Obama’s DACA announcement has affected over 2,000 local undocumented immigrants.
Coming home with a Boy Scouts application in hand, five-year-old Isai Sanchez sat down at the kitchen table in his family’s closet-sized apartment to fill out the form. He had done this countless times before; it was easy. He quickly filled it out, blank after blank, with the information that was already burned into his memory. Then he came across a box he had never seen before with nine blank spots.
In confusion, Sanchez asked his mother, “What is a social security number?”
She looked at her son and told him the truth: their family didn’t have social security numbers.
Sanchez has always been proud of his Mexican heritage. He grew up speaking Spanish with his family, and he still keeps in contact with his family in Mexico. But not being able to fill out the social security box made him question himself; this was the first time he could remember that he felt like he had no idea who he was.
“Am I an American or just a stupid Mexican immigrant?” Sanchez said. “I always struggled with identity issues. I felt like an American with a Mexican background, but since I wasn’t an official American it was hard really for me to know who I was. As I grew up, that’s when I started looking into ways to change my status and maybe my family’s too.”
Once Sanchez learned more about his status and understood his family’s situation better, he wanted to do everything he could to fill in those nine blank spots. Even though he and his family were struggling financially and still figuring out how to fit in with the American community, they had the hope that the government would do something that would help them to become legal residents. In 2001, it looked like their dreams might come true.
In 2001, U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch proposed the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act (DREAM Act), but the Senate shot it down that same year. The DREAM Act would have created an easier and a more accessible path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants in the U.S.
Sanchez and other people who were granted DACA status continued to hope for some sort of action that would allow them to be in the U.S. legally. Eleven years later, some official change has begun to occur.
On June 15, 2012, President Barack Obama announced the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). DACA provides a way for the DACA applicants to stay in the U.S. legally in two-year increments. It also allows them to legally obtain a social security number and a driver’s license, and apply for jobs lawfully.
In order to qualify for this action, these people must have been in the United States before the age of 16, lived in the United States continuously since 2007, been in the United States when Obama announced the action, be currently enrolled in school or the military, and have no criminal record.
DACA allows immigrants who fulfill these requirements to find lawful employment and contribute to the economy legally without the fear of being deported. Although DACA is not the same path to citizenship that the DREAM Act would have been, it has eased some immigrants’ fear of deportation.
Jesenia Ugalde was seven-years-old when she and her family made their journey to the United States. Her father, who had left two years earlier, returned to Mexico to bring Ugalde and her mother and siblings back to America with him. Ugalde’s mother was fearful and reluctant to leave their home, family, friends, and their life. Eventually she changed her mind, for the promise of a better education for her children.
In the first couple years, her family’s undocumented status did not cause them many problems. However, as immigration quickly became a larger issue in the United States, Ugalde and her family realized that they had a lot of reasons to worry.
“Because my dad owns his own mechanic shop, nobody even guessed we were undocumented,” Ugalde said. “We never shared our status with anyone for fear of judgement and deportation, but when DACA was announced we all had hope. It also allowed us to be much more open about our status.”
For Jesenia Ugalde, DACA was a big relief.
“My parents were always worried about me or my sister being deported back to Mexico, but with DACA it eased their fears. It also gave them hope for us to continue our education,” Ugalde said. “Because of DACA, I’m now in college and studying multimedia. If DACA wasn’t in place it would be almost impossible to be at the place I am now.”
In order to qualify for the action, immigrants need many documents and forms. According to Sanchez and Ugalde if everything isn’t in order, the application won’t be accepted.
After the DACA applicants mail in the forms and documents, there is an average of four to nine months until the work permit and social security card are issued.
“Waiting for the documents to come back was the worst part because it was such a long and hard process, and we had waited for so long to have more of a status here,” Ugalde said.
When Ugalde finally received her card, she broke down, tears were streaming down her smiling face—all of her hard work had paid off. While the action provided temporary relief, doubts and potential consequences also followed.
“Because DACA is an executive decision, the next president could come along and decide not to continue with the action,” Kate Miller said, a spokesperson for the Louisville branch of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). “This caused concern for many undocumented immigrants because their names would all be on a spreadsheet, so to speak. And if the next president decided to take these names and have them deported, they could.”
The amount of doubt and worry that accompanied putting their status out in the open caused many immigrants to not apply for DACA. But for Ugalde and Sanchez, the choice was clear.
When Obama announced DACA, Sanchez’s mother took him directly to a lawyer and applied for the action right away. Because he was one of the first to apply, he got his DACA status back within two weeks.
“I definitely had that fear that many other immigrants had about what someone could do with my personal information,” Sanchez said. “But because I grew up struggling with identity issues, I knew I wanted to be part of the United States more officially. I am an American; I grew up here even though I wasn’t born here, and DACA was just a way to step into my future.”
Ugalde and Sanchez are not the only undocumented immigrants who benefitted from DACA. In Kentucky, approximately 2,000 undocumented immigrants have been accepted.
DACA hasn’t just affected the lives of these immigrants; it has also allowed them to contribute to the economy and their local community.
“They have opened more locally owned businesses than American citizens have,” Miller said. “It’s easy to see that, by updating our immigration laws, we can take advantage of the talents and gifts people have to offer.”
Now a 17-year-old senior at Central High School, Sanchez comes home with college applications in hand. Sitting at his kitchen table, he quickly fills out blank after blank with ease. When he reaches those nine empty boxes, he doesn’t miss a beat.
Words By: Meghan Jewell and Sarah Sullivan