Yoni Espinoza says he was just 6 years old when his mother told him that they were going to go on a “long, long walk.”
He says he had no idea the trek would be a three-day journey through excruciatingly hot days and numbingly cold nights across the U.S.-Mexico border.
“We just kept walking,” he said. “For some stretches, I walked. For other ones she carried me …. We just kept moving.”
Espinoza and his mother were fleeing the Chiapas Conflict, what he equated to a “small civil war” in the Mexican state in the ’90s. They were hoping to start a new life in the United States.
Today, Espinoza is a father, an older brother, a loyal partner, a college graduate and, in his eyes, an American.
“If you ask me if I’d ever leave to live in Mexico, I’d say ‘no,’” he said. “I am Mexican, but I’ve lived here my entire life. Everything I know is here. This is my home.”
In the eyes of the U.S. government, however, Espinoza is stuck in limbo with roughly 800,000 other people living in the country.
A recipient of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, Espinoza, 27, can call the U.S. home, but he can’t officially say it’s his home country. And realizing his dream of becoming a first responder is out of the question too, as being sworn in as a firefighter or police officer requires U.S. citizenship at most departments.
But with former Vice President Joe Biden, who championed DACA on the campaign trail, set to step into the White House next year, Espinoza says he has a new resolve that in the near future he will be able to do all of that and more.
“There’s hope for us that wasn’t there before,” he said. “[Biden’s presidency is] going to open more doors for us, for the DREAMers.”
WHAT IS DACA?
In short, DACA is an immigration policy established by then-President Barack Obama in 2012 that allows certain undocumented people to temporarily avoid deportation and obtain work permits if they were brought to the U.S. as children at age 16 or younger.
Since its inception, the program has often been used interchangeably with the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act, also known as the DREAM Act, a bill introduced in 2001 that has for two decades not received enough legislative support to become law.
Much of the DREAM Act—which spurred the DREAMers movement and moniker still around today—is embedded in DACA, except for one very important aspect, says Matthew Wisner: a path to citizenship.
“For a lot of these recipients, [to become a citizen] is something that they’ve always wanted,” said Wisner, the directing attorney for the Community Action Board’s Immigration Project.
Wisner said the Immigration Project serves a “tremendous” number of DACA recipients and other immigrants of various statuses throughout Santa Cruz County. Many of those DACA recipients, he said, are young adults in the workforce or in higher education who “don’t know any other home.”
Nationally, that is also the case. Numerous surveys, reports and studies have found that the program benefits the economy, and that recipients have reached higher levels of education and higher salaries than those not in the program. Employment levels for DACA recipients have held steady at more than 90%, according to a report from the Committee on Small Business. The Center for American Progress said that their deportation would cost the country more than $400 billion over 10 years.
“This election was really consequential,” Wisner said. “We were kind of at a crossroad for this large population of our community.”
THE LAST FOUR YEARS
President Donald Trump moved to scrap the program, which he called illegal and unconstitutional, during his first year in office, but that move was rejected by the Supreme Court earlier this year.
Though that decision was tabbed as a major victory for DACA recipients, the Trump administration following that ruling announced that it would no longer be accepting new applications, and that it would reduce the renewal period from two years to one and reject most requests from recipients to travel outside of the country.
The decision by the current administration to undermine the Supreme Court’s ruling was not surprising, says Doug Keegan, Wisner’s predecessor who retired from his post on Nov. 1.
Trump’s tough stance on immigration and brash attacks on programs such as DACA, Keegan says, often left the Immigration Project scrambling to assure the numerous immigrants they serve that they were safe and that their status would not be affected. Biden’s win, he said, will alleviate some of those anxieties.
“It was like putting out fires every day,” he said. “It was exhausting for us, and you can imagine it was stressful for the people we serve.”
Both Wisner and Keegan say Biden can quickly overturn many of Trump’s more than 400 immigration policy changes with executive actions. Restoring DACA fully, they both said, should be at the top of Biden’s priority list when he enters office.
The president-elect has said he will do that and more. The Biden campaign said that DREAMers and their parents should have a path to citizenship through legislative immigration reform. It also said that Biden will ensure DREAMers are eligible for federal student aid and are provided access to community college without debt. His campaign also said he would invest in historically Black colleges and universities, Hispanic-serving institutions and minority-serving institutions, “which will help DREAMers contribute even more to our economy.”
The former of those plans, Keegan said, will be a much tougher task.
“Those are easy fixes that he can do with executive actions,” he said. “Lobbying Congress to address immigration reform, that’s much harder.”
HOLDING OUT ‘HOPE’
Espinoza says he realizes that his path to citizenship might not be realized for some time.
“But I’m hopeful,” he said. “I hope to be a citizen before I’m 35.”
His optimistic outlook on his situation comes from seeing his family’s success. He has two younger sisters, Yvette, 16, and Kimberly, 11, who he says excel in school, and have no immigration status limitations placed upon them.
His younger brother, Angel Luis Hernandez, 19, was a star soccer player at Watsonville High School—his alma mater—and now plays at Hartnell College in Salinas. Espinoza said his brother is thinking of becoming a police officer after college. He says he hopes that one day he can join his younger brother as a first responder.
“I want to help my community,” he said.
And he says becoming a U.S. citizen would assure him that he will never be torn apart from his 1-year-old daughter, Sofia.
Espinoza says he plans to get married to his partner of 10 years, Yesenia Lara, and begin the “naturalization process” that way. There is no guarantee that he will receive a marriage-based green card, but he says that will not stop him from trying.
“I’m going to keep going—I’m going to keep moving,” he said. “You can’t give up hope.”