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10 years ago President Obama moved to protect undocumented children from deportation


It's been 10 years since the Obama White House authorized the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival program. DACA deferred deportation for undocumented immigrants brought into the U.S. as children. More than 800,000 benefited. Tyche Hendricks from member station KQED spoke with several immigrants who came of age in the DACA era.

TYCHE HENDRICKS, BYLINE: Even though Ju Hong was in the first wave of people to get DACA's work permit and a shield from deportation, protection for him has been fleeting.

JU HONG: Overnight, I got let go of my job. I lost my health insurance.

HENDRICKS: He lost his job with a county government in the Oakland area after his renewal application got stuck in a federal backlog last year, and his work permit expired.

HONG: It was a wake-up call for me that I'm still vulnerable, that I'm still in this limbo status, that DACA is still temporary.

HENDRICKS: Hong is 32. He's been undocumented since he moved here from South Korea with his family as an 11-year-old. When he lost his status, Hong mobilized friends to call Congress. Within days, his DACA was renewed, but the experience made him decide on a career change. Now he works full-time as an advocate.


HENDRICKS: On this day, Hong walks up the big central staircase of the Hayward Public Library. Sometimes he comes here to work. He wants a path to citizenship for himself and others like him.

HONG: I could think about a long-term future and how I want to live my life in this country and start my own family.

HENDRICKS: DACA was always a stopgap measure, an executive action President Obama took. He was pushed to act after years of outspoken activism from young undocumented immigrants known as DREAMers. One of those activists was Yahaira Carrillo. She was 7 when her mother brought her from Mexico to California. She came of age with the stifling awareness that her family was always in danger.

YAHAIRA CARRILLO: It felt like you could go to work and end up deported. You could go to the market and end up deported.

HENDRICKS: In 2010, she took a bold step - advocating for the DREAM Act, a permanent solution for DACA recipients. She and four other college students staged a sit-in at the Arizona office of the late senator John McCain, and she was arrested. She says she risked deportation because she was at the end of her rope.

CARRILLO: And I was feeling like I was going to be stuck.

HENDRICKS: Carrillo had come out of the closet once already, telling loved ones she was queer. She realized there was also power in coming out as undocumented.

CARRILLO: The sit-in at McCain's office was a more extreme version of that - right? - of really scaling it up a notch.

HENDRICKS: Carrillo had been counting on DACA. But in the end, she didn't qualify. A breakthrough came from an unfortunate circumstance.

CARRILLO: I am a survivor of domestic violence.

HENDRICKS: Her lawyer told her about one of the only avenues for undocumented people to become legal residents. Crime victims who cooperate with police can apply for a green card. It worked.

CARRILLO: In the next year, I'll become eligible for citizenship.

HENDRICKS: There are many not as fortunate. The DREAM Act, which would build that pathway to citizenship for 2.3 million young people, passed the House but it's stuck in the Senate. As for the DACA program, it survived an effort from President Trump to end it, but barely. A Texas case challenging the program's legality could reach the Supreme Court next year.

ROBERTO GONZALES: I think that many people are kind of bracing for the worst.

HENDRICKS: Roberto Gonzales is a University of Pennsylvania sociologist. He's followed the lives of hundreds of undocumented young people. And he says if we don't value DREAMers, that's a loss for the whole country.

GONZALES: You know, immigration has always been a contentious issue framed around this question of who belongs in the we of our nation.

HENDRICKS: As the years go by, fewer and fewer young people can qualify for DACA because the rules say they have to have been here since June 15, 2007. Gonzales says most undocumented students entering college this year don't make that cutoff.

JENNIFER: I didn't qualify for it 'cause I came here 12 days too late.

HENDRICKS: Jennifer (ph) is a 20-year-old in Oakland. She came from El Salvador with her grandma when she was 5. We're not using her last name because she fears the risk of deportation.

JENNIFER: It made me feel really sad, very disappointed, because I really had, like, high hopes for it, thinking that it was going to work out.

HENDRICKS: She wants to go to college and study for a job in the health professions. For now, she's getting by working in a fast food restaurant under the table.

For NPR News, I'm Tyche Hendricks in Hayward, Calif.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tyche Hendricks