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How a controversial Obama program is bringing young immigrants out of the shadows

By the time Oscar Hernandez was ten years old, he already knew how to hide.

After an Immigration and Customs Enforcement raid in his Pennsylvania neighborhood, his mother gave him and his siblings instructions: ‘If, one day, you see that your father and I are being put inside a big white bus, I don't want you to cry. I don't want you to say anything. I want you to take this alley and walk to your grandmother's house. Walk. Don't run.'" It was important that the children not draw attention to themselves.

"I thought, ‘Wow, my mom must really hate school, because I take the bus every morning, and I'm not this dramatic,'" Hernandez, now 26, says. He and his family arrived in the US from Puebla, Mexico when he was two years old; he and his mother didn't have legal immigration papers, and his father, who had a visa at some point during their time in the US, has overstayed his visa. All three of them are unauthorized immigrants. As he puts it: "I've been undocumented for 24 years."

A few years after his mother's warning, while wrestling with his brother, Hernandez looked out the window and saw a big white bus.

"I just heard footsteps running up the stairs-my father, and my mother was right behind him with my sister in her hands." They ushered the children into a closet where Hernandez' parents kept cleaning supplies for their jobs cleaning K-Marts and movie theaters. "My father started moving boxes and buckets, and behind them was this white door, covered with layers and layers of paint," Hernandez recalls. His father wedged the door open with a screwdriver, "and he just pushed us in there" — Hernandez, his mother, his brother, and his sister.

"You know those little particles that you can see when the sunlight hits them? I remember seeing the little dust particles rising. And then it just turned completely dark. I couldn't see my hand in front of me, I couldn't see my mom. I heard her crying, and she was praying the whole time."

On the other side of the door, Hernandez heard his father — who had temporary legal status at the time — talking to the immigration officers. Eventually, the officers went away.

"The discussion in my house was, ‘You don't get noticed. You don't do bad things, but you also don't do good things. You stay under the radar, you work, and that's it.'"

At that age, Hernandez says, his understanding of his unauthorized status was, "There's something different about us, and we can disappear because of it." That was a simplified way to put it, but it wasn't far off. If the government had found out that the family was not authorized to be in the US, and decided to deport them, they'd be sent back to Mexico — a place Hernandez doesn't know much about and hardly remembers. Or maybe just Hernandez's parents would be deported, and the children would be placed into foster care — even though Oscar would still be deportable at any time. And if any of them were deported and came back to the US, they'd face years in prison.

As Hernandez and his siblings got older, the message from his parents got more direct. "The discussion in my house was, ‘You don't get noticed. Because if you do something awesome and great, you might get noticed, and if you do get noticed, they might find out that we're here undocumented, and if they find we out we could get separated.' It was never a discussion we had, but that was the unwritten rule for our house. You don't do bad things, but you also don't do good things. You stay under the radar, you work, and that's it."

There's no longer any reason for Hernandez to hide. The federal government knows about his immigration status, but instead of deporting him, it's issued him protection from deportation — at least temporarily. That's because two years ago, President Obama announced a new program to bring relief to immigrants like Hernandez. Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) is open to unauthorized immigrants younger than 30 who came to the US when they were under 16, have been in the US for at least five years, don't have serious criminal records, and are either enrolled in high school or had a diploma or GED. Immigrants who apply for DACA and are approved receive two years of protection from deportation. For the first time since arriving in the US, they're able to go to bed and wake up confident that they won't be arrested and torn from their homes. Furthermore, immigrants with DACA are able to apply for work permits, allowing them to work legally for the first time in their lives. DACA is only temporary: after two years, immigrants have to renew their status.

Hernandez is currently working with a group called Own the DREAM, helping to get eligible immigrants signed up for DACA. He calls the program "one of the biggest victories in the last 15 years when it comes to immigration."

But DACA only works if it actually protects immigrants from deportation. If it helps them get college degrees. If it takes them from assuming they can't have career ambitions — "I thought, I'm just going to mow lawns, and that was that," Hernandez says — to pursuing their goals. In other words, it only works if people sign up.

And whether DACA works is a much more important question, politically speaking, than it was two years ago. In the last year, immigration advocates and Democrats have pushed the Obama administration to expand DACA to millions more unauthorized immigrants. The president is expected to announce an expansion of protections at the end of this month. Meanwhile, Republicans in the House of Representatives have voted several times to get rid of DACA — to prevent President Obama from granting protection from deportation to anyone else, and to take protection away from the immigrants who've already received it.

