Wearing their caps and gowns, DACA recipients stormed the front lawn of U.S. Senator John Cornyn's office* on the last day that they could renew their applications for the Obama-era program that protects them from deportation and grants them work permits and driver's licenses.
Chanting "undocumented and unafraid!" the several dozen protesters hoisted banners demanding Congress move swiftly to pass the DREAM Act before the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program expires on March 5 — a decision President Donald Trump unveiled less than a week after Hurricane Harvey left thousands of Texans in turmoil.
Should the bill remain stagnant by the time March 5 rolls around, when DACA permits will begin expiring, those Dreamers will be exposed to deportation.
Shouting through megaphones loud enough so that Cornyn could hear, roughly a dozen Dreamers took a turn one by one to say that they are more than Dreamers — mothers, fathers, daughters, brothers — and told their stories.
"When I got to Houston, I thought it was like Hollywood, like the movies — that everything would be wonderful," one woman said, wearing a shamrock-green graduation gown. "But I was so far away from the truth. The truth is that for many years, me and my family lived in poverty, just because of the fact that we didn't have documents. We lived in the shadows. When DACA became effective in 2012, it opened so many doors for me. I could actually drive. I had a stable job. And now the government is trying to take the dream away from us. We will not let it happen."
After the White House made the announcement on September 5 that DACA was ending, roughly 700,000 DACA recipients nationwide scrambled to figure out whether they were eligible to renew their applications before the October 5 deadline — and to scrap together $495 for the application fee if they were. At least 154,000 Dreamers were eligible to submit a renewal—but only 118,000 did so by Thursday, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. Immigration activists Oscar Hernandez, a lead organizer with United We Dream's Houston chapter, and Cesar Espinoza, executive director of FIEL Houston, suspect that the high fee on short notice probably had something to do with why so many were unable to renew.
"It was really difficult for people to get the money together — especially in Houston after Harvey, where a lot of people were out of work," Espinoza said. "Obviously that took a toll on their families and further on their ability to afford the deferred action program."
Hernandez said that, in partnership with the Houston Immigration Legal Services Collaborative, United We Dream put together a "DACA scholarship" program, providing financial assistance to go toward applications after receiving a flurry of inquiries from people wondering how they could get help. Nationwide, United We Dream assisted nearly 1,400 people through the scholarships.
If money wasn't the issue, though, for many others, it was time.
Hernandez said there was widespread confusion about who was eligible to submit an application. DACA recipients whose status was set to expire anyway in the next several months would have recently received a notice from USCIS reminding them that they have 180 days to submit a renewal application. The problem, Hernandez said, was the feds never followed up with another letter to clarify to those people that, actually, everyone only had until October 5. Plus, no new applications would be accepted — Hernandez said he just got a call from parents wondering if their son, who just turned 15 on September 8 could apply; he couldn't. And anyone whose DACA permit expired after March 5 wasn't eligible to renew either.
That was 23-year-old Rodrigo Trejo's problem. His legal status is set to expire on March 26.
"I'm trying to come up with a plan," he said, "but I don't know how to work out that plan because i don't know what the future holds for me."
Trejo came to the United States with his mother when he was five years old — she had wanted him to be able to have a good education. As he grew older, though, he started to think that his status as an undocumented immigrant would get in the way, that still he had no opportunities.
"When I was in high school I had a lot of ideas that I couldn't go to college because I was undocumented," he said. "I was even planning on dropping out of high school."
Then, in 2012, President Obama created DACA through an executive order. Trejo applied the summer after he graduated high school and enrolled at San Jacinto College to pursue a degree in psychology. With his work permit, he got his first job at a Whataburger.
"For me it changed my life," he said. "I'm able to have a license. I don't have to drive looking over my back, thinking I'm going to get pulled over for something. And the most important thing, it helped me get a job to help my mom provide. Also, of course, we won't get deported with DACA, which is why we're fighting for this."
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If the DREAM Act were to pass, it would be far more extensive than DACA. It would create a path to citizenship for people who entered the United States before age 18 rather than 16, and recipients wouldn't need to be pursuing higher education or a military stint in order to qualify, as long as they are working or are caregivers to children. Congress has reviewed similar bills in the past, but they have failed several times.
This time, Trejo said, it just can't.
"This is really important to us, because Houston, Texas, the United States have always been our home," he said. "We don't know anywhere else."
Correction, October 7: An earlier version of this story misstated the congressman whose office was the target of the protest. It was U.S. Senator John Cornyn, not U.S. Rep. John Culberson.