When Priscila Sánchez was a young student in Florida’s public school system, she excelled academically, fearing that if she didn’t her teachers might call her parents in — and the authorities would find out her family was undocumented.
“I never wanted my parents to come in and be called for something that I did wrong. So my thought process was, I have to be really good and not cause any problems,” Sánchez said.
Sánchez, 31, came to Palm Beach from Mexico two decades ago with her family. She said the first time she understood what being undocumented meant was when she couldn’t afford to go to college. Sánchez was barred from legally working in the country and did not qualify for federal student aid.
“It was a shock because I thought I was going to be able to keep on going. But it was a stop,” she said.
She graduated high school in 2010, thinking that higher education was out of reach. But then, a 2012 policy memo from President Barack Obama’s Department of Homeland Security changed the lives of hundreds of thousands of undocumented youth. It established what became known as the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, a federal program for eligible undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. as children that shields them from deportation and grants them work permits.
The Miami Herald spoke to half a dozen former and current program recipients in Florida, where about 23,000 program recipients lived as of March 2023. It’s the state with the fifth-largest population of “Dreamers,” as program beneficiaries are known. The program has been a turning point in their lives, allowing them to pursue degrees and careers and to live without fear of being sent away from the only country they have known as adults.
Sánchez entered the program in 2014, the same year that Florida law mandated that public colleges and universities waive out-of-state fees for undocumented residents. She started working at Dunkin’ Donuts and got a full ride through TheDream.US, an organization that gives college scholarships to undocumented youth, to pursue a bachelor’s degree in social work at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton.
She now works as a social worker helping students at a majority-Latino, South Florida public high school, including immigrant youth. She sponsors a club that supports recently arrived newcomers.
The Dreamers program “has meant hope and opportunity for me,” she said.
But years-long, ongoing litigation that activists, lawyers and program beneficiaries fear could lead to its eventual termination has thrown the lives of recipients like Sanchez into a loop, as they grapple with the possibility of becoming undocumented again or returning to home countries they have not seen since childhood.
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