Proving that DACA works logistically won't eliminate the political opposition. But it will blunt it. Supporters of comprehensive immigration reform have long said that it's better for national security and the rule of law if unauthorized immigrants can get on the books. DACA is a test case for that argument — and for whether any immigration reform can work in 2014. Just as importantly, the immigrant community and the immigrant-rights movement can't fight as forcefully for the expansion of DACA if the program hasn't succeeded in what it intended to do.

That's why Hernandez and his colleagues are working so hard to continue to expand the reach of DACA, and to make sure that immigrants who signed up two years ago don't lose its protections. But how do you organize and inspire a community that's been taught, and has taught its children, to keep their heads down?

"Out there I know that there's another 6-year-old whose parents have no idea what help is available to them," says Hernandez. They need someone, he says, to tell them, "‘If you're great, show off your skills. Be great. Be awesome. And you can get all the help you need. This shouldn't be something that should stop you.'"

"I'm not hiding in a wall anymore," says Hernandez. "I'll put my face out there and fight."

A victory for the DREAMer movement

While Hernandez's family was telling him to keep his head down, during the first few years of the 21st century, other young unauthorized immigrants around the country were beginning to organize and advocate for themselves. They asked their state governments to let them enroll in public colleges and charge them in-state tuition. And they asked the federal government to give them legal status: protection from deportation, the ability to work legally in the United States, to travel abroad and return safely, and the possibility of eventual citizenship.

They built a movement that would eventually be recognized as the "DREAMer" movement, after the federal DREAM — an acronym for Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors — Act, a bill that would provide legal status and eventual citizenship to young unauthorized immigrants. In Texas, where Hernandez and his family lived when he was in high school, DREAMers had secured in-state tuition at public universities. Hernandez wasn't aware of any of this, and assumed college "was not going to be a place for me."

"The undocumented youth here were fighting," he says now. "And at the same time, I was completely lost."

In 2006, Hernandez hooked up with the movement, and he says "I haven't stopped being involved ever since." Over the next six years, he and the DREAMers would become an increasingly visible and forceful part of the immigration debate. In 2010, after holding sit-ins in the offices of Democratic and Republican members of Congress alike, they got both chambers to take a vote on the DREAM Act; it passed the House, but couldn't get the 60 votes it needed for a procedural motion in the Senate. And in 2011, they turned their attention to President Obama, calling on him to take executive action to protect them from deportation.

DACA Alex Wong/Getty

People gather in front of the White House to celebrate President Obama's announcement of DACA on June 15, 2012 (Alex Wong, Getty Images)

The Obama administration has made "prosecutorial discretion" the hallmark of its immigration policy — the principle that since it's impossible for law enforcement to arrest and punish every person who breaks every law, it makes sense to target serious and violent criminals rather than students and families who happened to be unauthorized. During most of the president's first term, the "discretion" was a suggestion to Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents and prosecutors, rather than a mandate. And when ICE agents didn't comply with the administration's stated priorities — when they, for example, deported young unauthorized immigrant students for driving with broken taillights — the administration did little to stop them. In 2011, Obama told Univision anchor Jorge Ramos, "We aren't going around rounding up students. That's just completely false." The next week, he conducted a televised town hall with high-school students, also on Univision; a young woman stood up and held out her order of deportation for the president to read.

The administration was initially reluctant to grant relief from deportation to a large group of unauthorized immigrants. When Obama announced the creation of DACA in 2012, it represented the biggest policy victory for unauthorized immigrants since the Reagan "amnesty" of 1986. Maybe more importantly, it was the first time that unauthorized immigrants themselves had taken the lead in getting the federal government to do something.

At the time, there were a few complaints from the right, but most Republicans stayed quiet about it. After comprehensive immigration reform stalled again last year, however, many Republicans in Congress got increasingly vocal about what they characterized as the president's refusal to enforce immigration law. Those calls got especially loud this summer, when the child-migrant crisis at the US/Mexico border led many DACA opponents to claim that children were being lured to the US with promises of deferred action.

But DREAMers' success as a political movement has rested on the success they've had as a cultural movement. They've spent the last decade challenging and slowly eroding the cultural understanding that said that unauthorized immigration status was something to be afraid of. They pioneered the concept of "coming out" as unauthorized, just as someone might come out as LGBT. One of the movement's mottos has been "Undocumented and Unafraid." Slowly but surely, hundreds of thousands of young unauthorized immigrants have learned to let go of their fear of being noticed.

