Denea Joseph considers getting admitted to UCLA one of the happiest moments of her life. “It was the realization of all my family’s sacrifices,” she told Refinery29. Joseph, now 25, came to the U.S. from Belize alone at the age of 7 to live with her maternal grandmother. Her acceptance to college was a dream come true for her entire family. But it also came at the expense of growing up without her parents: The last time she saw them was in 2001.
This bittersweetness that accompanies momentous life events for undocumented people is something deeply personal to me. I graduated from high school in 2001 and despite my strong academic record, extracurricular activities, and glowing letters of recommendation, I was rejected from every college where I applied. My lack of a Social Security number prevented me from getting accepted. Then my home state of Texas delivered a fourth-quarter miracle with seconds left in overtime. House Bill 1403 made the Lone Star State the first place where undocumented students could attend college, pay in-state-tuition, and receive financial aid at Texas public colleges and universities.
This could have been a moment of joy for me. But, like for Joseph, my education cost me being separated from my parents. My mom suffered a near-death accident during my senior year of high school. It became painfully clear to us that if I was to afford going to college with the money we earned from our funnel cake stand, my parents would have to move back to Mexico where the rest of our family could help take care of my mom’s medical needs. It would be over 15 years before I was able to see her again.
A lot has changed since 2001. I graduated from college in 2005 and became a U.S. citizen in 2014. At least 18 states now offer undocumented students access to in-state tuition. Funds like the one I co-founded, Ascend Educational Fund, which offers scholarships regardless of immigration status, are making it a little easier for undocumented students to go to college. But other things remain the same.
The past three-and-a-half years have been a roller coaster ride in which the lives of undocumented people have been routinely taken for granted, their fates lined up like chess pieces. Joyful moments continue to be marred by politics. The euphoria of getting into a dream university, landing the perfect job, or going outside the country for the first time is inevitably eclipsed by the uncertainty of tomorrow.
DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) has been under constant attack since day one, with many Republicans claiming the program is unconstitutional. On September 5, 2017, then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions, under the instruction of President Donald Trump, announced the administration's intent to rescind DACA. The announcement was met with immediate action, from mass protests around the country to multiple lawsuits against the administration. Like many of this administration's decisions, it was done hastily and with little direction, which left DACA recipients scrambling to figure out what was next for them.
Fast-forward to 2020, and Trump is still relentlessly attempting to terminate the program as part of his draconian immigration policies. After the Supreme Court ruled that Trump's attempt to end DACA was illegal, Trump ignored the ruling, closing the program to first-time applicants and limiting deportation protections to one year. A few days ago, a group of young undocumented immigrants challenged the decision to scale back the program.
In 2012, President Barack Obama announced the program, which allows certain undocumented people who arrived in the U.S. as children to receive a two-year renewable work permit, a Social Security number, and protection from deportation. The initial reaction to DACA was a myriad of emotions encompassing confusion, happiness, disappointment, and fear.
DACA recipients knew the program was not a permanent legislative solution, and many were afraid of “what submitting the paperwork would mean,” Joseph said.
In order to obtain a DACA permit, applicants had to go through extensive background checks and submit their fingerprints, among other stringent requirements. Gabriela Sanchez, 29, said she didn’t have a criminal record of any kind, but it was such a stressful process that it left her wondering, "Did I do something that I don’t even remember that could keep me from getting it?" Could she trust the government with her personal information given how many people had been expelled under the same administration? Between fiscal years 2009 and 2011, the Obama administration had deported more than 385,000 people each year. In fiscal year 2012, more than 409,000 people were deported. Young undocumented people felt like they couldn’t trust the government — but many decided the risk was worth it. Sanchez sent her application despite the uneasiness because of the opportunities she knew it could bring.
What could have been an unadulterated moment of relief also left undocumented people disappointed. “We expected more from Obama,” Sanchez said. The parameters to qualify for DACA were very narrow: You had to be under 31 and have come to the U.S. before age 16.
“I was excited, but I also cried,” Joseph said. She had also expected more. “It didn’t include people like my mom and dad,” she said, her bright smile disappearing from the screen of our Zoom call. Joseph had started college before DACA. During her first week on campus, she visited the financial aid office and the woman who was helping her asked a seemingly simple question, “What is your Social Security number?” Joseph didn’t have one. “I got all nervous,” she said.
