WOODLAND PARK, N.J. – Sisters Deysi and Fatima Perez Avila both came to the United States from Mexico as little girls.
Deysi was 9 and Fatima was 5 when they moved to New Jersey, where their family settled in Red Bank, a town known for its trendy stores and art scene, just a few miles from the Jersey Shore.
It was in Red Bank where Deysi and Fatima learned English, made new friends and learned to love the United States as their own, even though they were living in an adopted land as undocumented immigrants.
Then, in 2012, the sisters’ experiences as immigrants without legal status took dramatically different courses.
That’s when Deysi turned 16 and became eligible for a program that temporarily shielded her – and other undocumented immigrants who came to the country as children – from deportation. The program, known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, allowed Deysi to get a part-time job that paid more than the minimum wage. And just like her friends, Deysi was also able to experience another American rite of passage and get her driver’s license when she turned 17.
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“Even right now, I’m the only one that drives,’’ said Deysi, 22. “After I got my DACA, I got to work right away, so it meant I got to help my family even more.”
It was not the same for Fatima, a high school senior who celebrated her 17th birthday over the summer. Last year, when Fatima would have been eligible to apply for the DACA program, it was no longer available to new applicants.
“I’m over here, on the sidelines, and feeling helpless because I can’t really drive even though I really want to,’’ she said. “Same thing with jobs. Once my peers started getting jobs, again, I was on the sidelines, again feeling hopeless, like I didn’t have anything to do to help out my family … even if they just needed a simple ride.”
The federal government stopped processing new DACA applications in 2017 after the Trump administration announced it planned to rescind the program. The announcement led advocates and several states to file lawsuits challenging the move, and federal courts ordered that two-year DACA renewals be processed – but not new applications.
On Tuesday, the U.S. Supreme Court hears arguments on whether the administration’s attempt to end the program was legal. The court should issue its decision by spring – a ruling that will determine the fate of more than 660,000 current DACA holders like Deysi, and whether others, including Fatima, will be able to apply.
“DACA has accomplished far more than affording deferred prosecutorial action,” reads a brief filed with the Supreme Court by United We Dream, a national immigrant youth-led organization. “It has created life-changing opportunities for hundreds of thousands of promising young people. DACA has allowed them to lead fuller and more vibrant lives, including by seizing opportunities to advance their education, furthering their careers, providing critical help to their families, and giving back to their communities.”
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Opponents of the program have said President Barack Obama overstepped his authority when he issued the executive order creating DACA in 2012. They argue that the courts ruled in the past that Congress, not the president, has authority to enact immigration laws and policies
“If the court forces the executive to maintain such a lawless program, it will have fundamentally and forever altered the manner in which immigration policy is set in this country,” Ken Paxton, the attorney general of Texas, argues in a brief filed with the Supreme Court. Texas is one of several states that want the program to be terminated.
John Miano, a New Jersey-based attorney who represents Save Jobs USA, an organization composed of former information technology workers from California who claim they were replaced by foreign workers, said he doesn’t feel DACA has a chance of surviving.
“There are so many legal problems with it,” said Miano, who also filed an amicus brief on behalf of Save Jobs USA. “DACA is something that should have gone through public notice and comment, and it didn’t go through that, so it was illegal in the first place.”
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Home is here
In the weeks leading up to the Supreme Court’s Tuesday hearing, advocacy groups across the country kicked off campaigns to draw attention to the plight of so-called Dreamers, many of whom have lived and attended schools in the United States for years.
On Friday, undocumented immigrants across the country walked out of class to let the “Supreme Court know that Dreamers’ home is here,” according to United We Dream. The hashtag #homeishere . circulated on social media.
And last week, about 200 people, including many DACA recipients, began a walk from New York City to Washington. The walkers plan to be on the court steps Tuesday to voice their support for DACA before oral arguments begin.
Deysi will be among the Dreamers at the courthouse.
“I’m definitely nervous about what they have to say,” Deysi said. “I’m going with a couple of friends and people that I know. We are all in it together, and I’m just hoping for the best.”
Deysi applied for DACA in 2012. Like other applicants who received DACA, she had to show that she had arrived in the United States before the age of 16, that she was enrolled in school, and that she had not been convicted of a felony, a significant misdemeanor or multiple misdemeanors. She also had to show that she had been in the country for more than five years.
Deysi, a fine arts student at Brookdale Community College in New Jersey, creates portraits using oil paint and said she dreams of getting an associate’s degree and pursuing a career in the arts.
Fatima also plans to register at Brookdale next school year after high school graduation. She said she wants to pursue a degree in education and become a teacher.
“A preschool teacher,” she said. “I want to be able to give back.”
Both sisters work while they go to school, but their experiences have been different when looking for jobs.
Deysi has held several positions since she received her work permit under the DACA program. Her first job as a dietary aide paid her $8.25 an hour, and she held the position for several years. Her second job was as a cashier at A.C. Moore, an arts and crafts retailer. She now works at a bakery, where she takes orders and decorates cakes. In all those jobs, she filled out an application, and has paid taxes and contributed to Social Security, she said.
Even though Fatima doesn’t have a work permit, she has been able to land jobs that pay her in cash. She worked at a pizza restaurant for a few months, and said she now works as a beauty salon receptionist. She has never had to fill out an application for the positions, she said.
Since she doesn’t drive, Fatima depends on friends and her sister to give her rides. Deysi, a co-vice president of a Dreamers+ club at her college, has been more active in immigration rights activities, while Fatima has been less so, though she did accompany Deysi to a rally in Washington, D.C., in March.
“I wanted her to have that experience of being able to go to Washington,” Deysi said of her sister. “I took her once, and she probably never thought she was going to go.”
Their mother, Maria Avila, said she is proud of her daughters, but that she has been concerned for Fatima, especially when she attended the rally in Washington.
“The way things are here, I couldn’t help but worry,” said Avila, 48. “I was really scared, but I left it to God, and I told her to be careful, and she said she had to go to push for DACA, because she really wants it.”
Avila said she and her husband migrated north for various reasons, especially to give her three daughters, including a 5-year-old U.S. citizen, better opportunities. She said she often talks to Fatima about her dreams of working and teaching.
“Sometimes I just don’t know what to tell her,” Avila said. “I wish I could change things for her, but with so many laws, we have to rely on God and pray that she will have DACA one day.”
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Deysi said she doesn’t like to talk to her sister about the differences in their lives because she feels bad that Fatima doesn’t have DACA status.
“It makes me feel guilty,” Deysi said, choking back tears. “It makes me feel really emotional and just, I guess, helpless.”
Deysi said she does not want to think about life without DACA.
“I know I would feel lost if it was taken away, but at the same time, I know I can’t let that get me down,’’ she said. “As long as there is a will there is a way. That is what my mom says, and I believe that is true.”
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