Nebraskan Meylin Espinoza’s dream, like other college students, is to one day be an attorney, but as a recipient of a Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program under federal attack, her future is more complicated than most.
In January, nine Republican-led states, including Nebraska, filed a court order asking U.S. District Judge Andrew S. Hanen in Texas to end DACA. If this attempt to end the program is successful, an estimated 600,000 current DACA recipients across the country would lose protections.
This is the latest move in DACA’s long complicated history since the program began back in 2012 under the Obama administration through an executive order. DACA provides temporary relief from deportation and the ability to legally work for young undocumented immigrants who were brought to the United States as children.
Espinoza is one of the estimated roughly 2,660 DACA recipients who live in Nebraska, according to the Migration Policy Institute. She was born in El Salvador but later came to the United States with her family when she was four. She calls Crete home but lives in Lincoln now.
Like many DACA recipients, Espinoza knew she was undocumented, but she didn’t understand the weight of the status.
“It wasn’t until high school, when I realized, my friends were getting jobs, driving and stuff, and I couldn’t,” she said.
When Espinoza was 15, her high school guidance counselor, also a DACA recipient, encouraged her to apply for the program.
Espinoza is a senior at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln studying criminal justice and works as a paralegal intern for Union Pacific Railroad. She said DACA has given her a lot, but DACA isn’t perfect.
“A lot of people also don’t know that, like, we can’t take out student loans or do the FAFSA,” she said. “That’s one of the biggest challenges that I’ve had to face with going into college. The way I’ve gotten through college is basically working full time while going to school full time.”
Recipients are required to reapply for the program every two years and pay the $495 filing fee each time. Outside of the cost, DACA does not provide a pathway to citizenship and recipients of the program don’t qualify for any federal benefits, including Social Security, college financial aid or food stamps.
“It was a step in the right direction back in 2012, but we need to find a permanent solution,” said R.J Vega, a community organizer for Nebraska Appleseed, a non-profit that fights for justice and opportunity for all. “While DACA is good because there’s a temporary relief for people to be able to be here and contribute to our communities, it’s not by any means meant to last forever.”
DACA recipients are crucial to Nebraska’s economic future, Vega said.
“If the DACA program were to end without having a process for DACA recipients to pursue permanent status, it would be a huge loss for Nebraska,” he said. “Many DACA recipients are teachers, small- businesses, counselors, entrepreneurs, and many other areas of our economy.
Forward.us, a bipartisan focused on fixing the immigration and criminal justice systems, estimates that if DACA were to end, every month
“As a state, we still have a lot of jobs that we can’t find enough people to fill anyways. There’s a real concern surrounding our workforce.”
Bryan Slone, president of the Nebraska Chamber of Commerce and Industry, agrees.
“We are desperately short of workforce at this point, and we have about at least 50,000 jobs on any given day that we can’t fill in Nebraska simply because we don’t have enough people,” he said. “Having people in our state with the capability to work is really, really important, so legal documented immigration is important to the state’s economic future.“
Slone, who taught at UNL’s College of Business, realized the need for DACA several years ago when he learned that one of his best students was a Dreamer and might have to leave the state because of a lack of opportunity.
“It absolutely made no sense because this was an individual who had come to Nebraska at two years old and had been extremely successful all the way through high school, college and graduate school,” he said. “And, it really brought home to me, you know, they are every bit as much Nebraskans as anyone else.”
With Nebraska’s aging population, the state needs to keep young people within the state and bring more in. DACA is a part of that answer, he said.
“Nebraska’s economic future depends upon having an adequate workforce, and legal immigration has to be a big part of that,” he said.
There’s broad support growing across the state from varying industries to help address this issue to keep DACA recipients in the state, Slone said.
“I think we all understand the politics surrounding immigration have been polarized for some time,” he said. “But, in terms of business owners, businesses, farmers, hospitals, and even the need for teachers, we all understand that we have to find a solution to this.”
Vega said he thinks it’s time for Congress to step in.
“It is a temporary federal program, so ultimately it falls on Congress to create a process for many of the longtime Nebraskans like those with DACA that have been here,” he said.
A permanent solution lies in Congress passing the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act, also known as the Dream Act, which would provide current, former and future undocumented high-school graduates and GED recipients a pathway to U.S. citizenship through college, work or the armed services.
Over the last 20 years, at least 11 versions of the Dream Act have been introduced in Congress. All have failed to pass.
This has left longtime Nebraskans at a loss.
“I’ve even considered moving back to Mexico because it’s so unfair,” Itzel Lopez said. “I’m tired and the weight of it all is too much.”
Lopez came to the United States with her family when she was 12. She didn’t know she was undocumented until she tried to apply for FASFA.
Still, she managed get her bachelor’s degree from Bellevue University through a scholarship. When she graduated, she was unable to get a job because of her lack of work authorization. It wasn’t until later in 2012 when she, along with four of her other family members, applied to the DACA program she was apply to get a job in her field.
“DACA’s changed my life because it’s given the opportunity to not only formalize my training, but now I’m able to advocate and bring those to the table we’ve never see,” she said.
She’s now the vice president of Advancement and Community Relations at the AIM Institute in Omaha, which “grows a strong and diverse tech community through education, career development, and outreach.” Lopez also is a member of the Latino Economic Development Council and adviser for the Cinco de Mayo Omaha.
Lopez said the battle to make more permanent immigration solutions requires more allies.
“We don’t have enough allies that don’t personally benefit from this fighting, but when you stop and think about it, we all benefit from having our neighbors here,” she said. “By neighbors, I mean immigrants. It’ll be our allies that can help us to get the finish line.”
Espinoza agreed. She said she has hope these allies and the community will see the value of DREAMers.
“I hold on to that hope that one day I’ll be able to be more than a DACA recipient one day, you know, become a resident and maybe one day be able to get citizenship,” she said. “I just feel like there are too many DREAMers for the government to be able to take it away from so many people that are just trying to get an education and have a stable future for themselves and their families.”