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A decade of dreaming

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The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program provides temporary legal protection to children who immigrated to the United States without papers. Many are accompanied by their relocating families, too young to understand or even remember the journey or the home countries they left behind. Established in 2012, the DACA program has protected 1.8 million people from deportation, allowing them to work and live in the United States legally—giving them access to a driver’s license, social security number, and work permit. However, the track to even that temporary administrative relief has become increasingly difficult to navigate in recent years. Ten years into the program, only a small fraction of those eligible are enrolled.

To better understand the life of a DACA recipient, we sat down with Luana Rodrigues Dos Santos ’22, a recent UMass grad who immigrated here from Brazil with her family at age four.

How would your life be different if DACA didn’t exist?

I definitely wouldn’t have been able to attend a four-year university. Even with DACA, when I was applying to colleges, there were a lot of misunderstandings, and I was told by some that they wouldn’t accept me because they only accept permanent residents or citizens. I would have had even more closed doors.

What’s changed since you first enrolled?

The whole process has changed dramatically. When DACA started, I had to renew it every two years and it’s expensive, trying to find $1,000 out of nowhere. In 2020, Trump instituted a policy so that you had to renew it every year. And on top of that, if you didn’t renew in time, you couldn’t even reapply. They weren’t accepting new applications. So, if I didn’t renew in time, I would not have been able to stay in the United States.

How did you manage to renew?

I wasn’t able to attend classes a lot because I was working to come up with the money to renew my DACA status … I emailed my physics professor to say I was sorry for my attendance and my grades dropping. I told him my situation, and he ended up setting up an online fundraiser for me. Within two days, I had what I needed. I was just super grateful for it—and the kindness of his heart.

What do you want people to know?

The biggest question I get is, “Well, why don’t you just get a green card?” A lot of people do not understand immigration. It’s a very broken system, especially now. There is no pathway to a green card or citizenship from DACA. The only way I can get it is if a new law opens up or I get married to somebody who is already a citizen.

Dos Santos graduated in the spring and plans to become a neurologist or neurosurgeon. Though there was talk of establishing a new pathway to citizenship for DACA beneficiaries in the 2020 presidential campaigns, no new policies have been announced as of this writing.

Legal limbo

The Student Legal Services Office (SLSO) offers free services from licensed attorneys. However, since DACA recipients aren’t identified in the database, students must self-identify to receive help—a proposition that is understandably met with trepidation. DACA students are not considered domestic students because they have no legal status in the United States. But they are also not international students, since they have no visa. Fortunately, because the SLSO is an actual law office, attorney-client privilege pertains—a distinction that few universities offer.

DACA recipients are not eligible for any federal financial aid. Recognizing this, UMass Amherst established the Angel Fund in 2017 to assist individuals adversely affected by federal immigration policy. The fund has disbursed nearly $10,000 so far.