Not every young unauthorized immigrant is involved in advocacy, or even knows that there's a movement out there fighting for her rights. DREAMers won DACA, but there are hundreds of thousands of DACA-eligible immigrants who weren't involved in the campaign. And immigrants who weren't already connected to advocacy networks were already the ones most vulnerable to deportation. DACA would only be a meaningful victory if it helped DREAMers who were still in the shadows come out and take advantage of the opportunities the program created for them.

How well has deferred action worked?

For the 580,000 unauthorized immigrants who received it as of June 2014, DACA has been a tremendous success. In a survey by University of California San Diego professor Tom Wong, who has been closely following the implementation of DACA, 70 percent of DACA recipients said they'd been able to get their first job, or a new job, after receiving work authorization through the program. 51 percent were able to help their families financially, while 46 percent had become financially independent. 23 percent have gone back to school. 64 percent had gotten drivers' licenses or IDs. And 66 percent said that they were no longer afraid of their immigration status.

The last is difficult to overstate when millions of unauthorized immigrants still live with the risk of deportation every day.

DACA has been the Obama administration's only significant attempt so far to proactively protect unauthorized immigrants from deportation — to allow them to seek protection themselves, rather than having to wait until they're put into deportation proceedings in immigration court to see if they'll be able to have the case closed. That's made a real difference. In the words of Adam Luna, director of the outreach campaign Own the Dream, "The primary learning is, this shit works."

As immigration activists pressure the administration to expand administrative relief to more unauthorized immigrants, the leading request has been for an expansion of DACA — or even, in the words of one online campaign, "#DACA4All."

As big a difference as DACA has made for those who have it, it hasn't gotten as many applicants as many had hoped. The story of DACA's implementation "kind of begins with lower than expected numbers of individuals actually applying for DACA who are eligible," says Wong.

Any estimate of how many DACA-eligible immigrants aren't applying is essentially a matter of guesswork. It's difficult even to estimate how many unauthorized immigrants there are in America, let alone how many of them have high-school diplomas and have been in the country since 2007. The most current estimate says that 1.2 million immigrants meet all the eligibility requirements for DACA; that would mean that DACA's reached about half of its intended beneficiaries.


A student in Los Angeles wears an "I Am Undocumented" tee-shirt (Kevork Djansezian, Getty Images)

The remaining 600,000 or so DACA-eligible immigrants are going to be much harder to sign up than those who've already applied. They're the immigrants who are least connected to advocacy networks. Those are the immigrants most vulnerable to deportation, because they don't understand their rights when they encounter immigration officials; and they're the immigrants who are least likely to understand that they're allowed to go to college, or eligible for lower tuition in many states. In short, they're the immigrants that advocates most need to reach out to. And they're proving to be hardest to secure DACA for.

DACA applications have slowed substantially since the summer of 2013. Meanwhile, denial rates have been increasing — an indication that newer applicants aren't getting the legal help they need, that the government has gotten stricter about approvals, or both. A rough projection shows that the 950,000th approval would happen toward the end of 2017. That's not only a problem for the immigrants themselves; it's a problem for immigration advocates pushing for broader administrative relief, and ultimately for permanent immigration reform in Congress. If DACA isn't succeeding in bringing people out of the shadows, it makes it harder to believe that a bigger program, reaching out to older immigrants — who are even more wary of the government than the DREAMer generation — would succeed in getting them on board.

A few of the remaining immigrants, says Wong, are people who have affirmatively decided not to apply for DACA — especially those who might need to take extra steps now to meet the eligibility requirements. "If someone is out of school already, and in the workforce, and that individual didn't graduate from high school," Wong says, they'd need to go back to school or get their GED in order to apply. So applying for DACA would have what Wong calls "a disruptive effect on that person's life and job" — not worth the effort.

Immigrants who are already eligible, on the other hand, don't need to put their lives on hold. And most of the 600,000 remaining DACA-eligible immigrants haven't made the deliberate choice not to apply. They simply haven't been able to.

With Republicans urging Obama against giving protection to millions of unauthorized immigrants, will it really be enough for the administration and the Democrats to defend a program that's only done half of what it was expected to? And will supporters of comprehensive immigration reform really be able to continue to claim that getting 11 million people legal status is workable and sensible, if no one knows how to reach 1 million?

