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Ohio DREAMers Face Uncertain Futures As DACA Permits Set To Expire

Jess Mador
Maria Sanchez, a Miami University graduate student, says she's worried the end of DACA could prevent her from finishing her education.

Miami University graduate student Maria Sanchez has been following the debate over the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, but she says she tries not to let news and social media distract her from her studies.

"I said I'm not going to be on Instagram and I'm not going to be on Facebook, because things are going to happen anyway, we can't really control that," Sanchez says. "And I'll move forward.”

More than 10,000 so-called “DREAMers” live in Ohio. The undocumented young people were brought to the United States as children, and since 2012 they’ve been shielded from deportation under the Obama-era program Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA.

DACA allowed the young people to temporarily remain in the country without a path to U.S. citizenship. But in September, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the Trump administration’s decision to end the program:

"Failure to enforce the laws in the past has put our nation at risk of crime, violence and even terrorism,” Sessions said. “The compassionate thing is to end the lawlessness, enforce our laws, and, if Congress chooses to make changes to those laws, to do so through the process set forth by our Founders in a way that advances the interest of the nation."

Without action from Congress, though, several thousand DACA recipients living across Ohio have just a few more months before they could be deported.

Credit Jess Mador / WYSO
Karen Denise Bradley, left, is an immigration attorney who went with two colleagues to a recent downtown-Dayton rally in support of the DACA program.

Different From Other Students

Sitting outside in a shady spot on campus, Sanchez tells the story of how she ended up in Ohio. She’s been in the Miami Valley since the age of 12, when her family moved to the United States “directly from Mexico to Ohio," she says. "We've been in Ohio since then, since 2006."

Sanchez recalls that when she arrived, she couldn’t speak or understand English. But before long she was fluent. She excelled in high school and started thinking about college. It was around this time when she says she realized she was different from many of her fellow students.

Teachers began excluding her from field trips and events.

“A few of us were told that we couldn't go because our parents didn't bring in our proper documents,” Sanchez said. “That's when I realized that, ‘Oh, so, I will never be able to do things that I want to because the numbers they're looking for – I don’t have it. I mean there's no way I can get it.’"

She didn’t have a Social Security number. Up until that point, Sanchez says she had no concept of citizenship. 

“I just moved with my parents,” she says. “Going to one country or to another, I thought it was just buying a plane ticket – that was my idea as a child. And then I came to realize that that isn't the case. It was much more complex than that.”    

After high school graduation in 2010, Sanchez wanted to go to college. But as an undocumented person, it was out of reach. She went to work instead. Two years later, she saw a way forward after President Obama’s executive order created DACA. 

Sanchez enrolled part-time at a community college and later transferred to The Ohio State University. But even with her legal status under DACA, she was ineligible for in-state tuition or financial assistance.

Instead, she worked multiple jobs to pay for school.

“I didn't get any loans or I didn't get any financial aid at all," she says. "And I always think that I was able to graduate from college because my family were there to support me. And they couldn't always support me economically. But they were there to push me to do my best.”

Credit Office of Immigration Statistics
Immigration Enforcement Actions: 2016, U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

Deportation Looming

Sanchez is one of nearly 800,000 DACA recipients across the country who were brought by family members to the U.S. at age 16 or younger. Until now, these eligible DACA recipients have been able to renew their status every two years.

Each $495 application requires an extensive criminal background check, including fingerprints. Now, with the future of the program in doubt, many DACA recipients fear their personal information will be used to deport them.

It’s a legitimate concern, says Dayton immigration attorney Karen Denise Bradley. At her high-rise office building downtown, she says she’s advising her DACA clients to get their affairs in order and prepare for the worst: a knock on the door from Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

“ICE has their information and there's nothing that would stop them from picking them up and placing them in deportation proceedings," she says, "because that's what the White House wants to see happen.”

Bradley says she’s already seeing an uptick in detentions of undocumented immigrants across the state this year.

Many analysts have pointed out the Obama administration previously oversaw a significant increase in deportations across the country. The Department of Homeland Security reports apprehending 15 percent more undocumented immigrants in 2016 over the year before, "driven by a 50 percent increase in apprehensions of aliens from the Northern Triangle of Central America," while apprehensions of Mexican nationals remained largely unchanged.

This year, with the program’s end nearing, more than 20,000 DACA recipients failed to renew their applications by the October 5 deadline, according to the Department of Citizenship and Immigration Services. And at least 4,000 applications were rejected for barely missing the deadline, or getting lost in the mail.

The sun rises on Harrison Hall on the campus of Miami University.
Credit File photo
Harrison Hall at Miami University

‘I Hope That It Will Be Worth It’

Bradley is watching closely to see whether lawmakers will be able to agree on a replacement to give DACA recipients a chance at lawful citizenship in the United States.

"Many of them see this country as the only place they actually do know. Many of them want to go to school, many of them join the military. They want to be part of this American dream," she says. "Why not assist them in doing just that?" 

Enjoying a rare moment of quiet between classes, Sanchez says she wants to continue with her education and find a job. She's first in her family to graduate from college.

Sanchez says she’s not sure what she’ll do if lawmakers don’t reinstate DACA.

"It's challenging to just think about what would I do. It's scary. Maybe it is, but I am not scared about losing my status again because I've been there before," she says. "And I refuse to not be able to accomplish what I want to do as a graduate student, and I hope that it will be worth it."

Columbus is always going to feel like home, she says.

"Home is where you build your memories, really,” she says.

For now, the fate of Sanchez and thousands of other DACA recipients like her in Ohio is in the hands of Congress. Without a solution, they could be forced to leave the country beginning in March when the program ends.

Jess Mador comes to WYSO from Knoxville NPR-station WUOT, where she created an interactive multimedia health storytelling project called TruckBeat, one of 15 projects around the country participating in AIR's Localore: #Finding Americainitiative. Before TruckBeat, Jess was an independent public radio journalist based in Minneapolis. She’s also worked as a staff reporter and producer at Minnesota Public Radio in the Twin Cities, and produced audio, video and web stories for a variety of other news outlets, including NPR News, APM, and PBS television stations. She has a Master's degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in New York. She loves making documentaries and telling stories at the intersection of journalism, digital and social media.