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‘I can’t keep fighting the system’: DACA recipients are leaving the U.S., disheartened by years of instability

Demonstrators rally, one with a bullhorn and the other holding a sign that says, "Defend DACA"
DACA supporters rally outside the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement building in Phoenix.
(Associated Press)

Tawheeda Wahabzada was tired of hoping she would ever have a permanent place in the country that had been home for nearly her entire life. So in February 2020, after hosting a “self-deportation party” where she said goodbye to her friends and family, she left the U.S.

Wahabzada, 32, moved to Toronto, where she was born to Afghan refugee parents before they joined extended family in Nevada, where she grew up.

She thought starting over would be exciting, that she’d be busy making new friends, exploring her new surroundings and traveling. Instead, the pandemic shutdown kept her indoors and Wahabzada had to face the full weight of her decision. Lonely and isolated, she wanted to make sure others in her position wouldn’t have the same experience.

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Tawheeda Wahabzada, born in Canada, was a DACA recipient who chose to leave the U.S.
Tawheeda Wahabzada, born in Canada, is a DACA recipient who chose to leave the U.S. fearing that the program will eventually end.
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

“I basically had to confront the consequences,” she said. “But I made myself a promise: If I’m 30 and I still have DACA, I’m going to leave. I can’t wait for an idea. I spent my 20s in this survival mindset and I couldn’t really enjoy life.”

Since 2012, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals has protected from deportation more than 800,000 immigrants brought to the U.S. as children, allowing them to work, drive and travel legally. But the program, which now has fewer than 600,000 enrollees, never offered a pathway to citizenship. It was “a temporary stopgap measure,” then-President Obama said when he introduced DACA in 2012.

A decade later, the program and the lives of many of its enrollees are hanging by a thread. A small but growing number of DACA recipients, disheartened after years of instability, are voluntarily moving to countries where they can acquire permanent legal status. Some, like Wahabzada, are going back to where they were born; others have transferred jobs or applied for student programs in unfamiliar places.

Last year, Wahabzada connected with two other former “Dreamers”: Monsy Hernandez, who now lives in Germany, and Eun Suk “Jason” Hong, who lives in Spain. Together they formed ONWARD, or Our Network for the Wellbeing and Advancement of Relocated Dreamers. On Facebook, the support group has gained several hundred followers since its inception.

“It’s not that we’re encouraging them to leave,” Wahabzada said of DACA recipients. “It’s a big decision. It’s a scary decision. It kind of feels like a stigma to give up on our status. I felt alone on that journey.”

Requirements regarding age, when the person arrived in the U.S., education and criminal history excluded many immigrants when the program initially rolled out. More than 100,000 others have come of age without benefits because they were too young to qualify before DACA became embroiled in litigation and court rulings prevented additional first-time applicants, limiting the program to renewals.

Last month, a federal appeals court affirmed an earlier decision in Texas by U.S. District Judge Andrew Hanen, a George W. Bush appointee, that found DACA to be illegal. But the ruling kept the protections in place as a lawsuit challenging the program was sent back to the lower court for further proceedings.

The case is anticipated to reach the Supreme Court, where legal experts believe the conservative majority will also rule that the program is illegal.

DACA earlier withstood the Trump administration’s effort to end it when the Supreme Court ruled in 2020 that the administration had failed to follow proper procedure to do so.

Meanwhile, the program’s beneficiaries have been on an emotional roller coaster, closely following each court hearing and ruling, and breathing sighs of relief every time the program survives another day. Negotiations on congressional efforts to establish permanent residency for DACA recipients haven’t advanced.

After the latest court ruling, advocates increased pressure on the Senate to pass legislation that would permanently protect Dreamers, seeing the lame-duck period after midterm elections as a new opportunity to act.

DACA recipients from across the country will gather in Washington on Wednesday to make their case to members of Congress. Apple, Google and other large U.S. companies and business groups recently wrote a letter to congressional leaders warning that ending DACA would worsen the worker shortage and cost the U.S. economy $11.7 billion annually. Legislation would require at least 10 Republican votes to pass the Senate.

Roberto Gonzales, a sociology professor at the University of Pennsylvania who has extensively studied DACA, said beneficiaries are frustrated that while the program provided the possibility of upward mobility, their legal status has remained unchanged.

“If they had a choice to adjust their status, overwhelmingly they would,” he said. “Their roots are here, their education is here, their job experience is here, and they know what it would entail to move to another country. But it’s complicated because that’s not their choice. Their future may be more opaque today than it was in 2012.”

Gonzales, who has tracked the experiences of 500 DACA recipients since 2013, said the calculus has changed with the imminent threat that the program could end. Many have told him they are contemplating two separate futures — one in the U.S. and one elsewhere. A few people have already left.