"Simply creating a program is not enough"

Getting people to apply for DACA requires both a public-awareness campaign, to educate people about the program and how to apply, and someone to help provide services to applicants: to provide legal help with the application, and financial guidance to cover the cost. And there simply isn't much of an infrastructure to provide either of those things to unauthorized immigrants — after all, the government's never needed to reach them before. Wong characterizes this as a mismatch between the supply for DACA and the demand. Luna puts it more bluntly: "Simply creating a program and expecting people to flock towards it and do it right is definitely not enough." He doesn't think that US Citizenship and Immigration Services, the agency in charge of implementing DACA, has fallen down on the job. But, he says, "The cold, hard fact of the matter is that USCIS did not have the budget to do a broad PR campaign. And in the nonprofit sector, foundations, other folks who could be supportive of this-the level of financial support to do broad-based public education campaigns has been limited, and it's definitely not met the need."

That's an important lesson for any future immigration relief in its own right. It also means that the government and nonprofits are missing the opportunity to answer a lot of smaller, logistical questions about how to get immigrants signed up for a new form of legal status or protection — how many phone call reminders they need, how to protect their privacy while still having volunteers help them fill out forms. DACA could be a test run for how to implement an immigration reform policy, but it could be a missed opportunity.

The DREAMer-led advocacy group United We Dream wanted to make sure the opportunity didn't slip away. So it started the Own the Dream campaign — the only nationwide campaign to coordinate DACA implementation — after DACA was created in 2012. The campaign's 15 teams have been going, in Luna's words, "classroom to classroom, worksite to worksite," and working with other community groups "to dispel myths and bring people in and give them the help that they need."

Own the Dream organizers have their work cut out for them. Many families still aren't aware of the program — or assume they're ineligible. "In urban centers, where you'd expect everyone to know about the program, we're finding people still don't know. Or have very basic questions," says Luna. "And then in rural areas people are still coming in."

The biggest obstacle to DACA applications is cost. USCIS is almost entirely funded by application fees from immigrants rather than taxpayer dollars, and it's DACA applicants and recipients who end up footing the bill for the program. It costs $465 to file an application for DACA, and fee waivers aren't available. That's a steep cost — especially for families who have multiple members who might be eligible.

At one information session in Houston, Oscar Hernandez met a young man who wanted to go to the University of Texas but couldn't afford the DACA application fee, much less his tuition. When Hernandez met the young man's mother, she started crying. "She said that she has three kids, that she paid for the oldest one's deferred action paperwork because he had to pick one, and that he doesn't want to go to college because he just wants to work. And she started saying, ‘I paid for the wrong one.'"

Even more than the application fee, the bigger cost might be legal help. The overwhelming majority of would-be DACA applicants want help with their applications: Wong's survey found that only a third of DACA recipients applied on their own. "One," says Own the Dream's Luna, "we're dealing with young people, and so parents really want this to be done right. And two, because of the way people have had to interact with the government" — hiding from immigration agents, not running to them — "they really want to make sure this is done right."

Free legal help is extremely limited, and, as Oscar Hernandez says, "There's a lot of ways to make money off ignorant immigrants." That's a very dangerous combination.

"In New Mexico, when our team got started," Luna says, "they had a lot of people driving 5 or 6 hours, past Border Patrol checkpoints" — where they could easily be detained by agents and deported — "when they heard there was a free clinic in Santa Fe. Because the only attorney in this whole area was charging people $1,700 to help with the DACA application."

Oscar Hernandez

Oscar Hernandez speaks at an Own the Dream event (Own the Dream)

Paying an unscrupulous lawyer or notario doesn't guarantee the job will get done right, either. "When someone doesn't care about educating [an applicant], and just does their paperwork," says Hernandez, "I do notice that they all think they applied for the DREAM Act" — for permanent legal status. That puts them at risk of accidentally misrepresenting their status on a legal document, which is a federal crime.

Wong's survey found that 40 percent of immigrants who have received DACA know someone who's eligible but hasn't applied. Immigrants who don't have DACA because they don't know where to go for help, or are afraid to speak up for themselves, are doubly vulnerable. Not only can they be put into deportation proceedings, but they're less likely to be able to get legal help if they are. And immigrants who are connected with advocacy groups can mobilize media campaigns on their behalf, which can sometimes pressure the government into dropping a case; immigrants who don't have those connections can be deported without any public outcry.

These problems are especially acute for non-Latino immigrants. "When it comes to underrepresentation," says Wong, "we're really talking about Asian, African immigrants, and European immigrants." Those aren't the groups that traditional immigrant organizations are able to reach. So they're not only less likely to apply, but less likely to do everything correctly; a Center for American Progress study found that those three groups, along with Central Americans, experienced "disproportionately higher denial rates" than Mexican immigrants.

