Supreme Court Ruling Offers Relief And Hope For Chicago-Area DACA Recipients

photo of Dulce Dominguez
DACA recipient Dulce Dominguez poses in front of her former high school. She says the DACA program changed her life. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ
photo of Dulce Dominguez
DACA recipient Dulce Dominguez poses in front of her former high school. She says the DACA program changed her life. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

Supreme Court Ruling Offers Relief And Hope For Chicago-Area DACA Recipients

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Dulce Dominguez got up early this morning to wait for the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision on the future of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA.

And when she read that Chief Justice John Roberts wrote that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s “decision to rescind DACA was arbitrary and capricious under the Administrative Procedures Act,” she knew that she could stay in the country she calls home.

“It’s very emotional, because I was expecting a different ruling,” she said. “I’m very overwhelmed and happy that DACA gets to live another day, hopefully longer.”

Dominguez, 26, was brought to Illinois illegally when she was a toddler. With a master’s degree from the University of Chicago and full-time job, she now lives with her family in Waukegan.

For months, Dominguez has been anxiously awaiting the high court’s decision.

Dominguez had avoided making plans of what she might do if DACA was rescinded, in part, because it was too painful to imagine her life in another country. She applied for DACA when she was a senior in high school. President Barack Obama announced the program in 2012. That announcement came following enormous pressure from young immigrant activists.

Two months after DACA started, young undocumented immigrants from all over the Chicago region gathered at Navy Pier to get more information on how to apply for the program. Thousands of them waited in a line that stretched from Navy Pier’s boardwalk, out along Illinois Street, and ending in Millennium Park. The event drew about 13,000, and it was coordinated by the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights.

Dominguez was there with her sister. Dominguez said DACA changed her life because of the options it provided for her — options that weren’t available to her older sister when she was her age.

“For me, it was a good time because I was in that process when you’re transitioning and you’re thinking about what you’re gonna do next,” Dominguez said. “And, unfortunately, my sister didn’t have that opportunity. When she was my age, she was a model student and top of her class, wanted to be a nurse and she had gone to the community college to get classes started. But while she was there someone told her, ‘Why are you bothering? You’re not going to be able to work; you’re not going to be able to get your license. You’re just going to waste your time.’ ”

DACA provided a two-year work permit to undocumented immigrants who met certain criteria, passed a background check and paid almost $500 in fees.

For 22-year-old Alan Zientarski, despite some challenges in obtaining DACA, the program provided him what he needed to take care of himself when his mother, his only parent, died of cancer while he was in high school.

“It has just transformed my life,” said Zientarski, who was able to turn his grief and despair into hope by focusing and excelling in school. “[DACA] allowed me to have that driver’s license. It allowed me to go and work somewhere and be able to provide for myself.”

He is the first DACA recipient admitted to the physician assistant program at Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science. He was brought to Chicago from Poland when he was 9 years old.

Despite its limitations, research shows that DACA has had a profound impact on the lives of young immigrants, like Dominguez and ZIentarski, their families and their communities over the last eight years.

“Upon receiving DACA, our respondents expressed renewed hope in their abilities to realize their future educational and career goals,” stated the Harvard University report, “The Long-Term Impact of DACA: Forging Futures Despite DACA’s Uncertainty.”

“DACA has improved access to vocational programs, community colleges, universities, and graduate schools. Work authorization has enabled our respondents to obtain new jobs, access higher wages, and pursue meaningful and stable careers,” the report reads. “Together, these educational and economic opportunities have bolstered our respondents’ abilities to support their families and strengthen their communities. With broader inclusion in society, our respondents have experienced improved mental health and well-being.”

When the program was first announced in 2012, there was a lot of fear about the future of DACA if a new president decided to rescind it. And that’s what happened after President Donald Trump was elected.

In September 2017, the Trump administration rescinded the program, fulfilling one of his key campaign promises. That started a wave of legal challenges that climbed all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court, which heard arguments last fall.

Since the program was rescinded in 2017, DACA recipients already enrolled still had protections from deportation and were allowed to renew their permits, but no one else was allowed to apply for the program. Thursday’s Supreme Court decision resets the original 2012 mandate, which will allow eligible immigrants to once again apply for DACA benefits.

In addition, since the program started, there has been criticism over whether the agency that issues the work permits would share personal information with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the agency responsible for deporting immigrants.

Fears among DACA recipients increased even more in April when ProPublica reported an internal email, obtained due to a freedom of information lawsuit, showing that ICE has access to a database with information about DACA recipients, including when their work permits are set to expire.

And despite today’s ruling, the fight to protect DACA remains. Fernando Urbina, with the nonprofit Immigrants Like Us, said the ruling is a great first step.

“I think it’s important to note that the fight doesn’t end here,” Urbina said. “And I certainly have seen many congressional leaders, especially on the democratic side, posting on social media about the same sentiment: that the fight doesn’t end here, that we need a clear path to citizenship for these DACA recipients.”

For Julian Villagrana, today’s Supreme Court decision brings hope to everyone in the immigrant community.

photp of Julian Villagrana
Julian Villagrana, 19, says the Supreme Court’s ruling is a major relief to him, fellow DACA recipients and their families. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

“It brings me great joy that DACA will not be ending,” said Villagrana, who was brought to Chicago from Mexico when he was 2 years old.

Villagrana said he’s been afraid of disclosing his status for years. A high school counselor convinced him to apply for DACA, and that decision changed his life, he said. Villagrana is studying to become a math teacher at North Park University. He said he wants to help his community.

“This is a major relief for me and other DACA recipients and their families,” Villagrana said. “And I hope we continue to have many more major successes.”

María Inés Zamudio is a reporter for WBEZ’s Race, Class and Communities desk. Follow her @mizamudio.