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Opinion

DACA Decisions Aren’t Just News; They Affect Lives Like Mine

It’s crucial for educator communities to be intentional allies in the wake of immigration policy uncertainty.

November 9, 2022
Marí Perales Sánchez headshot

María Perales Sánchez

1L, Yale Law School

Marí Perales Sánchez headshot

María Perales Sánchez

1L, Yale Law School

In history classes, it’s easy to focus on the facts—names, dates, and events—with little or secondary emphasis on the masses whose struggles were a flashpoint for change. But history is driven by human experiences, and today, it’s never been more important for teachers to realize how the history unfolding before us affects students in their classrooms.

That’s a point María Perales Sánchez stresses in this essay for One Day. Perales Sánchez is a Deferred Action For Childhood Arrivals recipient. As an undergraduate at Princeton University, she agreed to be a named plaintiff in a DACA case that was argued before the U.S. Supreme Court. In her essay, Perales Sánchez recalls witnessing history and experiencing the limbo that exists for undocumented immigrants in this country. As the fate of the Obama-era policy remains in question, Perales Sánchez emphasizes that teachers should be mindful of the difficulties their students face in navigating DACA-related issues. Elections can also cause anxiety for undocumented students hopeful about support through ballot initiatives. Perales Sánchez offers suggestions for how teachers can best accommodate those students while setting them up for success.

Any other day, I would have joined in chanting powerfully with those around me. But on Nov. 12, 2019, I was uncharacteristically solemn. 

I was sitting inside the U.S. Supreme Court building for the oral arguments in Department of Homeland Security et al. v. Regents of the University of California et al. I was a named plaintiff in the case, which addressed the government’s attempt to end Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA—a move that would affect the lives of hundreds of thousands of immigrants and their families. (I had participated with my alma mater, Princeton University, in a sibling case, Trump v. NAACP, which is consolidated into the Regents case.)

Hundreds of allies, immigrant folk, and journalists had gathered outside the building that morning. Inside the highest court in the nation, the energy in the room felt expectant. It was filled with many friendly faces from the immigrants’ rights movement, contrasting stern countenance by the opposing counsel representing the then-president of the United States and his administration. 

I tried to make sense of the moment, witnessing how the opposing counsel called for the end of the DACA policy. They and certain justices theorized abstractly about the legality of a program that had directly impacted the lives and futures of hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants and their families—mine included. As the justices discussed the legal arguments, I thought about not being able to legally work or follow through with refinancing my dad’s home. I thought about where I could move to and whether my family might be separated if DACA was rescinded.

It was surreal. For some in the courtroom, it seemed, the fate of DACA was a legal argument that would never apply to human beings. But this high-stakes moment was one of the most emotionally taxing days I’ve ever had.

María Perales Sánchez at the U.S. Supreme Court María Perales Sánchez at Yale University María Perales Sánchez poses with family María Perales Sánchez poses with a family member

María Perales Sánchez is a DACA recipient and a first year law student at Yale Law School. When she was an undergraduate at Princeton University, she agreed to be a named plaintiff in a lawsuit over the fate of the policy despite the personal risks. (From left) She posed on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court building in November 2019 after attending oral arguments on that case.

Alejandra Rincon (top left) and courtesy of María Perales Sánchez

It has been nearly two decades since I first set foot in the United States and more than two years since we received a victorious decision on that Supreme Court case. The policy remains under threat. In October, a federal appeals court agreed with a lower court in Texas that the implementation of DACA was illegal. The appeals court sent the case back to the lower court to review in light of the Biden administration's recent move to fortify DACA by making it a federal regulation. The policy remains in place while the court reviews that change.

The finalized regulations mirror the current program and, unfortunately, continue to halt processing applications from first-time requesters. While I appreciate the undertaking, the immigrant community—myself included—needs real, prompt legislative protection for all 11 million of us.

I’m now a Juris Doctor candidate at Yale Law School, my dream law school—and the first law school I ever set foot in. I seek to continue fighting back against injustice as an attorney. I know that my commitment to a more equitable world cannot and couldn’t have been possible without community support.

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While there is so much power in fighting against injustice, I have to confess that doing so evokes much grief and anxiety that I—a person directly impacted by DACA decisions—have rarely spoken about it even until this day. And unfortunately, I’m not alone in feeling this way. This reality affects hundreds of thousands of undocumented young folk—including K-12 students who are not eligible for DACA—and their family members in companies, classrooms, and institutions across the nation.

I’m blessed to have a supportive community, such as the allies and immigrants gathered outside the Supreme Court that morning in 2019. Unfortunately, not all undocumented immigrants have the same social networks or live in areas amicable to our status. That day of the Supreme Court hearing, my saving grace was being able to focus on my supportive community and my mom. The significance and necessity of having and creating safe spaces for immigrant folk in the wake of immigration policy developments cannot be understated.

I didn’t make the choice lightly to be a named plaintiff in the DACA litigation. In October 2017, after the presidential administration revoked DACA, I joined Princeton University in suing over the unwarranted action. I used my real name. I was inspired and encouraged by my community and our shared commitment to social justice—many of whom are not even protected directly by the limited policy. My mom fought relentlessly for her community here and in Mexico, instilling in me a passion for social change. 

Disclosing my full legal name directly impacted those around me, including my dad, who has no immigration protection or legal status. I contemplated his privacy and security and feared the consequences of my potential actions. He pushed me to continue fighting, telling me, “You have to put up a full fight, and if they send us back, they send us back.” 

“He pushed me to continue fighting, telling me, ‘You have to put up a full fight, and if they send us back, they send us back.’”

María Perales Sánchez

1L, Yale Law School

For two-and-a-half years after I joined Princeton’s lawsuit, I grappled with the daunting weight of the uncertain future of DACA for those like me who are granted temporary protection through the policy and our families. Teenagers and future generations don’t know if they’ll ever be granted even temporary protection. The policy is stalled for new applicants due to litigation led by Texas and other conservative state attorneys general. The entire policy is threatened by the case.

That uncertainty takes a toll. I remember not being able to focus in class at times; news about DACA could shift my whole day. In June 2020, when the Supreme Court handed down its decision about Homeland Security et al. v. Regents of the University of California et al., I shared an article about it with my sister and we both cried over the phone. She never cries. 

I urge educators and academic communities to be mindful of the heaviness of the moments regarding DACA and immigration policy. For many undocumented students and undocumented educators or administrators, these historic moments have real world implications, such as the ability to drive, work, study and live—where they will be tomorrow. An unfinished paper may not hold the same consequential weight as losing access to relief from deportation or the threat to their family members’ physical presence in the U.S. 

I now refuse to live headline to headline and decision to decision, but I know there is a privilege in being able to do so. Community support plays a pivotal role in being able to face these “historic” experiences.

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The opinions expressed in this piece, and all others in our Opinion section, represent those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of the Teach For America organization.

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