Wong's survey asked immigrants who applied successfully for DACA whether they'd shed their fear of their immigration status, but those involved in DACA outreach have found that it's difficult to say which of those is the cause and which the effect. On one hand, it's true that DACA takes much of the danger out of being an unauthorized immigrant in the US. On the other hand, the lesson of the outreach campaign of the last two years is that immigrants will only sign up for DACA if they already feel empowered — if they've already lost some of their fear.

DREAMers won DACA because they'd built a strong political and social movement. Succeeding at implementing DACA requires them to build a deeper and stronger organizing network — to expand it to younger immigrants (and their parents) who hadn't already shaken off the stigma of their immigration status. And that, in turn — they hope — will make the movement stronger for future battles over immigration relief and reform.

Judith Huerta has an easy laugh. It ripples up when she's recalling her confrontations with authority. She remembers telling an ICE officer "‘Well, I don't really classify myself as a DREAMer.' And he asked me, ‘Well, what do you classify yourself as?' and I said, ‘a HUMAN BEING!'" The laugh. "Oh, man...and he didn't laugh."

Huerta's humor is driven by anger. When I ask her to tell her story, she initially gives me the bare bones: she came to the US from Mexico in 1993, when she was two years old. She's now 23, and living in Oklahoma City, where she graduated from high school in 2008 and college in 2012, and she's an organizer with Own the DREAM. When I try to ask again, hoping for a little more detail, I can barely get half the question out before she bursts out with: "Three things. Three things that made me angry, are at the top of my list of my anger, and the reason I'm doing what I do."

Huerta's anger initially kept her from applying for DACA herself. "I didn't want to apply for DACA, first of all, when it came out. Because I didn't think it was fair that not everybody could get it. But then my mom kept nagging at me to do it, and I finally did it. I cried when I got it — because I was pissed! I was pissed that the guy I'm working with here, he qualifies in all ways except that he came in when he was 17 years old. So that pissed me off."

That's now part of the story she tells at Own the DREAM information sessions and clinics. She tells would-be applicants how she resisted at first, then tells them about getting pulled over after she'd applied successfully for deferred action. "They pulled me over, and they didn't ask me for my driver's license, and I already had it. It was in my pocket and I was ready to hand it to him, but he never asked me for it," she says. When she tells the story at DACA clinics, "they laugh at that. And that's when I go into telling them that the reason that I'm doing what I'm doing right now, is so you guys can have the same feeling — to be able to laugh about stuff like this." She says she hasn't had anyone tell her they're still resistant to applying.

Community organizers place a lot of importance on "telling a public story." Both organizers and the people they serve, the theory goes, should be able to turn their personal experiences into a story of what their community needs and a call to action. The public story is broken down into three parts: the story of self, about the storyteller's own journey toward the cause; the story of us, about the community and its shared goals; and the story of now, about the choice the community faces today, the action listeners can take, and the hope for a better future.

Any event that Own the Dream convenes includes a story-sharing session. Often it comes after would-be applicants sit down with volunteer attorneys, to make sure they'll be eligible for DACA, and before they officially fill out the paperwork. It makes for a system that's about one part casework, one part evangelism. It's also the key to continued success, as applications slow down and the remaining DACA-eligible immigrants are harder to find and support. Waiting for applicants to come to them, the implementation campaign would be losing momentum. But recruiting as many applicants as possible to become standard-bearers for DACA, and for the movement, helps them maintain momentum — and even gain speed. Many of the immigrants who were keeping their heads down and living in the shadows even just a year or two ago — whether because they were scared to advocate for themselves, or because they didn't know they had a choice — are now eagerly seeking out organizers to learn how they can start a new phase of their lives: one in which DACA recipients can pull out their IDs without fear when pulled over by cops, and their parents can go into their children's schools for parent-teacher conferences and know what to say.

The notion that success stories will inspire more people to apply isn't just an article of faith, Luna says. It's a lesson that observers learned after the immigrant amnesty of 1986. He paraphrases Charles Kamasaki, a senior staffer at the National Council on La Raza who's done extensive research on the implementation of the 1986 law.

"There were actually two big waves of applicants," says Luna. "One was of course the initial first one, but then they started to see numbers really start to drop. But there was an uptick in activity as people started seeing other people who'd benefited from it and who actually got their status, then, who actually saw the program working — and when community outreach efforts and PR efforts were more focused on this 'I'm like you, it's working for me' message."

