Get Access to Print and Digital for $23.99 per year.
Subscribe for Full Access

Dream On


Being a DACA enrollee in Trump's America

In June 2012, when the Obama Administration announced the creation of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, Greisa Martinez was selling used cars in Dallas, Texas. Martinez, who was undocumented, quickly signed up. Through the program, which provides legal protection to undocumented migrants who arrived in the United States as children, she was able to obtain a work permit for the first time. She quit her job at the car lot and eventually became the advocacy director for United We Dream, an organization led by undocumented youth. In the years since, her salary has risen by 70 percent and she has purchased her first home. “I’m living my wildest dream,” said Martinez, who is now twenty-eight years old. “It completely changed my life.”

In the past four years, nearly 750,000 undocumented migrants like Martinez have enrolled in DACA. According to a 2015 survey, their wages increased by an average of 45 percent, and 92 percent reported pursuing educational opportunities they otherwise wouldn’t. But under President Trump, they could lose their protected status. Because Obama created the program through an executive order, Trump could easily shutter it—something he repeatedly promised to do during his campaign. In December, he appeared to soften his tone toward undocumented youth, telling Time magazine, that he was “going to work something out” because “they got brought here at a very young age, they’ve worked here, they’ve gone to school here.” But Martinez is still nervous. “You just really don’t know where you’re going to end up,” she said.

Martinez and her family migrated from Hidalgo, Mexico, to Texas when she was only seven years old. Because Texas—along with about twenty other states—allows undocumented students to pay in-state tuition, Martinez was able, in 2006, to enroll at Texas A&M University, where she majored in political science. After graduating, she volunteered on congressional campaigns, hoping to get a job in politics. But without a work permit, she couldn’t find anyone who would hire her. “It wasn’t until I was eligible for DACA that I was able to use all of that experience and all of the knowledge,” she told me. After gaining DACA status several years ago, Martinez established good credit, moved to Washington, D.C., and landed her job at United We Dream. She now helps cover some of her mother’s health care costs and supports the education of her three younger sisters.

If Trump overturns DACA, people like Martinez could lose more than just their status or income. The program required applicants to provide a host of intimate, personal information, including their current and past addresses. If this data is handed over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, it could be used to track down and deport them or their loved ones. “The biggest threat for someone like me is not only completely upending the lives we’ve built over the last few years but what will happen to our families, what will happen to our parents,” said Martinez. “Did we ourselves give them up?”

There has been pushback in Congress. Earlier this month, members of both houses introduced bipartisan bills to protect DACA recipients from deportation. Meanwhile, John Kelly, the nominee for Secretary of Homeland Security, declined to say whether his department would use applicant data from the program to facilitate deportations. Senator Jeff Sessions, Trump’s pick for Attorney General, said during his confirmation hearing that deporting enrollees would not likely be the administration’s top priority, but he also stated that, “the attorney general’s role is to enforce the law.” For the time being, United We Dream and other immigrant-rights groups are recommending that people who have not yet applied refrain from doing so, while encouraging those who are already enrolled to file for renewal, as the law requires them to do every two years.

Over the holidays, Martinez went through a “know your rights” training with her family, including instructing them not to open the door unless they know who’s there. She also spoke to one of her sisters about how their lives would change if they lost their work permits. “It’s been a lot of kitchen table conversations about what will happen,” she said. “There has also been silence. There’s this overwhelming fear about what it means, and sometimes families don’t have the right words or tools to be able to talk about it.”

Still, the family knows firsthand how much is at stake. In 2008, Martinez’s father was deported after he was pulled over for failing to make a full stop at a stop sign. “When I think about him, I feel a deep sense of sadness as well as some regret,” she said. DACA recipients can apply to travel outside the United States for humanitarian purposes, but only those facing exigent circumstances—like needing urgent medical care or wanting to attend the funeral of a close relative—are granted permission. Martinez applied a few weeks ago to see her dad, but she hasn’t heard back.

“The sweetest kind of success comes when you thought it was never going to happen to you,” said Martinez, reflecting on how DACA has improved her life. “The most bitter experience is to have it all and have it taken away from you.”

Help support our ongoing coverage of Donald Trump by subscribing to Harper’s Magazine today!

“An unexpectedly excellent magazine that stands out amid a homogenized media landscape.” —the New York Times
Subscribe now