Ju Hong poses for a portrait at the Hayward Public Library, where he often can be found studying, on June 6, 2022. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)
Hayward resident Ju Hong remembers when President Barack Obama signed an executive order aimed at protecting young undocumented immigrants like himself from deportation. It was June 15, 2012, and Hong was a UC Berkeley senior, studying in a coffee shop next to campus when he got the news.
“All of a sudden, my friends are texting me,” he said. “And people are saying, ‘Hey, check out Obama's new announcement.’”
He applied right away, and he said the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, was a game-changer. It not only shielded him from deportation but also provided a renewable, two-year work permit. It was the first quasi-legal status he’d had since he was 11 and his family came to the Bay Area from South Korea on a temporary visa and stayed after it expired.
Hong, 32, was able to get work in nonprofit organizations, and then went on for a master’s degree and started building a career as a staff member in state and local government agencies.
“I had the opportunity to earn income, to support myself and my family while getting generous benefits like health care that you get through an employer,” he said. “My mental and physical well-being improved dramatically.”
This week marks the 10th anniversary of DACA. Over the decade it has benefited roughly 835,000 young undocumented immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children. More than a quarter of them call California home.
But today, DACA’s future is uncertain. And so is the future of the people who’ve come to rely on it, including Hong.
Last year, he was working for Alameda County as a grants administrator. But his work permit expired when his DACA renewal application got caught in a federal backlog. And overnight, Hong was let go from his job.
“It was a wake-up call for me that I'm still vulnerable, that I'm still in this limbo status,” he said. “DACA is still temporary.”
Hong mobilized, and got 600 supporters to call Congress. Within days, his DACA protection was renewed. And he probably could have gotten his job back. But after that experience, he decided to work full-time for immigrants’ rights. Today, he’s the director of UCLA’s Dream Resource Center, which supports undocumented students.
He’s committed to the work, and pushing for a path to citizenship for all 11 million undocumented immigrants in the country — including his mother and older sister. But it wears on him.
“It's very frustrating, and it’s tiring, too, sometimes, to wait for politicians to prioritize the immigrant community,” said Hong. “It's a lot of mixed emotions as we're entering into this 10th-year DACA anniversary.”
DACA was always a stopgap measure: an executive action Obama took because Congress hadn’t passed the Dream Act, which would offer permanent legal residence — that path to citizenship — for young undocumented immigrants brought to the country as children.
Obama was persuaded to act after years of outspoken activism by "Dreamers" — young undocumented immigrants who’d grown up in the U.S. and were yearning to build a life here legally.
Coming out and risking deportation
Yahaira Carrillo was one of those activists. She was 7 when her mother brought her from Mexico to California so they could reunite with Carrillo’s dad. He was a farmworker in the Central Valley, and later found a job in a bakery in Napa, the same town where her mother worked as a cleaner at a nursing home.
Carrillo, 37, came of age with the stifling awareness that her family was always in danger. She said her parents taught her to drive when she was 9 so that if anything happened to them, she could reach safety with other relatives.
“It felt like you could go to work and end up deported, you could go to the market and end up deported,” she said. “I didn’t want to live with that hanging over my head.”
After years of keeping her head down and striving to be a model student, Carrillo began organizing for the Dream Act. Then, in 2010, she took a bold step: She and four other college students staged a sit-in at the Arizona office of the late Senator John McCain — and she was arrested. She says she risked deportation with the sit-in because she was at the end of her rope.
“I was feeling like I was going to be stuck,” she said. “And that all of my personal effort, but also all of my mother's effort in trying to provide for me, was going to be wasted."
Carrillo had come out of the closet once already, telling her loved ones she was queer. Along with other LGBTQ+ immigrant advocates, she realized there was a similar power in having the courage to come out as undocumented.
“The sit-in at Sen. McCain's office was a more extreme version of that, of really scaling it up a notch,” she said. “But it started from coming out of the shadows and it was very much steeped in queer history and of coming out and sharing our stories.”
When DACA was created, Carrillo applied, but she got rejected. The program has strict requirements to prove you’ve been in the U.S. continuously since 2007. And not everyone can come up with all the school records, utility bills and other paperwork to document their presence for every single month.
Carrillo did eventually get permanent residence, as the result of a terrible circumstance: She was a survivor of domestic violence. Her lawyer told her about one of the only avenues for undocumented people to become legal immigrants: Under a 2000 law, crime victims are eligible for a U visa, and later a green card, if they cooperate with the police. She can apply for citizenship next year.
Others are not so fortunate. The Dream Act was first introduced in Congress in 2001, but despite strong support from voters of both parties in public opinion polls, it has never been enacted. A version of the bill passed the House of Representatives last year — and could benefit 2.3 million "Dreamers." But it’s stuck in the U.S. Senate.
California Democratic Senator Alex Padilla has been trying to break the logjam, with bipartisan talks.
“What frustrates me the most is a lot of my Republican colleagues will tell me in private that they're supportive of Dreamers but don't seem to be willing to say so or act accordingly publicly when it comes to being able to support legislation,” Padilla told KQED. “So the fact that we’ve resumed negotiations is encouraging, and I'm going to keep pressing for it until we get it done.”
It’s unclear, though, that he can win over the 10 or more Republicans he would need for the bill to pass.
A pivotal moment with DACA's future at stake
Meanwhile, DACA has survived in the courts, but barely. In 2017 President Trump declared an end to the program. Legal challenges went all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court, and in 2020 the justices ruled that Trump’s termination had violated proper procedure, so DACA could stand.
University of Pennsylvania sociologist Roberto Gonzales has followed the life paths of hundreds of undocumented young people in Los Angeles. He says this is a pivotal moment.
“The question becomes, do we make good on the promise of DACA that has really catapulted young adults in this country into better lives? Or do we leave them without answers to their future?” asked Gonzales. “It's a critical question right now. And I think it will really define this contemporary moment.”
Gonzales called DACA “probably the most successful policy of immigrant integration in the last several decades.” And, he said, it’s not just "Dreamers" like Hong who will lose out if the program is wiped away. It’s a loss for the whole country to forfeit their talents and the contributions they make to the economy and their communities.
“Immigration has always been a contentious issue,” he said. “And that issue has been framed around this question of who belongs in the ‘we’ of our nation.”
Jennifer is a 20-year-old high school graduate in Oakland. She came from El Salvador with her grandmother when she was 5. We’re not using her last name because she’s undocumented.
“I didn't qualify for it because I came here 12 days too late,” she said. “It made me feel really sad, very disappointed, because I really had high hopes for it, thinking that it was going to work out.”
Jennifer says she wants to go to college and study for a job in the health professions, a plan that was inspired by an aunt who became a doctor. For now, she’s getting by working in a fast food restaurant, under the table.
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