They’re following the news, but not too closely.
Young undocumented immigrants who were brought to this country as children were keenly aware this past week when the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in a case that could change the course of their lives.
But for those in New Mexico who benefit from a program that shields them from deportation, the uncertainty and fear about what might happen next was palpable. Sometimes it’s just too much to think about.
“I do follow it and I like knowing what’s happening,” said Janeth Antillon of Chimayó. “But I don’t like to get too into it because sometimes I get depressed.”
Antillon, 24, arrived in the U.S. from Mexico at the age of 7. She has been a beneficiary of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, since 2012, the same year that President Barack Obama announced its creation.
The program gave her authorization to begin working legally — first at Dairy Queen while she attended Pojoaque Valley High School, then as a cashier at the gift shop at El Santuario de Chimayó and now as a field organizer for the Albuquerque-based nonprofit New Mexico Dream Team. She uses part of her salary to help her mother and siblings.
Yet in 2017, the Trump administration moved to repeal the program, calling it unlawful and unconstitutional. After the case wound its way through lower courts, it’s now up to the highest court to decide whether the administration may end the program
The stakes are high. No one knows for sure what will happen if the court rules in the administration’s favor, but the estimated 700,000 DACA recipients across the nation — and roughly 6,800 in New Mexico — would likely lose their authorization to work legally. They could even be deported.
“I think it’s safe to say there would be no formal protection from deportation,” said Theresa Cardinal Brown, director of immigration and cross-border policy at the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington.
That possibility feels especially real to DACA recipients because they all gave their personal information to the federal government when applying for the program. Those consulted in New Mexico feared the government could potentially use that information to locate and deport them, should the program end.
“Whenever you apply for this program, they take your biometrics, they take your address,” said Luis Leyva, 22, a recipient who lives in Albuquerque. “For all we know, the Trump administration might gather all this information and do God knows what with it.”
Another question mark is whether the government would take away program participants’ work permits right away if the program ended or phase them out over time, he said.
Leyva, who was born in the Mexican state of Sonora, was brought to the U.S. by his parents at the age of 8. When he was a freshman at Ruidoso High School, his teachers would try to counsel him about his future, asking him if he had thought about college and what he might want to study.
He would respond that he planned to go back to Mexico for university.
“Everyone would look at me kind of funny,” he said, “like, ‘Why would you want to do that?’ ”
The truth was, Leyva was an undocumented immigrant and didn’t want to broach the subject. He also didn’t think he would have the means to go college in the U.S. given his immigration status.
But then DACA was announced the next year and everything changed. Leyva was accepted into the program and started working to save for college. He got a scholarship for undergraduate studies at the University of New Mexico, and he’s now in his first year of law school there.
“It opened a whole new world of opportunities,” Leyva said.
Now, however, it’s unclear whether those opportunities will continue. Leyva doesn’t know if he would be able to practice law after graduation if the court allowed the program to end. That makes it tough to focus on school, he said.
“I’m in law school and it’s a very tough process,” Leyva said. “Knowing there are oral arguments going on about whether I deserve to be in this country, it definitely takes a toll on daily life.”
DACA temporarily allows participants to avoid deportation, but it does not provide a path to citizenship. It can be renewed every two years, although the government has not been accepting new applicants while the program’s future is being decided by the courts.
If DACA ends and program beneficiaries remain in the country, they would in essence have the same status as the other 10 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S., Brown said.
“The fact is that this is a political problem,” she said. “Congress could decide this tomorrow. They could go and pass legislation and give permanent status to these people.”
Uriel Rosales, a 21-year-old program recipient from Chaparral, said he worked illegally in the fields of Southern New Mexico harvesting cabbage and onions before he became a DACA recipient. After getting accepted into the program, he began to work legally in the produce section of a grocery store and now studies engineering at New Mexico State University.
He also works with the nonprofit United We Stand and as an “educational justice organizer” with the New Mexico Dream Team, leading workshops and educating students, parents and teachers about immigrants’ rights.
“With the president we have, he wouldn’t think twice to try to deport us if DACA ends,” said Rosales, who was born in the state of Mexico and came to the U.S. when he was 9. “Without a work permit, what would I do after graduating? DACA is what allows me to do everything I’m doing.”
Still, Rosales said he and other advocates would organize people to try to fight the actions of the administration.
“We’re being attacked and we won’t stand still,” he said. “We’re here to stay.”
Diana Fernandez, a 28-year-old recipient living in Santa Fe, said losing the program would jeopardize not only her livelihood but also her daughter’s. A dental assistant who has attended Santa Fe Community College and also works as a musician, Fernandez said she would no longer be able to support her daughter if she were no longer able to work.
“I’m a mother now,” said Fernandez, who was born in the Mexican state of Chihuahua and came to the U.S. at the age of 14. “I have to provide for my daughter.”
Fernandez, who was accepted into DACA in 2013, also said returning to Mexico would be unthinkable in part because of the violence there.
“I don’t know how to respond to the question because I can’t see us back in Mexico,” she said.
She also echoed the sentiment of many recipients — that she believes ending the program would not only hurt those who benefit directly from it, but the U.S. would also lose a large skilled and educated labor force.
“It would be terrible if the program was ended because there are many capable people that can bring a lot to the country,” she said.