That expectation of a second wave is built into Own the Dream's organizing plan. They put  a lot of effort into encouraging applicants to spread the word about DACA, or even to come back and volunteer for future clinics. "We make sure that we tell people to educate other people about what's happening," says Huerta. "The information they're receiving here is not just for them, it's to share with the community." And they've gotten the word of mouth they're looking for, and then some: organizers have expanded their reach to neighborhoods, and even cities, they hadn't yet had a physical presence in. "We go to a school and then we get calls from another school, and then people from across out of town will get our flyers," says Hernandez. "I'm not even sure how that happens, but I'm very happy."

Most of the buzz Own the Dream has generated has been among Latinos. Building relationships with non-Latino communities, they admit, has been harder. Hernandez's Houston team has a presenter from Togo, but he believes that's not enough: "Houston being the most diverse city in the world, so everybody tells me, we need to have that kind of representation when it comes to immigrants."

Just as, as Wong says, the traditional immigrant-services organizations aren't equipped to reach out to non-Latinos, traditional non-Latino groups don't always know how to reach out to immigrants. Hernandez recently got in touch with an Asian community-services group saying they wanted to work with Asian DREAMers. "They're like, ‘Awesome, you guys know how to do outreach to the Asian community?' I'm like, ‘Oh, gosh. If an Asian organization does not know how to outreach, we're really in trouble.'"

Here, too, story sharing will be key. Wong says that "success stories" might be the best form of outreach to non-Latino immigrants, especially those who have decided DACA isn't worth the effort. "If there is this idea among Asians and Chinese in particular that there aren't many benefits of receiving DACA...then hopefully what these success stories will do is actually show that, for example, there is upward social mobility tied to DACA."

Outreach to the "less trusting first generation"

"I understand that there's a lot of cultural barriers," Hernandez says of outreach to non-Latino communities. "But the youth, who's assimilated, they're a little more open about the cases."

He's referring to the generational divide between DREAMers — the group Wong calls the "1.5 generation," since they were born outside the US but have been raised here — and their parents. Many of their parents still adhere to the norms Hernandez' parents raised him with: keeping their heads down and not being noticed.

Because DREAMers have been pioneers when it comes to raising awareness about unauthorized immigrants, it's probable, Wong says, that outreach to them about DACA has been much easier than outreach to their parents — the "less trusting first generation" — would be if administrative relief were expanded. Because Own the Dream sees its work as movement-building as much as DACA implementation, they're working with parents to tell their stories, and feel more comfortable coming out, as well.

During an Own the Dream clinic, would-be DACA applicants are separated from the parents or guardians who brought them. While DACA applicants are filling out their forms, parents go through a separate "parent engagement" session — which includes a workshop in telling their own stories.

"Many times, this is the first time that folks from the clinic have ever talked with anyone about being undocumented," says Luna. "It's an intimate experience."

In Oklahoma, parent-engagement sessions also include Know Your Rights presentations for dealing with police, and, now, sessions on education. And one of Huerta's colleagues, Deisy Escalera, works for Oklahoma City Public Schools, is starting parent committees to extend the clinic's work and help parents get involved in school.


Hundreds of people line up around the block from the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles offices to apply for DACA in August 2012 (Kevork Djansezian, Getty Images)

"Teaching [parents] how to speak up and know their rights, and especially know their rights within the school system, that's going to help everybody as a whole" — not only parents and students, but the school system as well. Oklahoma City schools aren't used to outreach to unauthorized immigrants — "at the beginning, the Oklahoma City Public Schools were telling kids to apply for the DREAM Act" — so Escalera's parent committees aren't just a way to empower parents, but a way to help the school learn how to interact with immigrant families.

In Houston, meanwhile, Hernandez takes the parent-engagement session of the clinic as an opportunity to start wearing away some of the stigma many older unauthorized immigrants still feel — and change their expectations for themselves. "I love being in the parent engagement room," he says, "because I get to scream at the parents. This is where I get even with my parents. Because my parents — when I was a kid, they would take me all over the place so I could translate for them — used to tell me, ‘if I knew your English, I would do this, and that.' I tell the parents, ‘If you really want to encourage your kids, you should also participate. You should also attempt to learn English, and you should attempt to get involved in the community.'"


Own the Dream's free clinics take away the extra cost of dealing with a lawyer, which makes a big difference in making applying for DACA affordable. But there's still that $465 application fee. And because USCIS doesn't offer fee waivers for needy families, that's money applicants and their families generally have to find on their own.

