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‘A Little Light Of Hope:’ Illinois College Students With DACA Status Reflect On Supreme Court Ruling

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Researchers estimate there are more than 200,000 students with temporary legal protection under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, also known as DACA. Last week, the Supreme Court ruled against an effort by the Trump administration to end the program, but the court left open the possibility that the program could still be rescinded. 

Illinois Newsroom reporter Lee Gaines recently spoke to several college and graduate students with DACA status, including Carlos, a senior at Dominican University, Julia, a PhD student in Chicago, and Blanca, a graduate student at Northeastern Illinois University in Chicago. Lucia Volkova, an undergraduate at NEIU, responded to questions via email.  The students reflected on how DACA has changed their lives, and what the Supreme Court ruling means for them personally. 

The following interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. Illinois Newsroom isn’t using every interviewee’s full name because some of their family members are undocumented. 

Carlos: My family came to the U.S. when I was four years old. And I’ve always been aware of being undocumented. My family never hid that from me. I have two older siblings who both have DACA. And I remember those conversations happening inside my home. And I remember my moms talking to my older sister. And when she first got DACA, they asked her: how do you feel? And my older sister said ‘you know, I feel like I exist.’ And she was 18 at the time, and  it was very powerful to hear her say that, like she felt like she existed because I saw her really struggle.

Lucia Volkova is a DACA recipient and an undergraduate student at Northeastern Illinois University.

Lucia: My brother and I were brought to the U.S. from Slovakia by our mother on a visitor visa in 1999. I was almost six. As the visa might suggest, we thought we were visiting – as did our father, who remains in Slovakia with the rest of our family to this day. But our mother had different plans; several days after our arrival in Chicago, she informed everyone that we would not be returning home. I knew from an early age about my immigration status. My mother instilled a fear in me of what might happen if I didn’t keep our secret. I wouldn’t begin to realize until over a decade later the psychological toll of growing up while being treated like, and believing that, my mere existence is ‘illegal.’

Blanca: I think DACA status gives us life. I think a lot of DACA recipients, those that have been blessed with this opportunity, can say that DACA allows you to live a life here. It allows you to drive legally, to have a license. It allows you to be able to work. And through work, I’ve been able to get tuition reimbursement for my school.  I think it’s a trickle down effect of a really, really good thing that happened, and then it just opened so many doors for you.

Blanca is a DACA recipient and a graduate student at Northeastern Illinois University in Chicago.

Carlos: Before I had DACA, I was working at a restaurant as a waiter. And I remember being pushed down by the owner of the restaurant. I remember her saying that, it’s this or a factory. She weaponized the fact that I was undocumented and that other workers were undocumented. And it wasn’t until I got my worker authorization through DACA, and I was able to work here at the university where I was able to really feel like I’m worth more than what my previous employer told me I was worth. I can do so much more, and I can values myself as a person.

Lucia: Without DACA, I would be unable to even work for my survival. Other than self-deportation, the options would’ve been turning to criminal activity or homelessness or both. That realization is appalling, and I truly wish Americans saw DACA not as a political issue or bargaining chip, but as a humanitarian one.

Julia: When the (2016) election happened, and in the following year when there was the announcement to end DACA, it really hit me how temporary and how unstable DACA status really is. That my entire life could fall apart, could change or it could keep going just based on a government decision, an executive order – that was really frustrating. It really hit me that it didn’t matter how hard I was working or pursuing my doctorate. It didn’t matter that I was a good person. It didn’t matter because that government decision could take it all away. And that was so frustrating. 

Carlos: I woke up and I looked at my phone first just because I knew that (Supreme Court) decision maybe was coming. And I saw a bunch of text messages. First thing, my heart dropped just because I expected the worst. But then I opened (my phone) and it was a bunch of people sending me emojis, my bosses, some of my friends. And then I saw that SCOTUS had ruled against Trump’s decision to rescind DACA, and I just felt so elated. I was really, really happy. So I went back to sleep as a little celebration. I could calmly sleep. 

Lucia: Like many others, I have given up on the idea of a permanent and stable life in the United States, at least in the near future. I plan on returning to Europe in the next couple years and pursuing graduate school there… I am tired of being chained down and limited by something so arbitrary – a geographical issue that would completely vanish if I just crossed the Atlantic. I’m ready to say goodbye to my ‘home.’

Julia: I almost feel guilty because I feel like I should be happier about it. And obviously I am happy, but I think I’m so desensitized by this point. I’m so tired of constantly going back and forth that after feeling relieved, I just felt tired.

Blanca: With this now, I feel like I can continue my dreams and it’s a little light of hope that keeps me pushing forward. We don’t give up, and when I saw ‘we,’ I’m talking about the DACA community. Just because I know so many DACAs and we’re all kind of feeling the same way: just knowing that this is a little step that could help us and that it brings everyone together. Because there’s still a lot of work to do. And I think this is a good time to stand up and to advocate for ourselves, and to really try to get a permanent solution passed, and to spread awareness of how important DACA is and how important immigration reform is.

Follow Lee Gaines on Twitter: @LeeVGaines

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Lee V. Gaines

Lee V. Gaines

Lee Gaines covers Education for the Illinois Newsroom. She started at Illinois Public Media in 2017 and her stories have been featured nationally on NPR. Prior to her work at IPM, Lee wrote for newspapers and magazines in Chicago and nationally. Her work has appeared in the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Reader, Chicago Magazine, and the Marshall Project. She also recently completed a fellowship with the Education Writers Association. ➤ lvgaines@illinois.edu@LeeVGaines

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