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“This sort of weird torture is over”: Colorado DACA recipients on their hopes, fears after Supreme Court ruling

The Colorado Sun spoke to several Colorado DACA recipients on Thursday to gauge their reactions -- and feelings about the future -- after the long-awaited ruling on the Obama-era program

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The last few years have been harrowing for the estimated 14,000 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals recipients in Colorado. 

They’ve watched as their protections from deportation wound through the federal court system and became a political football in Congress. They’ve held their breath waiting for answers about their future and whether or not they’d be forced to return to countries they never knew — or relegated to the shadows to avoid being sent away. 

On Thursday the U.S. Supreme Court provided them with temporary relief, ruling that the way President Donald Trump tried to eliminate DACA in 2017 was illegal. The justices, however, left open the possibility that the Trump administration could try again. 

MORE: U.S. Supreme Court rejects Trump’s bid to end DACA

Created by President Barack Obama, DACA protects people brought to the U.S. illegally as children from deportation and allows them to work legally as long as they register and follow the program’s rules. 

The Colorado Sun spoke to several Colorado DACA recipients on Thursday to gauge their reactions — and feelings about the future — after the Supreme Court’s long-awaited ruling:


Luisana Pacheco

Name: Luisana Pacheco
Age: 28
Lives in: Denver 
Occupation: Nurse 
Backstory: Pacheco came to the U.S. from Costa Rica when she was 13.

Luisana Pacheco finished her nursing school program in the past year, but has been uncertain if she would get a return on her major investment of time and money.

“I knew that if DACA didn’t work out and they completely eliminated it, I wasn’t going to be able to actually work as a nurse,” she said. “I was investing all this money into going into nursing school and spending all of these hours without really, really knowing that it was going to work out in the end and if I was going to be able to practice.” 

But she also felt that she was luckier than some other DACA recipients waiting for the Supreme Court to decide their fate. 

When she flew to the U.S. with her family and they overstayed their visa in 2009, she already had 13 years in her homeland under her belt. Others were brought to America at a much younger age and were facing deportation to a country they really didn’t know at all. 

“Most of my family is still over there, whereas a majority of DACA recipients moved here when they were little kids,” She said. “It wouldn’t have been the worst for me to go back. But still, I invested all this time and money here. I want to live here.” 

Pacheco said she was also considering moving to Canada if her legal status was revoked in the U.S. 

After Thursday’s ruling, she’s feeling hopeful about the future and is happy to know she’ll be able to continue her nursing career. Right now, she is treating coronavirus patients at a Denver-area hospital after they are able to leave intensive care. Someday, she hopes to work in an emergency room.

“In the same way it was life changing to receive DACA benefits when it first started, it is just as life changing today this decision to keep DACA going,” she said. “It’s a really good step in the right direction. Really, what it does is it gives me a lot of hope for what comes next.” 


Name: Jessica. She asked that her last name not be used. 
Age: 23
Lives in: Denver
Occupation: Aide to a state senator
Backstory: Jessica was brought to the U.S. from Mexico by her parents in 2000, when she was 4 years old.

Jessica said the anxiety over her DACA protections began in 2016 as soon as President Donald Trump was elected and long before he decided to unwind the program. 

“We knew exactly what he wanted to do and we knew he was going to do it,” she said. “I was paralyzed.”

Jessica was a student at the University of Colorado worried she might be wasting time continuing her studies. Would her degree even be worth it if she was deported to Mexico, she wondered, or if she was unable to legally work?

Recently, though, as she tried to plan for if the program were undone, her point of view shifted.

“These last couple of weeks have kind of been a reflection of how much we need to keep fighting,” she said. “I have been worried about myself, but then I remind myself that I may have DACA right now but there are millions of people without (legal immigration) status who are still living with the fear of deportation. Those people include family members. They include friends.” 

And there’s still the looming threat that DACA may still be undone. 

“Today is a good day to celebrate,” she said, “but we understand that tomorrow the fight continues. It’s very probable that DACA may be rescinded and terminated in the next couple months. Who knows. It’s so uncertain. But even since its inception, DACA has been uncertain. I’ve never felt completely safe with just having DACA.”


Daniela Villarreal 

Name: Daniela Villarreal 
Age: 30
Lives in: Aurora 
Occupation: Community relations liaison for Commerce City
Backstory: Villarreal came to the U.S. from Mexico in 1995, when she was 5 years old.

What DACA provided Daniela Villarreal was a chance at pursuing a career in the area she studied hard in college for. Before the Obama-era program was enacted, she had to find jobs that allowed her to work despite her immigration status. 

“I rely on this program to be able to have the career that I’m in right now,” she said. 

As questions mounted about DACA’s future, Villarreal began wondering if she would have to abandon a job she loves as a community relations liaison for the city of Commerce City. Would she have to go back to waitressing?

“How much money do I need to save to ensure I’m in an OK situation where I wouldn’t be financially worried?” she asked herself. “I would even think about: ‘Do I have to move back with my parents?’”

She added: “A million things go through your mind.”