Hernandez' operation in Houston actually started as a way to raise, and then disburse, money to pay for the application fees of DREAMers who'd done the most volunteering in their community. And he's working on getting local businesses to sponsor "scholarships" for applicants' fees. "$465 is a lot of money for a family of six," he points out, "but for a really big business it's not that much." So far, they've gotten one private school, St. Michel's Learning Academy, to sponsor a scholarship.

Still, encouraging applicants to take the reins themselves in figuring out funding, for the application fee or for college tuition, is a crucial part of what Hernandez does. One of the core volunteers in Houston's Own the Dream office is the young man whose mother came into the clinic saying she'd "picked the wrong one" to pay the DACA application fee for. Hernandez encouraged the young man to apply for Own the Dream's fellowship program, which provided him with a stipend in exchange for volunteering and office work. After his first week, Hernandez says, the young man went back to school, "told all his teachers he was undocumented, and asked them for help." He started a crowdfunding campaign on GoFundMe to help him pay for college tuition. He owned the responsibility of getting DACA and getting to college himself.

Earlier this summer, the student sent an email to the Own the Dream organizers saying the University of Texas had given him a $10,000 scholarship to attend. "He tells us he's going to get involved, even if he's at UT, that he just wants to make sure he's the example for the other kids in the school," says Hernandez.

This might seem like mission creep.  After all, there are other organizations out there that help immigrants with tuition, but Own the Dream is the only campaign working on maximizing DACA signups. As campaign director Luna points out, though, new DACA recipients have to deal with a whole world of issues they've never had to consider before: "Things which many of us take for granted ... are new things." That includes everything from "How do I build credit safely?" to "How do I dress for a job interview?"

Own the Dream is rolling out an online financial literacy series to help immigrants with DACA to adjust. But showing DACA recipients how to take advantage of their new opportunities isn't something that can primarily be taught by a curriculum. It's also embodied in the work Hernandez did with the applicant who wanted to go to the University of Texas.

The DREAMers who fought for the creation of DACA learned that the government, and society, weren't likely to give them much. If they wanted to go to college, they'd have to piece together the money themselves; if they wanted to stay in the US after the government started trying to deport them, they'd need to mobilize their friends and family to raise an outcry and get the government to drop the case. DACA gives them some opportunities without their having to fight for them first, but it doesn't give them others. Now, they're teaching other immigrants that they will have to fight for an education, for employment, and to be full participants in American society. DACA may have given them the paperwork, but it takes education for DREAMers to fully claim their rights and come out of the shadows.

Renewal: a race against the clock

Own the Dream doesn't just work with immigrants on "life after DACA" (as Luna calls it) for emotional reasons. Getting DACA recipients to control their own finances and schedules is Own the Dream's best bet for the biggest challenge they've faced: making sure that the DACA renewal process goes smoothly.

Starting on August 15th — two years after the first DACA application was processed — DREAMers' DACA terms started to expire. If they've already applied to get their DACA renewed, and the federal government has approved the renewal, that won't be a problem. If they haven't applied, or if the government has been unable to process their paperwork in time, they're going to lose the benefits DACA provides: once again, they'll be unable to work legally in the US, and they'll be vulnerable to deportation at any time. Avoiding that outcome is going to require both DACA recipients and the federal government to be vigilant.

DACA recipients are allowed to submit their renewal applications up to 150 days before their DACA expires. USCIS has told immigrants that as long as they submit their application at least four months in advance they'll be able to get approved in time.

Theresa Cardinal Brown of the Bipartisan Policy Center points out that this could be a tall order for USCIS to fill, since they're still working through initial DACA applications. "They'll be processing new filings, backlog cases, and renewals at the same time," she says. "You're looking at typical input-output processing: unless you're going to raise your processing rate to improve your input flow, your backlog will grow." If the applicant files a renewal 120 days in advance but USCIS can't get to it in time, they've said they'll be willing to provide interim status.

"Even people who aren't DACA applicants come away with a sense of their rights and the power of people like them to make change in their communities"

USCIS is only giving applicants one reminder to submit, and it won't be sent until 100 days before the expiration: what Luna calls a "danger zone" alert. Beyond that, it's up to the DREAMers themselves to get their applications together and submit in time.

Renewal is a much easier process in terms of paperwork than the initial application, and USCIS has assured advocates that they'll be able to process renewals more quickly than they processed initial applications. The question for experts isn't whether USCIS will be able to process renewals, but whether they'll be submitted in time — especially given that applicants will have to pay another $465. "If you're like I was in high school or in your early 20s," says Luna, "1, that's a lot of money. And 2, you can imagine, your expiration date is coming up, you've never heard of this 150-day window, you've never gotten a reminder from anyone...and then you're kind of like ‘Oh shit, i've gotta pay $465, or I'm screwed!'"

