Itzayana Aguirre and Paola Limon realized what it meant to be undocumented when they were in high school.
The two Fort Worth residents remember seeing their friends getting driver’s licenses, working their first jobs and applying to colleges — things that neither of them could do at the time because of their legal status.
That all started to change in 2012, when Aguirre and Limon became recipients of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, also known as DACA, which has been involved in a yearslong battle in the courts over its legality.
In September, U.S. District Judge Andrew Hanen of the Southern District of Texas ruled the federal program illegal for a second time. The decision blocks the government from approving any new applications but leaves the program intact for current recipients.
Fort Worth DACA recipients and faith leaders recently shared their concerns about the program’s existence and future immigration legislation with the Fort Worth Report.
“I grew up here. I want to live here. My family’s here. I bought a house here. I’m investing in staying in this country, but it’s almost like they don’t want me here, and it’s difficult to deal with that,” Aguirre said.
DACA in Texas
Texas has 95,970 DACA recipients as of Dec. 31, 2022, according to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. The Dallas-Fort Worth-Arlington area ranks third highest in metropolitan areas that are home to DACA recipients, with 31,090 in the region.
Factors that can drive someone to immigrate to another country can include violence, war, natural disasters and the state of the economy, said Jennie Murray, president and CEO of National Immigration Forum.
Aguirre’s family immigrated to the U.S. from Mexico in 1996 when she was about 2 years old; she grew up in Fort Worth. She and her family have been members of Iglesia Bautista Victoria en Cristo since 2009. Aguirre heard about DACA through the church.
“They were actually the first people to call me and tell me, ‘Hey, did you hear about this new program?’ When I heard about it, I almost didn’t believe it,” Aguirre said.
Iglesia Bautista Victoria en Cristo is a Baptist church on Fort Worth’s eastside. A majority of congregants are immigrants, said Anyra Cano, who is on the pastoral team for the church.
Cano has been a longtime advocate for those who immigrate to the U.S., because her parents were immigrants. So is her husband, Carlos Valencia, senior pastor of their church. Her faith makes it important to support those seeking to call the U.S. their home, Cano said.
“Because of what Scripture tells us, we should welcome the stranger,” Cano said. “I believe that it is important for the church to stand with them.”
At the opposite end of Fort Worth is Limon’s Northside church, Iglesia Bautista Azle Avenue. The Baptist church has an immigration ministry that helps church members with the legal processes of renewing their DACA status or applying for citizenship. Recipients must renew their status every two years, according to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
The Rev. Fernando Rojas said he hopes for bipartisan reforms that provide a pathway for immigrants to obtain residency and, eventually, citizenship.
“Most of these children didn’t choose to be brought into the country; it was just kind of part of their circumstances,” Rojas said. “The right thing to do is to give them an opportunity to be full participants of the American life, of the American way.”
The secretary of the Department of Homeland Security created DACA in 2012 as a temporary relief from deportation and work authorization for people who came to the U.S. as children.
The program has become controversial because of questions over who has authority to execute immigration laws in the U.S., said Andrew Morris, immigration attorney for World Relief Texas.
In Hanen’s ruling, he argued that DACA was illegal because Homeland Security, which is an executive branch agency, didn’t have the power to exercise work done in the legislative branch, meaning Congress.
“While sympathetic to the predicament of DACA recipients and their families, this Court has expressed its concerns about the legality of the program for some time,” Hanen wrote. “The Executive Branch cannot usurp the power bestowed on Congress by the Constitution — even to fill a void.”
The counterargument, Morris said, is that agencies under the authority of the president have the power to implement immigration laws.
“So you get this long-running argument about, is this an example of the president usurping congressional authority or is this the lawful exercise of executive power to remedy a horrible wrong?” Morris said.
Through DACA, Limon was able to get a Social Security number and apply for college and financial aid. This fall, Limon is starting her second semester at Criswell College, a private Baptist college in Dallas. She said her experience teaching Sunday school at church inspired her to pursue a career as a teacher.
Being a DACA recipient has given Limon a sense of security that she can achieve her professional dreams in the U.S., she said. With a decision on the future of the program looming in courts, she wishes lawmakers could understand the challenges that recipients face.
“I haven’t seen my dad since I was 7. My mom hasn’t seen her parents since we came over here. So, it’s hard,” Limon said. “I understand it’s the laws and the government, but at the end of the day, we’re people.”
Aguirre turns to her faith, too, when it comes to the uncertainty of DACA, she said. Proverbs 3:5, the first verse she ever memorized, is helping her stay hopeful.
“Trust in the LORD with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding.”
“He has shown me that every single time that I have been upset and angry and ready to give in, he’s showing me that he’s there and he’s got a plan,” Aguirre said. “So that, to me, has been the most important thing in this whole process is just relying on the faithfulness of God.”