Karina Palestina, 30, spends her days coordinating after-school care with the Park City, Utah, school district, but she dreams of a studying for a master’s degree in higher education. Holding her back is the uncertainty around Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), a 2012 policy that allows qualifying undocumented immigrants who were brought to the country as children to defer deportation for renewable two-year periods and to work legally in the United States. President Donald Trump announced in September 2017 that the administration would phase out DACA by March 2018 unless Congress takes action. That leaves 1.3 million DACA-eligible young adults like Palestina unable to plan for the future. “Right now I’m worried. Who knows where graduate school fits in?” she says. She also would like to marry her partner of three years, an immigrant from Peru, but is concerned that would derail her application for permanent residency that her father set in motion some 17 years ago.
DACA has given me the chance to grow in my professional life and serve my community.
Palestina’s immigration story is unusual because she has already applied for legal status. Although her father was granted amnesty in 1986 as part of sweeping immigration legislation signed by former President Ronald Reagan, he didn’t file paperwork for his wife and children until 2000. He had planned to raise his family in Mexico, but traveling between Mexico and San Diego, where he worked as an auto mechanic, became too taxing. So when Palestina was 13, he moved the family to Salt Lake City. “My mother and younger brother are already residents, but me and my older sister were put on a different list because we turned 21 after it was filed,” Palestina says. “We’re still waiting, and our lawyer told us the immigration office is still making its way through a long backlog of applications.”
With her residency application pending, DACA is the only thing keeping Palestina secure in the United States. It’s also the only thing that allows Utah’s 13,600 DACA recipients to remain in their jobs, their schools, and with their families. Palestina has a 5-year-old daughter who was born in the United States. “If I don’t have some kind of legal authorization, I would live in terror of being at risk of being deported. I can’t even imagine that,” she says.
Prior to DACA’s implementation, Palestina was able to take advantage of a Utah law that allows qualifying undocumented immigrants to receive in-state tuition at Utah public colleges and universities, and she earned a bachelor’s degree in human development and family studies. But she would not have been able to work after graduation without DACA. Ninety percent of the DACA-eligible population 16 years old and older are employed, and combined these Dreamers pay $3 billion in taxes every year. For Palestina, DACA was implemented in time for her to start a job at Holy Cross Ministries, where she manages after-care. “DACA has given me the chance to grow in my professional life and serve my community,” she says.
Yet what surprised Palestina most about DACA was the psychological boost. “You have no idea how good it felt to get a Social Security number and have the same opportunities as other people. It made me feel normal,” she says. “I just want to be able to contribute and feel like I belong to society.”