Jemima Martinez was 13 years old when her mom moved their family to Fort Worth. The year was 2000 and Martinez’s mom had grown increasingly worried about drug cartel-related violence in the Mexican border city of Reynosa.
The family felt safer after moving to North Texas, but Martinez would soon discover that living in the United States would create other challenges. She discovered that her immigration status could affect future opportunities.
“I knew when we moved — I knew that I was undocumented,” Martinez said, sitting in a dining area inside a downtown Dallas building where she works. “I knew that I didn’t have a Social Security number.”
Like many undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. by a parent or relative, whether she gets to stay or not is out of her control. So-called Dreamers have lived with uncertainty for more than two decades — with no permanent resolution in sight.
Growing up though, her immigration status wasn’t something Martinez really worried about — that is until she started applying to colleges. Martinez learned she wasn’t eligible for federal financial aid, so she enrolled in a community college before transferring to the University of Texas at Arlington.
Then, shortly after she graduated in May 2012, the Obama administration announced a program known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA. Martinez and others who came to the U.S. as a child could apply for DACA status, which temporarily protects individuals from deportation and allows them to work.
A legal and political quagmire
Ten years later, DACA remains in a legal limbo and its future uncertain after a seesaw of court rulings. At stake are the lives of more than 101,000 Texas residents who have DACA status, their families and their employers. It also raises the stakes for Congress, which has failed to come up with a permanent solution for some 600,000 DACA recipients nationwide.
Earlier this month, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that DACA is unlawful but kept the program intact, meaning current DACA recipients can maintain or renew their status. The Fifth Circuit also sided with a lower court prohibiting new applications from being processed. The case was sent back to U.S. District Court Judge Andrew Hanen in Houston who has asked both sides for additional information. He also issued a new order that allows the program to continue for current DACA recipients but doesn’t allow new applications to be processed.
Nina Perales, vice president of litigation for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, or MALDEF, said everyone who has DACA status or is eligible to apply, is worried.
Many believe Hanen will ultimately rule against DACA and that the case will end up at the Supreme Court for a third time.
“The situation is very concerning for DACA recipients. We’ve had two federal court rulings that DACA is illegal because it cannot be put into effect by a president,” Perales said. “The main takeaway…is that it’s up to Congress to act, so the focus is really on Congress right now to do its job with respect to DACA and undocumented youth.”
DACA recipients like Martinez say they want others to understand that ruling against DACA and eliminating the program could have widespread implications.
“From how I see it, it’s like we are creating revenue for this country and it’s many of us,” Martinez said. “If you’re a DACA recipient, you have to be a law-abiding citizen and the reason why we want a work permit is to be able to create profit — to be able to rent a house or buy a house, a car, travel, just do all the things that create revenue.”
Martinez, 35, is a database administrator for a Christian nonprofit Buckner International, which works in foster care and with low-income families.
She calls herself a “Dreamer” — a term used by many DACA recipients. She said she’s surprised by how many people don’t know what any of this means.
“A lot of people don’t know that if you are a DACA recipient, there’s no pathway for citizenship,” she said. “So how can you be opposed to something that you don’t even know what it entails.”
Growing up undocumented
South of downtown, Sandra Avalos, 33, works on a paper for her public leadership graduate class at the University of North Texas Dallas campus.
She juggles different jobs too. She’s a mom and she manages programs for parents at LULAC’s National Education Service Center in Dallas. She also founded an organization that helps undocumented immigrants create Limited Liability Companies, or LLCs.
Avalos was 7 when she and her three siblings came to the U.S. with their mom. Their dad was already in Texas. She remembers one of the first thing their parents did was enroll everyone in school.
But [there] was never really a conversation about what it meant to be undocumented. We just kind of knew it,” she said. “The only conversation was like, ‘Don’t draw attention to yourself because that will [draw] attention to us.’”
Like Martinez, it wasn’t until Avalos was in high school that she began to understand the implications of her immigration status. She attended a magnet school that encouraged students to apply for internships.
“All my classmates were getting [internships] and I was not getting an internship because they were asking for a Social [security number] to do a background check,” she said.
Avalos would eventually find an internship that didn’t require a Social Security number. In 2015, she applied for and was granted DACA status.
Educating the public
Today, she oversees a program that teaches parents technology skills. But in the back of her mind, she worries about the fate of DACA and thousands of others like her.
“Just even thinking about simple decisions,” Avalos said. “Being in the graduate program, me having to pay for classes out of pocket, that means probably I should start considering maybe I shouldn’t be enrolling for the next semester.”
For now, Avalos said she is focused on her work, school and educating people about DACA.
“No matter what is going to come out, remember that there’s this community,” she tells herself. “And so, you know, I’m trying to think that and stay positive.”