Ariela Rodriguez was sitting in her car when the future that she imagined for herself and her family was crushed.
She found out on social media that a program that could shield the undocumented mother from deportation and allow her to work legally ceased to exist for first-time applicants like her. But It wasn’t the first time her plans were upended.
A series of life circumstances over the past decade pushed Rodriguez away from pursuing her dreams of becoming a doctor in Houston and seeking protection from deportation just like other immigrants who were brought to the United States as children.
Determined to change her life, the 29-year-old was one of the thousands of immigrants who applied for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program for the first time in recent months and had their hopes dashed last week when a federal judge in Texas ruled the program illegal, halting new applications.
“I want to achieve more in my life and I know I can do it,” Rodriguez said. “But it (the ruling) left all of us in limbo.”
Immigration experts estimate that tens of thousands of people had applied for DACA before last week — but the majority of new enrollees were still waiting for approval amid a backlog that accumulated during the coronavirus pandemic.
Nearly 49,889 immigrant teenagers and adults applied for DACA for the first time between January and March, according to the latest data released by US Citizenship and Immigration Services.
Friday’s decision blocks those applications from being granted, even if they were submitted prior to the ruling, said Thomas Saenz, the president and general counsel of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund.
A dream deferred
Rodriguez excelled in high school before her future became uncertain during her senior year. She got pregnant, had a health complication and eventually dropped out weeks before graduation, Rodriguez said.
When the DACA program was established by the Obama administration in 2012, Rodriguez says she couldn’t juggle paying for the application fee on top of rent and the costs of raising her daughter.
Rodriguez, who came to the US from Honduras when she was 14 years old, didn’t return to school. Instead, she took a job at a McDonald’s restaurant, where she is now an assistant manager after working there for nine years.
“I’m not ashamed of having started cleaning bathrooms and floors — it’s an honest job,” Rodriguez said.
By the time she was able to put enough money aside to afford the $495 fee for her DACA application, it was 2017 and former President Donald Trump tried to end the program in a move that faced immediate legal challenges and was eventually blocked by the Supreme Court last year.
The legal back-and-forth left applicants like Rodriguez out of the program for years as well as immigrant children who were just turning 15 — the age to become eligible for DACA.
When a federal judge ordered the Trump administration to fully reinstate it in December, Rodriguez quickly started gathering the documents to apply, getting some of her old teachers to write letters about her high school years.
“I told myself I was going to apply this time, I couldn’t miss my chance,” she said.
As she waited for her application to be processed, Rodriguez enrolled in GED classes and started researching schools where she could study nursing. The next step toward obtaining DACA was her biometric appointment, which was already scheduled for the end of July.
Last week, Rodriguez drove to a Marshalls store with her three daughters to buy shoes for school. When she parked, she stared at her cell phone screen in shock. An immigration attorney she follows on social media was streaming live, talking about how a federal judge in Texas ruled that the program will cease to exist for first-time applicants who had been waiting for their approvals.
She felt angry, Rodriguez says, because she allowed herself to imagine a different future for herself and “her dreams were crushed” again.
“Why are they playing with our lives and hopes like that?” she said.
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