Posted on November 17, 2022

DACA Recipients Are Leaving the U.S., Disheartened by Years of Instability

Andrea Castillo, Los Angeles Times, November 12, 2022

Tawheeda Wahabzada was tired of hoping she would ever have a permanent place in the country that had been home for nearly her entire life. So in February 2020, after hosting a “self-deportation party” where she said goodbye to her friends and family, she left the U.S.

Wahabzada, 32, moved to Toronto, where she was born to Afghan refugee parents before they joined extended family in Nevada, where she grew up.

She thought starting over would be exciting, that she’d be busy making new friends, exploring her new surroundings and traveling. Instead, the pandemic shutdown kept her indoors and Wahabzada had to face the full weight of her decision. Lonely and isolated, she wanted to make sure others in her position wouldn’t have the same experience.

“I basically had to confront the consequences,” she said. “But I made myself a promise: If I’m 30 and I still have DACA, I’m going to leave. I can’t wait for an idea. I spent my 20s in this survival mindset and I couldn’t really enjoy life.”

Since 2012, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals has protected from deportation more than 800,000 immigrants brought to the U.S. as children, allowing them to work, drive and travel legally. But the program, which now has fewer than 600,000 enrollees, never offered a pathway to citizenship. It was “a temporary stopgap measure,” then-President Obama said when he introduced DACA in 2012.

A decade later, the program and the lives of many of its enrollees are hanging by a thread. A small but growing number of DACA recipients, disheartened after years of instability, are voluntarily moving to countries where they can acquire permanent legal status. Some, like Wahabzada, are going back to where they were born; others have transferred jobs or applied for student programs in unfamiliar places.

Last year, Wahabzada connected with two other former “Dreamers”: Monsy Hernandez, who now lives in Germany, and Eun Suk “Jason” Hong, who lives in Spain. Together they formed ONWARD, or Our Network for the Wellbeing and Advancement of Relocated Dreamers. On Facebook, the support group has gained several hundred followers since its inception.


Requirements regarding age, when the person arrived in the U.S., education and criminal history excluded many immigrants when the program initially rolled out. More than 100,000 others have come of age without benefits because they were too young to qualify before DACA became embroiled in litigation and court rulings prevented additional first-time applicants, limiting the program to renewals.

Last month, a federal appeals court affirmed an earlier decision in Texas by U.S. District Judge Andrew Hanen, a George W. Bush appointee, that found DACA to be illegal. But the ruling kept the protections in place as a lawsuit challenging the program was sent back to the lower court for further proceedings.

The case is anticipated to reach the Supreme Court, where legal experts believe the conservative majority will also rule that the program is illegal.

DACA earlier withstood the Trump administration’s effort to end it when the Supreme Court ruled in 2020 that the administration had failed to follow proper procedure to do so.

Meanwhile, the program’s beneficiaries have been on an emotional roller coaster, closely following each court hearing and ruling, and breathing sighs of relief every time the program survives another day. Negotiations on congressional efforts to establish permanent residency for DACA recipients haven’t advanced.


Roberto Gonzales, a sociology professor at the University of Pennsylvania who has extensively studied DACA, said beneficiaries are frustrated that while the program provided the possibility of upward mobility, their legal status has remained unchanged.


Gonzales, who has tracked the experiences of 500 DACA recipients since 2013, said the calculus has changed with the imminent threat that the program could end. Many have told him they are contemplating two separate futures — one in the U.S. and one elsewhere. A few people have already left.


Selene Hernandez, 33, is among those considering a move. Hernandez, who is in a master’s program at Cal State Fullerton and hopes to become a marriage and family therapist, said it’s highly likely that she’ll move back to Mexico within a couple of years of graduating.


The first time she considered leaving was in 2017. She had applied for a study abroad program through advance parole — a provision under DACA that allows beneficiaries to travel legally for school, work or humanitarian reasons — but when Trump terminated DACA and ended the travel benefit, her trip was canceled.

It would’ve been her first time seeing her mother, who had returned to Mexico after she divorced Hernandez’s father, since she was 18.

Last year, Hernandez finally was able to visit. Earlier this year, she went back again for two months.

She researched what her life could look like if she moved there. She visited the National Autonomous University of Mexico and was shocked to learn tuition is free. She pictured herself opening a therapy practice.

“I felt free. This is my country, this is where I was born, these are my people, they speak my language. It just felt very much like home,” she said. {snip}