ENID, Okla. — Maria Lopez, from her earliest memories, has considered herself American, and has called Enid her home.
The 23-year-old has lived in Enid since she was a baby. She graduated from Autry Technology Center and currently serves on two boards and is an employee at Autry, while enrolled as a student at Northern Oklahoma College Enid, soon to transfer to Oklahoma State University.
But, in spite of her contributions to the community, Lopez’s future in Enid, and in the United States, is uncertain.
The March 5 deadline for Congressional action passed without any resolution, but court injunctions have temporarily forestalled ending DACA.
Lopez is one of almost 7,000 people in Oklahoma, and almost 800,000 in the United States, who have received protected status under Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), according to figures from the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services.
DACA is a 2012 law that allowed undocumented immigrants who were brought to America as children, and who did not have felony criminal records, to register for a renewable two-year deferment of any immigration action against them, and to receive a Social Security number and the ability to obtain a driver’s license and to legally work in the United States.
The Obama-era program was rescinded last fall by President Trump, with a March 5 deadline for Congress to pass a revision or replacement. That deadline passed with no Congressional action, and two appeals in federal courts now hold the program in limbo.
DACA has enabled Lopez to work and live in her hometown, and to pursue her dream of becoming a teacher.
But, as a child, Lopez said she didn’t even know she’d need a special status to live and work in America. Her parents brought her from Mexico when she was 6 months old, and as a child she didn’t know what it meant to be undocumented.
“Growing up was definitely tough, because I didn’t understand the concept of what it was to be an immigrant until I was older,” Lopez said. “In high school it was hard, because people started taking driver’s ed, and applying for scholarships, and as I got older I realized you needed that Social Security number for everything.”
Lopez said it was disheartening to learn that all her hard work in school might not lead to a career, because she didn’t have a legal status in America.
“Without DACA, I was basically nobody here,” she said. “I didn’t know if I’d ever be able to drive, because I didn’t have my Social Security number. At a certain point I got really disappointed because I didn’t know if any of my efforts would ever be worth anything.”
Now, with the future of DACA uncertain, Lopez again fears her work to build a life in America might be for naught.
Sarahi Dowell, of Pond Creek, also is waiting to see what Congress and the courts do with DACA, and its recipients.
Dowell came with her mother to the United States from Mexico when she was 9 years old. She said she wasn’t old enough to fully understand what it meant to move to America.
“I didn’t really understand that we were moving, not just a state away or to another house, that it was to another country,” she said. “I didn’t understand why we were hiding all the time. I had to leave all my clothes and my toys, and I didn’t understand why we couldn’t take them with us.”
Dowell said the Pond Creek community always has been supportive of her and her family, and she had a school experience at Pond Creek-Hunter schools much like her American-born peers.
But, as she approached graduation, questions mounted about how she’d obtain a driver’s license or a career after school without a Social Security number.
Those concerns were alleviated with passage of DACA. Dowell applied for the program in 2013, and after a year of paperwork and application fees she was approved in late 2014.
Her DACA status allowed Dowell to obtain a driver’s license, and after graduating from high school she took a job as an assistant in a dental office, and is attending Northern Oklahoma College part-time to become a dental hygienist.
Since DACA recipients do not qualify for federal financial aid, Dowell has been working full time and putting herself through school.
“All DACA does is allows us to legally work here, and to have a driver’s license,” she said.
Although DACA recipients have a temporary Social Security number, and pay taxes into state and federal coffers, they are not eligible for Medicaid, federal housing assistance, food stamps or other welfare programs.
Even being married to a United States citizen doesn’t give a DACA recipient a definite path to citizenship, or even to remain in the country if DACA isn’t renewed or replaced.
In 2015, Dowell married her husband, Bryan, a native of Lamont and a U.S. citizen, but her immigration struggles continue.
“The biggest misconception people have is that when you marry a United States citizen, you become a U. S. citizen,” Dowell said. “It’s not like that at all.”
Since being approved for DACA in 2014, Dowell, like all DACA recipients, has had to renew her status every two years.
Each of those renewals requires significant paperwork and cost.
Dowell said the initial DACA application cost about $2,000 in immigration and legal fees. Each renewal costs about $1,500.
She has started the application process for legal residency in the United States, under a petition and waiver process sponsored by her husband.
The legal residency application will cost about $8,000 — if it’s approved — and likely won’t be determined until early 2019.
That means if DACA isn’t renewed or replaced in 2018, depending on what happens in the courts, she could face immigration action, in spite of her history of working, attending school, paying taxes and being married to a U. S. citizen.
Like Dowell, Lopez has been paying her own way through school, while saving up money for a DACA renewal she hopes will happen.
Lopez said the administrative and legal fees are expensive, but worth it — if they mean she can stay and work in the community she calls home.
“Honestly it’s a small price to pay to be here,” Lopez said, “but when that price doesn’t guarantee your right to be here, that’s when it gets kind of aggravating.”
She fears working to build a life, and spending the time and money on DACA renewals, only to end up being deported.
“Even though you spend all this money, you don’t know if you’ll be approved, and that’s what’s terrifying — you could spend thousands of dollars just for the government to tell you ‘No, we don’t want you,’” Lopez said.
“It’s terrifying,” she added. “I try to be a good citizen, and if they call tomorrow and say ‘Hey, this is going away and you have to go to Mexico,’ I don’t have a home in Mexico. Ever since we were in kindergarten, we were taught to be a good citizen and to contribute to society, and I’ve always tried to live by those morals, and it feels like now we’re going to be punished because we weren’t born here.”
For now, Dowell, Lopez and their fellow DACA recipients are hoping Congress or the courts will provide a path to renew their DACA status.
“I would like for something to happen, to either let us renew it or replace it with something else,” Dowell said, “mostly for those of us who are going to school and working.”
If DACA isn’t renewed or replaced in time for her, Dowell isn’t sure what would happen next.
“I won’t be able to work,” she said. “My driver’s license will expire, I won’t be able to drive, I won’t be able to attend school. I would have to just sit at home and just wait. Since I’ve started the process to my residency, I don’t know if they’d come to my door or send me a letter ... it’s just a waiting process.”
That waiting takes a toll, Dowell said, since for most of her life, she’s considered herself American.
“I would consider myself more American than Mexican,” Dowell said. “I still have my entire family in Mexico, and I love them dearly, but I speak more English than Spanish.”
If she had to return to Mexico, Dowell said it would mean starting her life over — even relearning to speak her native language.
“I would speak Spanish like a third grader — like when I left,” she said. “I grew up American. That’s what I consider myself.”
While Congress and the courts weigh options for DACA, Lopez hopes people will take time to get to know the DACA recipients in their communities.
“I think people just need to research before they judge or assume,” she said. “I just want people to know DACA recipients are chosen because of all their good qualities and the good things they’ve achieved. We don’t have criminal records. We haven’t broken the law.”
If DACA isn’t renewed or replaced, Lopez said Enid and other American communities are going to lose contributing, law-abiding members who want to be productive members of our society.
“The top recipients of DACA are the best of the best,” she said, “and if DACA ever goes away, you’re going to get rid of the best and keep what didn’t get approved.”
Like native-born citizens, Dowell said DACA recipients didn’t have a choice of where they were born, or where their parents moved them.
“We’re not bad people,” Dowell said. “We were kids, and we didn’t have any other choice. We were told we were moving, and we followed our parents.”