Now Villarreal is hoping that the conversation starts moving seriously toward looking at a path to citizenship for DACA recipients, which Congress has debated but not taken action on. 

“I just feel like I should have an opportunity to prove to myself, that I should be able to stay and continue giving back,” she said. “A lot of people are always surprised by the amount of years that I’ve been living here for and the fact that I haven’t received legal permanent status. The reality is there are millions of people in the same boat like me.”


Angelica in front of the U.S. Supreme Court

Name: Angelica. She asked that her last name not be used. 
Age: 27
Lives in: Denver
Occupation: Policy advocate and recent graduate of Metropolitan State University
Backstory: Angelica came to the U.S. from Mexico in 2005, when she was 12 years old.

Angelica and her mother came to the U.S. to escape cartel-related violence in Ciudad Juarez and landed in Colorado Springs. She grew up there and then became active in advocating for immigrants’ rights, work that has made her intimately involved with the fight for DACA and the anxieties of recipients in Colorado. 

“It’s been very stressful,” she said, “especially after the court heard the case. Since the date that DACA was rescinded back in 2017 we have been on edge. We have been working outside of our regular work to organize in order to provide resources that the community needs — free legal clinics, free DACA clinics. Also, more now than ever, resources for mental health.”

Every Monday and Thursday, when the Supreme Court announces its case decisions, have been harrowing. 

“We’re really happy that this sort of weird torture is over,” she said. 

Now, Angelica is feeling hopeful. She said that the conversation around immigration is shifting and becoming more inclusive. 

“I think what the future brings will be a more inclusive immigration reform that includes all undocumented people and not just the folks who are seen as the ‘good immigrants,’” she said.


Marissa Molina

Name: Marissa Molina
Age: 28
Lives in: Denver
Occupation: Colorado state director for FWD.US, a political advocacy organization
Backstory: Molina came to the U.S. from Mexico with her family in 2001, when she was 9 years old.

Marissa Molina remembers waking up many days after the November 2016 presidential election in tears.

Since then, she has lived under a constant cloud of uncertainty and fear, not only for herself but for many other DACA recipients facing the same unknowns. Among them are students she taught in Denver as part of Teach for America right after she graduated from college.   

Many of the first text messages she received following the election were from her students — high school kids who were alarmed about what might happen to her or to their parents. 

Molina didn’t want to give her students any false reassurance. Instead, she told them that she didn’t know what was going to happen, but promised she would “fight really, really hard to keep us safe.”

Molina also recalls the moment almost a year later, in September 2017 when DACA was rescinded. While at a demonstration to protect the program, she got a notification on her phone that DACA had been repealed.

“And I remember the air leaving my lungs,” she said.

She’s worked hard to keep her promise to her students over the last four years and her efforts have included her full-time job with FWD.US, where she advocates for immigration policy.

It hasn’t been an easy road, Molina said. On Thursday morning, she found a glimmer of hope and a sense of peace.

“We know the fight isn’t over today,” she said, “but we’re certainly celebrating that this is a big win and not just for DACA recipients but also for the rule of law.”


Saira Galindo

Name: Saira Galindo
Age: 26
Lives in: Denver
Occupation: A fourth-grade teacher at Munroe Elementary School in West Denver
Backstory: Galindo came to the U.S. with her family in 1997, when she was 4 years old 

Saira Galindo hasn’t felt like herself since President Donald Trump announced his candidacy for president and since he began labeling Mexicans as rapists and as “bad hombres.”

She has nightmares. She goes to therapy. She feels traumatized and anxious with worries about being deported and about the “endless consequences” that come from Trump and his administration.

Galindo graduated high school before DACA was enacted by the President Barack Obama’s administration. When she turned 18, she risked being deported.

“The wave of uncertainty and fear really rushed through me,” she said.

When Obama unveiled DACA in 2012, Galindo jumped on it right away and doors started opening up for her. She secured a work permit, which enabled her to get a driver’s license and start working. She received more than $30,000 in a college scholarship from TheDream.Us. Once she graduated, DACA enabled her to pass a background check, get a teacher’s license and become a homeowner.

But all Galindo’s successes almost crumbled when Trump announced he was going to terminate the program in 2017. With her work permit lapsed, Galindo was asked to leave her job as a secretary for Denver Public Schools. She was able to renew her DACA status and became a teacher, but she said fear overtook her community because of Trump’s move to end DACA.

The Supreme Court’s decision feels like a victory to Galindo but not one that she can rely on in the long term.

“This is not permanent,” she said. “There is still no pathway to citizenship.”

She doesn’t feel protected and remains concerned for other immigrants, like her parents and refugees.

Galindo is also disappointed by how close the Supreme Court’s vote was. She thought people covered by DACA, and what they have to offer the country, had more support.

“We need to really fight to change these immigration laws,” she said, “because they’re so outdated and so not compliant to what the United States is now.”

Updated at 6:26 p.m. on Thursday, June 18, 2020: This story has been corrected to reflect that Luisana Pacheco and her family overstayed their visa in 2009.

Rising Sun