No longer young, 'dreamers' uneasily watch a legal challenge
When Juliana Macedo do Nascimento signed up for an Obama-era program to shield immigrants who came to the country as young children from deportation, she enrolled at California State University, Los Angeles, transitioning from jobs in housekeeping, child care, auto repair and a construction company.
Now, a decade later at age 36, graduate studies at Princeton University are behind her and she works in Washington as deputy director of advocacy for United We Dream, a national group.
“Dreamers” like Macedo do Nascimento, long a symbol of immigrant youth, are increasingly easing into middle age as eligibility requirements have been frozen since 2012, when the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program was introduced.
The oldest recipients were in their early 30s when DACA began and are in their early 40s today. At the same time, fewer people turning 16 can meet a requirement to have been in the United States continuously since June 2007.
The average age of a DACA recipient was 28.2 years in March, up from 23.8 in September 2017, according to the Migration Policy Institute. About 40% are 30 or older, according to fwd.us, a group that supports DACA.
As fewer are eligible and new enrollments have been closed since July 2021 under court order, the number of DACA recipients fell to just above 600,000 at the end of March, according to government figures.
Beneficiaries have become homeowners and married. Many have U.S. citizen children.
"DACA is not for young people,” Macedo do Nascimento said. “They’re not even eligible for it anymore. We are well into middle age.”
Born out of President Barack Obama's frustration with Congress' failure to reach an agreement on immigration reform, DACA was meant to be a temporary solution and many saw it as imperfect from the start. Immigration advocates were disappointed the policy didn't include a pathway to citizenship and warned the program's need to be renewed every two years would leave many feeling in limbo. Opponents, including many Republicans, saw the policy a legal overreach on Obama's part and criticized it as rewarding people who hadn't followed immigration law.
In a move intended to insulate DACA from legal challenge, the Biden administration released a 453-page rule on Aug. 24 that sticks closely to DACA as it was introduced in 2012. It codified DACA as a regulation by subjecting it to potential changes after extensive public comment.
DACA advocates welcomed the regulation but were disappointed that age eligibility was unchanged.
The rule was “a missed opportunity,” said Karen Tumlin, an attorney and director of Justice Action Center. DACA, she said, was "locked in time, like a fossil preserved in amber.”
The administration weighed expanding age eligibility but decided against it, said Ur Jaddou, director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, which administers the program.
“The president told us, ‘How do we preserve and fortify DACA? How do we ensure the security of the program and how best to do that?’ and this was the determination that was made after a lot of thought and careful consideration,” Jaddou said Monday in Los Angeles.
The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which is considering a challenge to DACA from Texas and eight other states, asked both sides to explain how the new rule affects the program's legal standing.
Texas, in a court filing Thursday, said the rule can't save DACA. The states conceded that it's similar to the 2012 memo that created the program but that they “share many of the same defects.”
The executive branch has “neither the authority to decide the major questions that DACA addresses, nor the power to confer substantive immigration benefits,” the states wrote.
The Justice Department argued the new rule — “substantively identical" to the original program — renders moot the argument that the administration failed to follow federal rule-making procedures.
DACA has been closed to new enrollees since July 2021 while the case winds its way through the New Orleans-based appeals court but two-year renewals are allowed.
Uncertainty surrounding DACA has caused anxiety and frustration among aging recipients.
Pamela Chomba, 32, arrived with her family from Peru at age 11 and settled in New Jersey. She worries about losing her job and missing mortgage payments if DACA is ruled illegal. She put off becoming a mother because she doesn't know if she can stay in the U.S. and doesn't want to be a “burden” on her children.
"We’re people with lives and plans, and we really just want to make sure that we can feel safe,” said Chomba, director of state immigration campaigns for fwd.us.
Macedo do Nascimento was 14 when she arrived with her family from Brazil in 2001. She has not seen a brother who returned to Brazil just before DACA was announced in 10 years. International travel under DACA is highly restricted.
Like Biden and many DACA advocates, she believes legislation is the answer.
“Congress is the ultimate solution here,” she said. “(Both parties) keep passing the ball between each other.
The uncertainty has affected her, the eldest of three siblings.
“The fear of being deported has come back,” Macedo do Nascimento said, because "you never know when this policy is going to end."