DACA's Uncertain Future and the Story of One Nebraska DACA Recipient

DACA recipient Brenda Esqueda is an Omaha South High School graduate entering her second year at Harvard. (Photo by Mike Tobias, NET News)
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July 28, 2017 - 6:45am

For five years the federal Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program has provided a legal framework for people brought illegally to the United States as children to live and work here. The controversial program now has an uncertain future that could affect the 3,000 Nebraskans who benefit from it.


On a summer afternoon Brenda Esqueda and her mom chat in the kitchen of the family’s south Omaha home. They talk in Spanish making enchiladas and tamarind juice, doing daily chores and going to the park.

Esqueda’s back for the summer after finishing her first year at Harvard. She could have stayed and taken advantage of programs offered by the prestigious university. But she wanted to be home for these sort of everyday moments, to help out around the house and because days like this may be numbered for Brenda, her mom and dad, and her younger brother and sister.

“It feels like we’re just going to be dispersed and I don’t know if we’re ever going to have that unity again if anything happens to us,” Esqueda said.

This story really starts 13 years ago. That’s when six-year-old, Mexican-born Brenda pretended to be a cousin and crossed the border in the back of a truck. She lived with relatives in Texas for a few months until her parents also entered the United States, picked her up and moved to Omaha. They are not citizens, but Nebraska is home. Dad is a landscaper, mom cleans houses and Brenda graduated from Omaha South High School third in her class with a long list of honors. When she was a sophomore Brenda was accepted into the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, known as DACA. Created by President Obama in 2012, DACA allows some undocumented immigrants who came here as minors to receive two-year permits that provide deportation protection and work permits.

“I realize every day how much privilege being a DACA recipient gives me,” Esqueda said. “Students that didn’t qualify for DACA that are now graduating out of high school and don’t have access to any scholarships can’t go to college because they don’t have enough money, because colleges don’t know how to work with DACA students let alone undocumented students.”

Uncertainty is part of everyday life in what Brenda calls a “mixed-status” family. Her dad has a work permit but deportation is always looming. Brenda worries every time he checks in with immigration officials.

“For my father to willingly go and do that because he is a law abiding citizen, and he is more than happy to go and follow the rules. He goes there but I have no idea if he will return,” Esqueda said.

Brenda is working on renewing her DACA permit, which expires in November.

“With the Obama administration I felt like there’s this hope and there’s going to be this continued hope, and there’s going to be this continued stability in such an unstable status,” Esqueda said. “But now with the new administration there’s no stability whatsoever.”

Earlier this month President Trump told reporters he hasn’t decided what to do with DACA. But Homeland Security secretary John Kelly has said the program, while still in place, is in jeopardy because it won’t survive a court challenge.

Nebraska Attorney General Doug Peterson was one of 10 Republican attorneys general and one governor who sent a letter to U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions calling for a phase out of DACA. They wrote that the original program “covers over one million otherwise unlawfully present aliens” and “unilaterally confers eligibility for work authorization and lawful presence without any statutory authorization from Congress.” Peterson wasn’t available to talk to NET News about DACA, but earlier told the Lincoln Journal-Star his decision to sign the letter was based on his duty to “uphold the constitution.”

“We were disappointed with the attorney general signing on to the letter,” said Omaid Zabih, staff attorney for the immigrants and communities program at Nebraska Appleseed. “Immigrants, particularly DACA youth, are part of the fabric of our society. They contribute to communities in many ways, and they are Americans in every way but one, which is paperwork.”

Twenty Democratic attorneys general sent their own letter urging President Trump to keep DACA.

Legislation introduced in both the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives would temporarily protect undocumented youth if DACA is discontinued. Called the BRIDGE Act, it has Democrat and Republican co-sponsors, including Nebraska congressman Don Bacon.

The Nebraska Legislature passed a resolution this spring in support of DACA…but almost half of state senators opted not to vote either way on the proposal. In past sessions lawmakers have passed legislation allowing driver’s licenses and work permits for DACA recipients…but only after defeating vetoes from Gov. Pete Ricketts, who called the licensing measure “unfair and unjust to Nebraskans who followed the law to come here.”

Think this is a lot to process? Try being a DACA recipient.

“It feels very weird,” Esqueda said. “I’m used to having hope. In a lot of situations I’m very optimistic but there’s so much fear now that just the sense of fear is kind of stifling everything else.”

I asked if she was concerned that talking openly about her situation would draw unwanted attention. Maybe put her family at risk.

“It petrifies me to talk about it every single time,” Esqueda said. “I have a certain privilege with DACA and I need to use it to speak to help change legislation, to help other families and other homes have some sense of security.”

So she’s testified in front of a Unicameral committee about her desire to work in Nebraska and change her community. In a Harvard publication she wrote about fears her dad would be deported, but also his joy at helping drive her cross country to start college.

“I am more than open to talk to someone that is completely opposed to my way of life and the permits that I have and the privilege that I have because that is a part of the conversation that needs to be going on,” Esqueda said.

Brenda Esqueda returns to Harvard for her sophomore year in a couple weeks. What happens after that is up to lawmakers.

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