It was January when Ashleigh lost her job at the grocery store, and March when she first started driving without a license. The chain of events felt like dominos coming down one by one, but there was nothing she could do to stop them. “My work permit expired, so my job put me on leave,” she says. “The DMV gave me a two-month extension, kind of like a temporary permit, but that expired in March.”
Ashleigh, who is 23 and asked that I not use her last name, was eight years old when she came with her parents to the United States from Jamaica. She is one of the nearly 700,000 immigrants who depend on Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) to hold down jobs, licenses, and the basic contours of their lives. But the program that makes those things possible is now on life support, kept alive by a patchwork of legal challenges filed in response to Donald Trump’s decision to arbitrarily and maliciously rescind it in September of 2017.
As the program’s fate was thrown into uncertainty, Ashleigh’s sense of normalcy disappeared with it. She has no idea if it will ever return: While she says it has previously taken a month or so to receive all the necessary paperwork she would need to renew her DACA status and proceed with her life, the process this time around has meant nearly seven months of waiting.
That delay has meant taking risks. “The other day my car got pulled over,” she says. She ended up asking her friend to drive that day, she explains, but “if I had gotten pulled over I would have probably been arrested, which would ruin my whole life.”
Ashleigh isn’t alone in her fear over how small decisions can have life-changing consequences. Thousands of DACA recipients are now facing the same sense of uncertainty about their status, which makes anything from driving a car to keeping a job a massive undertaking. DACA recipients I spoke to described the tenuous, zombie-like continuation of the program as a cold comfort; instead, they describe a constant sense of uncertainty, a feeling of Hurry Up and Wait for the rest of your life. And a looming sense of danger in a country that should feel like home.
Congress has been working on a DACA “fix” since Trump first rescinded the program last year, but there is still nothing to show for all of the political maneuvering and hand-wringing.
Over the course of the last year, House Republicans have repeatedly claimed they were crafting a legislative solution, but each version was loaded with poisonous and xenophobic caveats, including provisions that required the construction of a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border and ends diversity visas and family-based visa programs. Predictably, the bills didn’t pass.
Earlier this month, a federal judge in Texas—Andrew Hanen, a George W. Bush appointee who, in 2015, blocked previous attempts to expand DACA to protect immigrant parents from deportation—heard arguments from Texas and eight other states that insist DACA is a financial burden foisted upon them by President Obama and are demanding its end. “Obama acted outside his constitutionally provided powers when he created DACA,” wrote Attorney General of Texas Ken Paxton in a USA Today op-ed. “We are suing to end DACA and send it to Congress where it belongs.”
Despite a regular influx of headlines about the program, recipients find themselves waiting in much the same way they were this time last year. And as the Trump administration increases its crackdown on immigrants in communities across the country, their sense of fear has risen.
Manny, a 30-year-old DACA recipient who works in the non-profit sector and also asked that I not use his last name, understands this feeling all too well. He first found out that he was undocumented in seventh grade; since then, stress about his status has felt like an uncomfortable second skin.
“Don’t go out on a Friday night,” Manny says, presenting an informal list of anxieties he confronts when planning his days. “Because if you drive out, that’s when there’s a higher likelihood of DUI checkpoints. You could be sober as hell, but then still not have a license and get taken away.”
“When we do anything, when we go out [while] undocumented, you’re constantly thinking ten plays ahead,” he continues. “So if I’m young, trying to go out and have fun with friends, everything I do—if there is any remote chance of interacting with a police officer, I have to pull away.”
Even if there’s an opportunity to help someone in need, it’s often not worth the risk of having to be a witness or share information with an officer, Manny says.
“That’s very much anxiety-inducing, because you’re constantly thinking, ‘No, you can’t do that, you can’t speak up, you can’t defend this person,’” said Manny. “It becomes a neurosis of knowing I can do anything and just be at the wrong place at the wrong time and get caught up. You have to live with this incessant paranoia of knowing that any day can be your last.”
It’s just one reason why Ashleigh tries to avoid the police at all costs. “When I see cops, even when there’s cops in my neighborhood, I panic,” she says.
The threat of deportation looms heavy like a cloying fog. If ICE makes a house call; if an overzealous cop tackles a minor traffic offense; if someone outs them. Contingency plans are a reality that undocumented immigrants contend with, but Ashleigh’s still feel ill-defined. It’s a possibility she hasn’t fully confronted yet, she says.
“A few of my aunts are citizens, my grandma’s a citizen, so there’s people that we can stay with,” Ashleigh explains. “But if I got deported, I don’t know what I would do. There’s no one back home for me. Like, no one that I know anymore. I don’t know what it would look like.”
Sylvia, a 22-year-old student living in Texas who requested I not use her last name, shares her concern about a lack of a backup plan. “My family, anytime I bring [deportation] up they’re like, ‘No, don’t worry about that, that’s for us to worry about,’” Sylvia explained. “They don’t like talking about it because it’s really bad for their mental health... I ask them what would we do if something happens, and they’re like, ‘Well, we’ll just keep living our lives.’”
But the question remains what those lives will look like. When news of the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court broke last month, Sylvia emailed me her final thoughts: “I think this more than anything else has made me reevaluate my future in the United States.”
Ashleigh managed to find a job taking care of the elderly. She’s paid under the table, and it’s a far cry from her dream job—she studied film criticism in college days—but it’s a job.
A few weeks ago, Ashleigh finally found out the reason behind her DACA renewal holdup: United States Citizenship and Immigration Services got her address wrong. All these months of uncertainty, dubious income, and fearful car rides were because of a clerical error that took months to catch.
I mentioned Ashleigh’s predicament to Kemah George, a Community Engagement Manager at the New York Immigration Coalition. She said that this mistake emphasized the importance of immigrants having access to legal counsel, especially in the current climate.
“That way, if something were to go wrong or if it’s taking an unusual length of time, their attorney can kind of navigate that for them,” George explains. “Versus you trying to figure out all these complex things and policies that are changing day to day on your own.
“We also want people to know their employment rights and workers rights,” she says. “We want DACA recipients to have these facts at the forefront of their mind. In times of fear, people forget or they think all hope is lost, but they do have rights and we want them to know that.”
Manny shares her sense of focus, which can sometimes feel something like optimism. He’s found that perspective it in a decade full of disappointment, from the crash and burn of the DREAM Act, to the dissolution of Deferred Action for Parents of Americans (DAPA). In the face of an administration that is openly leaning into white nationalism, there’s resilience, and a cycle of constantly being let down has led to a unique brand of pessimistic resolve. He’s been here before, after all.
“People in the movement are ready to deflect any demoralization because we’ve been there so many times,” Manny says. “If DACA ends, for all intents and purposes, we’re just back in early 2012.”