Family

For adult Dreamers, ‘nobody is free until everyone is free’

Esmeralda Tovar-Mora doesn’t like to sit still.

The 26-year-old Kansan is a planner, an organizer, the kind of person who’s happiest when she’s working toward something.

She has two regular jobs – one as a case manager at a mental health center in her hometown of Hutchinson, Kansas, and the other as treasurer and strategist for a local social justice nonprofit, Hutch in Harmony.

But she’s also using her planning skills on the boards of directors for a handful of local nonprofits, including the Hutchinson Community Foundation and Interfaith Housing. She’s chairing a dinner fundraiser for her local chapter of the NAACP. She’s the campaign treasurer for a county commission candidate. She volunteers at her church. She’s working on her bachelor’s degree in criminal justice.

She’s a mom. She and her husband Michael have a 6-year-old daughter, Rose. Most weekday evenings, she drives Rose to soccer practice, gymnastics or ballet class. Whenever she can, she brings Rose with her to community events that she helps plan.

And in the back of her mind, she has a deportation plan.

The life that she’s built in Kansas – date nights with her husband, community events on weekends, her daughter’s soccer games – it all rests precariously on an aging government program that was only ever supposed to be temporary.

Tovar-Mora is one of about 611,000 young people who can legally live and work in the United States because they qualify for a permit issued through Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). It’s an Obama-era policy that was designed to protect from deportation certain undocumented immigrants who were brought to the United States as children. It doesn’t grant citizenship.

But a series of court challenges have chipped away at DACA, leaving its legal future uncertain. That leaves people like Tovar-Mora with one more plan to make: What happens if everything is taken away?

“It’s hard because you always have that thought in the back of your head: ‘Will (DACA) be renewed? Will a court rule against it?” said Tovar-Mora. “And what will that mean for me, for my daughter?”

A group frozen in time

Tovar-Mora’s parents brought her to the U.S. from Mexico when she was 2 years old. They were undocumented. She grew up in Hutchinson, attended local Catholic schools, met her husband there. Kansas is the only home she’s known.

In the coming weeks, the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals is expected to uphold a Texas judge’s ruling that would ultimately scrap the DACA program, leaving those who’ve lived and worked legally in the United States for years suddenly without protection from deportation.

DACA recipients, for the most part, are no longer the mostly teenage and college-age population they were when the policy was crafted in 2012.

Back then, the average DACA recipient was 21; now the average age is 28 and recipients have lived an average of 22 years in the U.S., according to a recent report from FWD.us, an immigration- and criminal-justice reform nonprofit. In the decade since DACA, the cohort has grown into young adults with careers and families.

They’re also a group that, for the most part, has been frozen in time.

DACA’s criteria haven’t changed since 2012: You must have arrived in the U.S. prior to 2007, have been under age 16 when you arrived, and under 31 when DACA launched in June 2012.

That means the number of young people still eligible for DACA, like Tovar-Mora, now represent a fraction of America’s 2.8 million immigrants who were brought to the United States as children and are undocumented, often called Dreamers.

DACA isn’t taking new applicants, either. In 2021, a federal judge in Texas ruled DACA unlawful, barring the government from accepting any new applications. Only current DACA recipients can renew their permits, which must be done every two years. And it can be costly: the application fee is $495. Many people, like Tovar-Mora, hire an attorney to make sure their application is error-free. Legal expenses can push the bi-annual cost upwards of $1,000.

Even still, things can go wrong, leaving DACA recipients in a terrifying limbo. On Tovar-Mora’s most recent DACA status renewal, her fourth, she believed she’d applied with time to spare. But her renewal was delayed, she said. For more than two weeks, she lost her right to work and drive a car, until her renewal finally processed.

‘Half a citizen’

Tovar-Mora credits her parents with giving her a happy childhood full of opportunities they never had.

“My parents are the best ever,” she said. “They wanted me to have the best education and did everything they could to make sure I had that. They worked super hard. Now that I have a child and understand how hard it is, my appreciation for them has grown tenfold.”

Sometimes she finds it hard to imagine how difficult it was to make the choice they did, leaving behind their family and friends to seek out a better life for their children in the United States – even without proper documentation.

“No matter the prejudices and miscommunications, the microaggressions, everything they endured they did it for me and my sister,” she said. “They mean the world to me. I would not be here without them.”

Last year, Tovar-Mora was one of six Dreamers invited to the White House to meet with President Joe Biden. During the sit-down, she talked with him about the role immigrants play in the U.S. economy and the need for immigration reform. She told him what it’s like to build a life under the shadow of deportation.

Under DACA, she said, “you’re only considered half a citizen. You have enough rights to make you feel good about it, but not all the rights to make you feel like you can make a difference.”

She and other DACA recipients can’t vote. Traveling outside the country, even for vacation, requires government permission and is fraught with potential complications.

“We would not be a country without immigrants,” she said. “They provide for this country but have the least recognition, the least rights and the least voices in Congress and on the Supreme Court.”

With the 5th Circuit Court decision looming, immigrant advocates like Tovar-Mora are pushing for Congress to come up with a permanent path to citizenship that doesn’t rely on the fragile DACA framework. She wants to see something done this year.

“This is just our lives now,” she said. “You move each day with uncertainty and still you wake up and fight for what you believe in, and you do it for your family.”

Change the system

Tovar-Mora’s husband Michael is a U.S. citizen. They met when they were teenagers, at a church event she’d helped organize. He asked her out the next day and the rest was history. They married in 2019.

Michael Mora serves as a specialist in the Army National Guard and spent 9 months deployed overseas. They’re expecting he’ll be deployed again for 15 months next year. Deployments are hard, she said, but she and Rose keep in touch with him while he’s overseas through Skype and Zoom calls as often as they can.

Tovar-Mora said she’s often asked why she doesn’t use her marriage to a U.S. citizen as the basis to apply for permanent residency and ultimately for citizenship.

But that path doesn’t align with her moral compass, she says. She believes being married shouldn’t be the reason she’s safe from deportation, because it’s not an option open to every Dreamer. She pushes for immigration reform that will change the system itself.

And besides, having her husband petition for her to remain in the United States feels, to her, a bit like being a child asking a parent to sign a school permission slip.

“I’m an adult,” she said. “I can make my own decisions. I can fight for my own freedom. I need to see this systemically change, to see complete immigration reform.

“Nobody is free until everyone is free.”

Anna Claire Vollers

Anna Claire Vollers | avollers@reckonmedia.com

I report mainly on reproductive and maternal health, working parents and family policy at Reckon News.

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