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As DACA turns 10, some recipients are split between celebration and frustration


Ten years ago today, the Obama administration announced a new program to protect a certain group of immigrants from deportation. That program was Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, meant to help young people brought to this country as children, so-called Dreamers. Here's former President Obama.


BARACK OBAMA: Over the next few months, eligible individuals who do not present a risk to national security or public safety will be able to request temporary relief from deportation proceedings and apply for work authorization.

KELLY: Now, DACA was supposed to be temporary, an executive action while Congress worked up legislation. But 10 years later, that legislation has not passed. The Trump administration tried to end DACA entirely. And today, the program only accepts renewals, not new applications. That means the original DACA recipients still have only temporary protected status in the country where they have lived most of their lives.

Diana Pliego and Esder Chong know this well as DACA recipients. Both became immigration advocates, and today, Diana works for the National Immigration Law Center. Welcome to you both.

DIANA PLIEGO: Hi. Thank you for having us.

ESDER CHONG: Thank you.

KELLY: Diana, I'm going to start with you, and it's a pretty simple question, which is - just 10 years. I mean, it's a big anniversary, and I wonder how it feels to you. Are you celebrating?

PLIEGO: Yeah. I think it's definitely a bit of a loaded question because in a lot of ways, yeah, it's a celebration, the fact that we still have DACA after the years under the Trump administration where there were folks who did everything in their power to eliminate it, and we're still here. So it is actually, in a way, a big celebration of the movement that got us DACA and this really big victory that changed our lives for the better in so many ways.

But at the same time, I think it's conflicted feelings, at least for me because, as you mentioned, it was never meant to be a permanent solution. It was temporary and it continues to be temporary. The past 10 years, I've kind of had to live my life in two-year increments, not knowing if one day someone is going to take this away from me. So...

KELLY: The two-year increments, this is - you have to renew and re-up every two years.

PLIEGO: Yeah, the protections from deportation and the work permit won't be granted for longer than two years. Exactly.

KELLY: Yeah. So you're in very much temporary status, in limbo.

Esder, I want to put the same question to you. And people listening may be able to hear some noise behind you. I think I can share your plans for this anniversary day, which is you're traveling so that you can attend a rally for the anniversary. Tell me how you're feeling on this anniversary day.

CHONG: I definitely echo what Diana was saying, especially on living in two-year increments - very realistic. But I think this word celebration doesn't resonate with me. I'm more conflicted and frustrated, if anything. And to me, DACA's 10th anniversary is not one that should call for celebration. And I think about how it's already been 10 years with no federal legislative action to address the 10.5 million undocumented immigrants in the country and the fact that it was never intended to be a permanent fix to address our undocumented population. And so - and not to mention that the past five years has been under threat, right? And so it's not really a celebratory mood on my end.

KELLY: Would you take me back to the moment 10 years ago when you found out about this program, where you were, what went through your mind?

CHONG: Yeah, I think I was a sophomore in high school. Our parents, I think, broke the news to us, but they were very skeptical at first, as many undocumented parents were, I think, at the time. But I think it was an answer to our prayers because our older sister was going to college soon. And so we went ahead and applied for DACA. And I think the implications of DACA on our family was very evident over the past 10 years, especially in terms of our academic and professional opportunities that were presented to us.

KELLY: Because you could continue your education in a way that you might not have been able to do?

CHONG: Yeah, my bachelor's, my two master's, but beyond that, too - right? - like internships, fellowships, jobs.

KELLY: Yeah. Diana, how about you? What was the most significant change that DACA brought to your life?

PLIEGO: Yeah. I mean, I think for me, it was also education and job opportunity, right? For me in particular, you know, I was 17 turning on 18 the summer before college. And in South Carolina, where I was going to college, undocumented students are explicitly barred from attending institutions of higher education. And so I had worked really hard to find a school that was private and got a full tuition scholarship. But for me, that was still not enough because my family of six was still barely making ends meet. And so just to pay room and board was going to be a challenge.

And so it allowed me and my siblings to work even while, you know, they were in high school. It allowed us to support the household and also pay for my room and board. Without it, I wouldn't have even made it to my second year of college, much less graduate.

KELLY: I'm sure. Both of you, I know, have organized, have fought for a better system. You've organized young immigrants on your campuses as undergrads. Do you hold out hope for a permanent path, for a permanent solution? Diana?

PLIEGO: I do have hope because at the end of the day, when I look back, DACA was born out of hope that turned into action. And that created the reality that we have now. And even though we know that DACA isn't enough, we wouldn't have DACA if there were people out there who had the hope that we could get something. And so even though it's an uphill battle, I do believe that if we continue to organize as a people, if we continue to be as resilient as we've been and organize and speak up, that eventually, we will get - and hopefully sooner rather than later, right? - the permanent solution that we have been calling for and that I think our entire community deserves and has deserved for a long time.

KELLY: And Esder, I'll give you last word.

CHONG: Yeah. I - again, conflicted with this question because hope for whom and a pathway to permanent residency, citizenship for whom? And I think I'm not trying to deny the impact DACA had on thousands of undocumented Americans. And it was successful as a program, and hence it endured for this long with a strong legacy. But the program had a transformative effect on a select number of immigrants - right? - to, I would argue, the most marketable in our undocumented community at large.

And so I think when we talk about a permanent pathway to security and safety and belonging, I really want to turn our attention to those who are not in the conversation this week, which is, like, 90-something percent of the undocumented population without DACA. And Congress has no plan. Immigrant rights organizations, I think, are divided on messaging and advocacy methods. And so when we talk about pathways, permanent solution to belonging, we need to include the 10.5 million.

KELLY: We have been speaking with Esder Chong, who came to the U.S. with her family from South Korea, and Diana Pliego, who came to the U.S. with her family from Mexico. Both are DACA recipients, and they've been talking with us on this, the 10th anniversary of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. Thank you both very much.

CHONG: Thank you.

PLIEGO: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.
Alejandra Marquez Janse
Alejandra Marquez Janse is a producer for NPR's evening news program All Things Considered. She was part of a team that traveled to Uvalde, Texas, months after the mass shooting at Robb Elementary to cover its impact on the community. She also helped script and produce NPR's first bilingual special coverage of the State of the Union – broadcast in Spanish and English.