“While many haven’t gone as far as to get visas or apply for jobs, what they’re doing actively is thinking about where they could live,” he said. “This is increasingly at the front of their mind.”

Selene Hernandez is a DACA recipient and a student at CSU Fullerton in Orange County.
Selene Hernandez is a DACA recipient and a student at CSU Fullerton in Orange County. She plans to return to Mexico as a therapist when she is finished with school.
(Dania Maxwell/Los Angeles Times)

Selene Hernandez, 33, is among those considering a move. Hernandez, who is in a master’s program at Cal State Fullerton and hopes to become a marriage and family therapist, said it’s highly likely that she’ll move back to Mexico within a couple of years of graduating.

Hernandez was 10 when her parents brought her to the U.S. Before DACA, she paid her way through community college and then got a bachelor’s degree at Cal State L.A. She was unable to participate in extracurricular school activities, or apply for a driver’s license, a bank account or a tutoring job. Her first job as a cashier paid less than minimum wage.

The first time she considered leaving was in 2017. She had applied for a study abroad program through advance parole — a provision under DACA that allows beneficiaries to travel legally for school, work or humanitarian reasons — but when Trump terminated DACA and ended the travel benefit, her trip was canceled.

It would’ve been her first time seeing her mother, who had returned to Mexico after she divorced Hernandez’s father, since she was 18.

Selene Hernandez plans to return to Mexico as a therapist when she is finished with school.
(Dania Maxwell/Los Angeles Times)

Last year, Hernandez finally was able to visit. Earlier this year, she went back again for two months.

She researched what her life could look like if she moved there. She visited the National Autonomous University of Mexico and was shocked to learn tuition is free. She pictured herself opening a therapy practice.

“I felt free. This is my country, this is where I was born, these are my people, they speak my language. It just felt very much like home,” she said. “That’s when it kind of hit me: I can live here.”

Coming back to the U.S., Hernandez said she felt trapped. She started saving money and asked her father, who also lives in Los Angeles, if he would sell her his house near Mexico City. She told her friends about her plan.

Hernandez said she feels fortunate to have a job she loves, a career she’s excited about and a generally happy life. But she misses her mother and younger brother in Mexico.

“I feel I’ve done my part,” she said. “I’ve been a good citizen, I’ve done things right, and yet here I am with a two-year membership to this country. I can’t keep fighting the system.”

Julia Gelatt, senior policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute, said the rise of remote work expanded the possibility for many people to live far away from their jobs. But for DACA recipients, deciding to leave the U.S. involves considering multiple complicating factors, including cost, the possibility of a job transfer, personal connections to the other country and whether the recipient has U.S.-born children or other family to take into account.

Another significant factor is whether a recipient is able to return to the U.S. to visit loved ones. Immigrants who leave the U.S. after entering without authorization are penalized. For example, a person who has lived in the U.S. for six months to a year is barred from returning for three years, and someone who stays longer than a year is barred for 10 years. For the most part, Gelatt said, Dreamers have stayed put in the U.S.

Wahabzada is among those affected by the ban. She especially misses her mother, who is still hopeful for immigration reform, and the grandmother who helped raise her. She doesn’t know when she’ll see them next.

But she has no regrets about her decision to leave her home in Washington, D.C., and continue her work remotely for a global development organization. She said it’s a privilege to keep her job and stay in the same time zone in a city where she has extended family.

Before leaving, she wrote an opinion piece in the New York Times. The headline: “No need to deport me. This Dreamer’s dream is dead.”

“I was so jaded at that point,” she said. “A lot of my friends said, ‘You’re leaving right before the election — what if something happens after?’ But waiting for an idea is kind of self-destructive.”

Wahabzada said her status no longer feels like a burden. A few months after arriving in Canada, she came across an article about another Dreamer who had self-deported and reached out to him. It was Hong, who moved to Spain.

Hong became a DACA recipient his senior year of college at the State University of New York at Binghamton, where he studied finance. He landed a job at a life insurance company and felt like he could finally start building a successful future. But when Trump decided to end the program, he said, “that’s when I first realized my life is actually not in my control.”

Hong had considered pursuing a master’s degree in the U.S., but he started looking elsewhere. In 2018, he found a business school in Madrid where he could enroll for a fraction of the cost he would’ve otherwise paid.

Realizing he knew of no one else in his situation, he got cold feet and deferred his enrollment for a year. Then he read Wahabzada’s op-ed, which provided the confidence he needed to leave.

Hong said he’s glad he can now offer support to others. But his feeling of fulfillment is mixed with unease.

“Every time I go into Facebook and see a notification that a person wants to join our group, it’s really sad,” he said.

“Usually when there’s a number-of-followers increase, it’s something to be happy about. Not for this one. We know exactly how that feels.”


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