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DACA is turning 10 years old, but the program's future is precarious

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Tomorrow marks 10 years since the announcement of DACA, officially known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. The policy still protects hundreds of thousands of immigrants from deportation and lets them work legally. But its future is precarious because of legal challenges, leaving hundreds of thousands of young immigrants in limbo, as NPR's Joel Rose reports.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: For a temporary stopgap, DACA turned out to be surprisingly resilient. The Trump administration tried to kill the program, but the Supreme Court stepped in to revive it. And tens of thousands of undocumented immigrants who were brought to the country as children, sometimes called Dreamers, rushed to file their applications.

KIRLISH OROZCO: I knew that DACA was very fragile.

ROSE: Kirlish Orozco was one of them.

OROZCO: I knew that it's something that could be taken away at any moment. But I guess I also had other worries, like being able to obtain this and get a scholarship and drive and get a job.

ROSE: Orozco is 19. She's originally from Nicaragua, moved to Miami with her parents when she was 2. Orozco applied for DACA in October of 2020 as she was getting ready for college. The months dragged by with no response. Then last July, a federal judge in Texas ruled that DACA is illegal and blocked the Biden administration from granting any new applications.

OROZCO: So I was one of those kids that were stuck in limbo. I wasn't able to go to the schools that I worked so hard to be able to attend. And it was something that was extremely devastating to know that you put in all the effort and you can't reap any of the rewards.

ROSE: DACA is basically frozen in place. There are more than 600,000 recipients who can renew their status for now, while the Biden administration appeals that ruling. But there are roughly another 80,000 Dreamers like Orozco, whose applications are on hold indefinitely. And hundreds of thousands more who will never get a chance to apply for DACA because they don't fit into the narrow eligibility requirements laid out when the policy was created a decade ago. As President Obama said at the time, DACA was always supposed to be temporary until Congress could agree on permanent protections for Dreamers.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BARACK OBAMA: Now, let's be clear. This is not amnesty. This is not immunity. This is not a path to citizenship. It's not a permanent fix.

ROSE: According to the rules, you can only apply for DACA if you've been in the U.S. continuously since 2007. So the vast majority of Dreamers who are graduating from high school today don't qualify and may never get the benefits of DACA.

TOM WONG: The difference is night and day from being undocumented to then having protection from deportation, work authorization and essentially being able to start one's life.

ROSE: Tom Wong is a political science professor at UC San Diego who's been studying the impact of DACA. For many recipients, Wong says it has transformed their lives, allowing them to get degrees, start careers, buy cars and homes.

WONG: But as an unintended consequence, DACA may have actually taken some of the steam out of a legislative fix that would have provided permanent legal status for undocumented young people.

ROSE: Polls consistently show that a pathway to citizenship for Dreamers is popular, but Congress still hasn't taken any action. And now DACA itself may be running out of time because of a lawsuit brought by the state of Texas. Here's Republican Attorney General Ken Paxton speaking on the Fox Business Channel after the judge ruled last year.

KEN PAXTON: President Obama created DACA out of thin air. And this judge is correct to say that this made up law that Obama overruled federal law with was completely unconstitutional.

ROSE: That ruling was heartbreaking for Dreamers across the country. For Kirlish Orozco in Miami, it meant missing out on a full college scholarship, putting an end to her dream of going to school out of state. But Orozco still found a way to attend Florida International University while living at home with her parents. For Orozco, the 10th anniversary of DACA is complicated.

OROZCO: It's a very bittersweet moment because while on one hand, it's incredible that DACA survived for ten years, it's also angering to know that we're in this situation ten years later when DACA was supposed to be, you know, bigger than just a band aid.

ROSE: Orozco says the whole experience has made her even more determined to become an immigration lawyer so that she can help other kids like her with DACA or without it. Joel Rose, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.