When the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program was terminated by President Donald Trump’s administration in 2017, the estimated 150 undocumented students at Loyola said they grew fearful of the uncertain future before them, including DACA recipients Fernanda Herrera Vera and Cesar Montelongo Hernandez.
About two years later, Vera and Hernandez found themselves at the United States Supreme Court in Washington D.C. Nov. 12 listening to arguments surrounding the legality of the decision to end DACA.
DACA was established by former President Barack Obama and allowed “Dreamers” — people such as Vera and Hernandez who came to the United States before the age of 16 or were 31 or younger before DACA began — to work and study in the United States without fear of deportation, The Phoenix reported.
Loyola’s Stritch School of Medicine became the first medical school in the United States to publicly welcome applications from DACA students in 2014, according to Stritch’s website. Hernandez is among the DACA applicants the school has accepted since then.
Hernandez said his passion toward medicine began at the age of seven when he watched as his father grew ill, and said he wanted nothing more than to be able to heal him. However, given that he’s had an undocumented status since he came to the United States from Mexico at the age of 10, Hernandez said medical school felt “more or less impossible” as he grew older.
“Without DACA, I wouldn’t have been able to apply at all, much less be admitted into medical school,” Hernandez said.
Vera, who’s a student at Loyola’s School of Law and came to the United States from Mexico at the age of two, said it was surreal to be so close to the nine Supreme Court justices. She said going to the Supreme Court was an “opportunity to make her parents proud” and serve as a representative for the entire immigrant community.
“[The nine justices] held my life and that of over 700,000 others at the tip of their pens,” Vera said.
Phil Hale, the vice president for government affairs at Loyola, said the university used its connections through the School of Law and Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin’s office to reserve seats for Vera and Hernandez at the Supreme Court.
Even after multiple flight cancellations due to “nightmarish weather,” Vera and Hernandez were “bound and determined” to get to those seats, Hale said.
Hale also attended the Supreme Court arguments and said he thinks it’s likely the court will rule in favor of the Trump administration and DACA’s termination will be solidified.
Hernandez said while the justices appeared to agree upon the value of DACA, he also thinks they will determine DACA was overturned legally. However, he said sometimes it’s important to look beyond the legality of an issue.
“[The Trump administration] is introducing a lot of stress and uncertainty into thousands of peoples’ lives for no other reason than to make a political statement,” Hernandez said.
Without the work authorization DACA provides, undocumented students are excluded from opportunities such as law school, medical school and employment with an undergraduate degree, Vera said. Vera’s own work permit arrived just two weeks before her college application was due for Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama, she said.
“DACA has helped me find a voice, and it has shown me the power of youth activism,” Vera said.
During the 2016 presidential campaign, Trump promised to overturn DACA and other Obama-era immigration policies, The Phoenix reported. Obama’s decision to grant protection to Dreamers is an executive action Trump portrayed as unconstitutional, The Phoenix reported.
Hale said while he doesn’t want the court to rule in favor of the administration, it may provide the “sense of urgency” Congress needs to pass the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act. The possibility of passing the DREAM Act is “really the only silver lining” to the termination of DACA, he said. Hale said Loyola has supported the DREAM Act for many years and he has worked with Durbin to get it passed.
The latest version of the DREAM Act, the DREAM and Promise Act of 2019, was passed by the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives June 5, according to the Act. This version of the DREAM Act would give undocumented immigrants who came to the United States before the age of 18 — including DACA recipients — the chance to obtain permanent resident statuses, the Act reads.
“Without Congress’ action on this matter, many [undocumented people] will be unable to live their full potential in the country they’ve known their entire lives,” Vera said.