paperwork for DACA.

In high school, she “didn’t understand the value” of having a Social Security number and work authorization. But the realization set in during college, when she started applying for various internships and programs.

She graduated a semester early from Baruch College in December and is now getting her master’s degree in international affairs while working for an immigration advocacy group. Diana plans on going to law school, although she hasn’t made up her mind whether she wants to be a prosecutor or a defense attorney.

Diana’s DACA expires in October 2021, just as she’ll be nearing the end of her master’s program and getting ready to apply to law school.

“Yes, it’s going to be a challenge and obstacle,” Diana said of DACA possibly ending. “But I guess it also pushes me more to go further.”

By the time Diana finishes law school, she’s “really hoping that the [immigration] movement does advance to a much further degree to actually have something done federally.”

Missed Opportunity

Zara K., 33, grew up “super, super privileged.” Her mother was a doctor and her father had been involved in politics in Morocco and had an import-export business.

But the family was devastated in 1998 when her younger sister was struck and killed by a hit-and-run driver who plowed into the 8-year-old as she stood on a sidewalk. Zara says her father started drinking after the tragedy.

Zara, which is her middle name, and her family came to Brooklyn in February 2000. After 9/11, traveling to and from certain countries became increasingly difficult.

Her parents went back to Morocco to tie up some loose ends with their businesses while she and her sister stayed with an uncle.

“Everyone’s visas — everything just got screwed up. To think back from there, a decision was made and it was not by me,” Zara said.

DACA recipient Fatima Kenas, 33, said she feels it’s important to combat stereotypes about immigrants.
DACA recipient Zara, 33, came to Brooklyn from Morocco 20 years ago.
Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

She recalls all of the missed opportunities because of her immigration status. She’s turned down school recruiters and a job prospect as a translator.

She and another sister dropped out of Hunter College because their mom was sick. Being undocumented, they couldn’t apply for financial aid. The family needed the tuition money to pay for her mom’s medical treatment, which cost more than $100,000, Zara recalled.

When DACA was announced, it was “a huge relief” because she didn’t want to rush to get married to gain a pathway toward citizenship. She applied immediately.

“I didn’t want to get married to someone I didn’t want. I know so many things can go wrong. Everyone said, ‘You’re not thinking straight. You’re wasting time,’” Zara said. When DACA happened, “It was just like, OK, there is hope.”

She renewed her DACA in the fall, making it valid until October 2021.

If the program were to end, one of her sisters could petition for her, but in the meantime, Zara’s been building up her savings and putting away some of her paycheck just in case.

But the stress of the pandemic threatens to damage her finances, Zara said.

“The anxiety and uncertainty is challenging while worrying about one’s health, as well as family and extended family back home.”

Have your worries about immigration status been made worse by the epidemic? Let us know your story. Please email jvelasquez@thecity.nyc or send a message via WhatsApp or Signal to 516-509-1641.

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