With DACA, Joseph now had a social, plus opportunities she couldn’t have dreamed of before 2012. In 2015, she was able to study abroad in Spain after obtaining advance parole, a special permission to leave the U.S. for DACA recipients that was available before 2017, when Trump attempted to terminate the program. “It gave me a different perspective. Everyone there classified me as American. As soon as I spoke, they thought I was American.” She said it “blew her mind” that people outside of the U.S. had no question whether she was American. She felt a sense of “comfort and belonging” that she had never experienced in the U.S.
But back at LAX, Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) sent her to secondary inspection, and it became painfully clear that the country she had called home for more than 15 years did not view her as an American. The fragility of DACA was in clear focus.
These nuances are often lost in stories about undocumented people. Their lives are painted as either full of pain and suffering, or as fairy tales with perfect characters, and their accomplishments as those of “good” immigrants.
But for those of us who have lived undocumented, our immigration status is ever-present in the big moments of our lives, as well as in the mundane, everyday activities like driving, going to a bar, or getting on a plane. But we still fully feel and experience happiness, our joy fully ours. Our entire lives aren’t defined by our immigration status.
DACA allowed Sanchez to experience some of the happiest memories in her life. Her commute from Highland Park in Los Angeles to her college campus in Northridge, CA, had been nearly three hours long with three trains and two buses. With DACA, she was able to get a driver’s license, shortening her commute and giving her the ability to move more freely in L.A.'s spread-out metropolis. She quit her position at a convenience store and was ecstatic when she landed her first office job at an immigrant-rights organization. DACA happened during her last semester in college, and before it was announced she figured she’d be “one of those college girls with no job.”
But DACA had also given Sanchez a false sense of safety. In late 2016, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), which processes DACA permits, experienced serious backlogs that left her out of work for more than two months. “They were messing with our entire livelihoods,” she said.
The Trump years have been riddled with anxiety. “I felt like every day I was grieving my DACA,” said Sanchez.
But immigrants, Sanchez says, have mastered the art of survival and despite the ups and downs of living undocumented in America for more than 27 years, she still finds beauty in everyday life. She tends to her succulents. Some of her happiest moments, like getting married, have had nothing to do with DACA. She lights up when she talks about her husband: “I like to get lost imagining all the good that could come in our lives.”
She giggles endearingly as she tells me about the hashtag “#Mexicanese,” which she scrolls through to show her husband what their mixed Mexican-Chinese babies might look like. The delicate state of life in America without papers hasn’t stopped her from experiencing the most uninhibited joy. That’s not to romanticize the pain and anger expressed by both Joseph and Sanchez, emotions that fuel their advocacy and work. But this full range of feelings is precisely what makes us all human.
Joseph called the recent SCOTUS decision “one of the happiest moments of [her] life.” The moment was fleeting, as Trump and his cronies have completely ignored the ruling. The lives of DACA recipients still hang in the balance.
Sanchez says it feels like her “very existence” is being challenged. She feels “disheartened and angry,” that her livelihood continues to be used for political rhetoric. But no matter the circumstances people like her have lived through, Joseph told me, “We are not tragic.”
While both Joseph and Sanchez agreed that DACA doesn’t define them, echoing a common sentiment among undocumented people that “papers don’t define us,” they also said that DACA gave them a sense of freedom they didn’t have before.
“DACA helped me be able to get so many jobs. Helped me meet different people. Helped me feel like the human I shop next to, the human I am stuck in traffic with,” Sanchez said. Joseph added that she wishes for “longevity in this place we call home.”
Without a long-term legislative solution that gives undocumented people a path to citizenship, millions of lives remain in limbo. It has been 19 years since the DREAM Act was first introduced in Congress, but it has failed time and time again. I was a freshman in college when it was presented; I am now 37 years old. The proposed legislation, and others like it that have been introduced over the past two decades, would finally remove so much of the uncertainty present in the lives of undocumented immigrants.
Despite all the difficulties of living undocumented, seeing their lives be debated in courts, and their pain be used as political capital, DACA recipients remain resolute. “We’re going to keep fighting, so they better get used to it,” Sanchez said. Her voice was full of strength and determination.
Julissa Arce is the author of My (Underground) American Dream: My True Story As an Undocumented Immigrant Who Became a Wall Street Executive and Someone Like Me: How One Undocumented Girl Fought for Her American Dream. She is also the co-founder and chair of the Ascend Educational Fund.