Tom Wong's research found that first-time DACA applicants delayed their applications for about three months so they could "hustle up the money" for the application fee. That's going to require a lot of advance planning if DACA recipients want to get their renewals in more than 120 days before their expiration dates. And recipients who don't think about renewal until they get their 100-day "danger zone" warning are going to be in an extremely tight spot.

Own the Dream's efforts to help with DACA renewals are more decentralized than their outreach for initial applicants, and that's of necessity. As Luna points out, it's impossible for them to "do an outreach campaign to reach the guy in El Paso who needs to renew in November, and then do another outreach effort to reach his sister in El Paso who will need to renew in March." Instead, they're inviting DACA recipients to join their renewal network: members plug in their DACA expiration date and get automated text and email alerts to "tell them exactly what to do and how to do it." As of June, 12,000 people had signed up for the network.

A dress rehearsal for immigration reform or expanded administrative relief?

No one who fought for DACA thinks of it as a permanent solution to the difficulties faced by unauthorized immigrants. A future president could easily kill the program, as Mitt Romney threatened to do in 2012 during his presidential campaign; Congress could attempt to dismantle it, as the House of Representatives has voted to do — most recently in July. DACA's increasing political profile makes it more and more vulnerable to attack or elimination.

Furthermore, DACA only protects about a million of the nation's 11 million unauthorized immigrants: DREAMers, but not their parents, older siblings, or coworkers. That's why immigrant-rights advocates are now pressuring the Obama administration to expand administrative relief, and protect millions more unauthorized immigrants from deportation.

DACA expansion would, politically, put the program at even greater risk. Rep. Steve King has all but guaranteed that any expansion of the program would spur him to call for impeaching Obama. House leadership turned to King to approve the last immigration bills they passed in July — he appears to be much more influential in his caucus than he was a year ago, when he said that most DREAMers were drug smugglers with "calves the size of cantaloupes."

On the ground, however, advocates are already asking themselves what they'll need to do to prepare for an expansion of immigrant protections. Indeed, DACA renewal is a test of a broader proposition: whether the basic infrastructure of DACA can be adapted for something else. This time, the Own the Dream network is testing whether the processes it's adopted work for DACA renewal. The unspoken question is whether it can be used for a broader effort: either legalization of unauthorized immigrants, if Congress were to pass immigration reform, or the wider administrative relief that President Obama is rumored to announce in the coming weeks.

Brown of the Bipartisan Policy Center thinks that the first two years of DACA show that implementing a legalization program is going to be a lot more complicated than its supporters are necessarily willing to admit. "There's implications that maybe other people haven't looked at right now," she says.

daca clinic

People attend a DACA orientation class in Los Angeles (Kevork Djansezian, Getty Images)

Luna says that Own the Dream has deliberately built a "malleable and flexible" campaign that can be used not just for DACA, but for other programs, and he's confident in its ability to adapt. With renewals, he says, "we've successfully pivoted to basically expand the policy that we're implementing in about a month's time of planning, and it was very smooth and seamless. So that was our first test of this malleable, adaptable system.

"We're confident that this system, then, without having to start from scratch, on everything from the legal agreements to our methods on the ground to our data systems, can pivot to implement broader administrative relief."

The smoother the logistics of expansion go, the more organized and unified the movement will be. The more organized the movement is, the easier it will be for them to defend themselves from political attack. And if they can get DACA out of political danger and turn expansion into a political victory, it will make it easier for the movement to continue to push for the next fight — and ultimately, to get permanent reform, and a path to citizenship for 11 million unauthorized immigrants.

As the last two years have shown, the hardest part of implementation is making individual immigrants aware, informed, and empowered enough to apply. And on that front, too, Own the Dream has given the community a head start: by organizing not just DACA applicants, but their families as well, they're building solidarity among the people who might benefit from the next round of administrative relief. And in the meantime, Luna says, they're helping the community fight for that relief themselves — by telling the story of how DACA was a victory that DREAMers themselves secured, and by helping people own their own stories.

"Even people who are not DACA applicants," Luna said, "they come away with a sense of their rights, the power of people like them to make change in their communities, and an opportunity to share their stories. So no one leaves empty-handed. It's this holistic approach that will allow us to be more ready for the next victories, not just to implement it but to actually win the thing."

Hernandez shares his optimism. "I'm confident that our community will respond in the most positive way, and want to get even more involved, and want bigger victories. Because we can get them. Because we should."


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