Tawheeda Wahabzada had had enough of hoping that one day she would find a permanent place in the country where she had been home for most of her life. So in February 2020, after hosting a “same porter” 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 joining an extended family in Nevada where she grew up.
She thought that starting over would be exciting, that she would be busy making new friends, exploring her new environment and traveling. Instead, the pandemic shutdown kept her in and Wahabzada had to face the full weight of her decision. She was lonely and isolated and wanted to make sure that others in her position would not have the same experience.
“I actually had to face the consequences,” she said. “But I made a promise to myself: When I’m 30 and still have DACA, I’m leaving. I can’t wait for an idea. I spent my twenties in this survival mentality and I couldn’t really enjoy life.”
Since 2012, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals has protected more than 800,000 immigrants brought to the US as children from deportation, allowing them to work, drive and travel legally. But the program, which now has fewer than 600,000 enrollees, never offered a path to citizenship. It was “a temporary emergency measure,” then-President Obama said when he introduced DACA in 2012.
A decade later, the program and the lives of many of the enrolled participants hang by a thread. A small but growing number of DACA recipients, discouraged after years of instability, are voluntarily moving to countries where they can gain permanent legal status. Some, like Wahabzada, go back to where they were born; others have changed jobs or applied to student programs in unfamiliar places.
Last year, Wahabzada came into contact 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 feels a bit like a stigma to give up our status. I felt alone on that journey.”
Requirements regarding age, when the person arrived in the US, education and criminal history excluded many immigrants when the program was initially rolled out. More than 100,000 others came of age without benefits because they were too young to qualify before DACA became embroiled in lawsuits and court rulings prevented first-time applicants, limiting the program to renewals.
Last month, a federal appeals court upheld a previous decision in Texas by US District Judge Andrew Hanen, a George W. Bush appointee, who found DACA to be illegal. But the ruling kept the protection in place as a lawsuit challenging the program was sent back to the lower court for further proceedings.
The case is expected to reach the Supreme Court, where legal experts believe the conservative majority will also rule that the program is illegal.
DACA previously resisted the Trump administration’s attempt to end it when the Supreme Court ruled in 2020 that the administration had not followed proper procedure to do so.
Meanwhile, the program’s beneficiaries have been on an emotional rollercoaster, closely following every court hearing and ruling, and sighing with relief each time the program survives another day. Negotiations on congressional efforts to establish permanent residency for DACA recipients have not progressed.
After the court’s latest ruling, advocates increased pressure on the Senate to pass legislation that would permanently protect Dreamers, and saw the slack period after midterm elections as another opportunity to act.
DACA recipients from across the country will meet in Washington on Wednesday to plead their case before members of Congress. Apple, Google and other major US companies and business groups recently wrote a letter to congressional leaders warning that ending DACA would exacerbate the workforce shortage and cost the US economy $11.7 billion a year. Legislation would require at least 10 Republican votes to pass the Senate.
Roberto Gonzales, a sociology professor at the University of Pennsylvania who has studied DACA extensively, said beneficiaries are frustrated that while the program provided the opportunity for upward mobility, their legal status has remained unchanged.
“If they had the choice to change their status, they would overwhelmingly do so,” he said. “Their roots are here, their education is here, their work experience is here, and they know what it means 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 followed 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 that they are considering two separate futures – one in the US and one elsewhere. A few people have already left.
“While many have not gone so far as to get visas or apply for jobs, they are actively thinking about where they might live,” he said. “This is increasingly on the back of their minds.”
Selene Hernandez, 33, is one of those considering a move. Hernandez, who is pursuing a master’s degree at Cal State Fullerton and hopes to become a marriage and family therapist, said it is highly likely she will move back to Mexico within a few years of graduating.
Hernandez was 10 when her parents brought her to the US. Before DACA, she paid her way through community college and then earned a bachelor’s degree from Cal State LA. She was unable to participate in extracurricular activities, or apply for a driver’s license, bank account, or 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 via parole — a provision under DACA that allows beneficiaries to travel legally for school, work, or humanitarian reasons — but then Trump ended DACA and the travel benefit ended, her trip was cancelled.
It would have been the first time she’d seen her mother, who had returned to Mexico after being separated from Hernandez’s father, since she was 18.
Last year, Hernandez was finally able to visit. At the beginning of this year she went back for two months.
She explored what her life might look like if she moved there. She attended the National Autonomous University of Mexico and was shocked to learn that the tuition is free. She imagined 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. “Then it kind of occurred to me: I can live here.”
When she returned to the US, Hernandez said she felt trapped. She started saving money and asked her father, who also lives in Los Angeles, to sell her his house near Mexico City. She told her friends about her plan.
Hernandez said she feels happy with a job she loves, a career she’s excited about, and an overall happy life. But she misses her mother and younger brother in Mexico.
“I feel like I’ve done my part,” she said. “I’ve been a good citizen, I’ve done things right, and yet I’m here 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 working has increased the opportunity for many people to live far from their jobs. But for DACA recipients, multiple complicating factors must be considered when deciding to leave the US, including costs, the possibility of a job transfer, personal connections to the other country, and whether the recipient has US-born children or another family. has to take into account.
Another important factor is whether a recipient is able to return to the US to visit loved ones. Immigrants who leave the US after entering without authorization will be punished. For example, a person who has lived in the US for six months to a year will not be allowed to return for three years, and someone who stays for more than a year will be banned for ten years. For the most part, Gelatt said, Dreamers have stayed in the US
Wahabzada is one of the victims of 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 DC and continue her remote work for a global development agency. She said it is a privilege to keep her job and stay in the same time zone in a city where she has an extended family.
Before leaving, she wrote an opinion piece in the New York Times. The headline: “No need to deport me. The dream of this dreamer is dead.”
“I was so jaded at the time,” she said. “A lot of my friends said, ‘You’re leaving just before the election – what if something happens after that?’ 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 turned himself off and contacted him. It was Hong who moved to Spain.
Hong became a DACA recipient in his senior year of college at the State University of New York at Binghamton, where he studied finance. He got a job with a life insurance company and felt that he could finally start building a successful future. But when Trump decided to end the program, he said, “That’s when I realized for the first time that I can’t control my life.”
Hong had considered pursuing a master’s degree in the US, 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 otherwise have paid.
When he realized he didn’t know anyone else in his situation, his feet got cold and he postponed his registration for a year. Then he read Wahabzada’s opinion piece, which gave him the confidence he needed to leave.
Hong said he was happy to now be able to support others. But his sense of accomplishment is mixed with uneasiness.
“Every time I go to Facebook and see a notification that someone wants to join our group, it’s really sad,” he said.
“Usually it’s something to be happy about when the number of followers increases. Not for this one. We know exactly what that feels like.”