With Thursday’s Supreme Court Ruling on DACA Comes More Time, But No Less Uncertainty

Five DACA recipients talk about their long, rocky path toward a future as Americans
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  • Tina is an editor, reporter and coach with the Colorado News Collaborative. She has been a staff writer for the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post and the Albuquerque Tribune, but spent most of her career as a reporter and columnist for the Rocky Mountain News and the Denver Post. Her reporting on immigration, education and urban poverty has won national recognition. Tina lives in Fort Collins with her husband and two kids. She's a native New Mexican and prefers red over green.

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As of the end of last year, Colorado was home to 14,640 DACA recipients. They have always known their freedom runs on a clock. Today’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling that the Trump administration cannot summarily shut down the program does not change the precariousness of their legal status in this country, but it buys more time here. For now, Colorado recipients say, that is more than enough. 

“I just got done wiping my tears,” DACA recipient Kenia Pinela of Carbondale said this morning. “I feel like I can breathe again, just a huge sigh of relief. I feel so grateful and blessed.”

Mario Bravo Fuentes, a recipient from Grand Junction, said his mom woke him calling to tell him the news. 

“I’m not really surprised, but kind of,” he said. “When they ruled in favor of LGBTQ rights, that’s what gave me a little bit of hope.”

The Obama administration launched DACA, short for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, in 2012 after repeated failure by Congress to pass legislation that would provide a means for undocumented immigrants, particularly those brought here as children, to become legal residents. The program gave qualified young immigrants protection from deportation and, with it, permission to work legally in this country — a Social Security card, the nine-digit passport to life in mainstream America.

“Oh my god, the weight just lifted off my shoulders,” said Pinela, now the director of community-based programs for a nonprofit that serves immigrants. She recalls the day her Social Security card arrived in the mail at her Carbondale home. “It was opportunity. Looking at the card, I was visually seeing my future.”

DACA permits are good for two years and must be renewed. In 2017, after declaring recipients had nothing to fear, the Trump administration attempted to shut down the program, arguing that President Obama exceeded his authority when launching it. The attempt was partially successful. The administration stopped granting new permits, but renewals continued as court battles ensued. 

The Supreme Court last November heard arguments on whether the entire program should be scrapped, and, based on the justices’ questions and comments at the time, few experts were expecting a decision against the administration.

“It’s definitely a good day to be wrong,” said Arash Jahanian, director of policy and civil rights litigation for the Meyer Law Office, an immigration law firm in Denver.

The court did not take up the question of DACA as a policy, but ruled the administration’s attempted termination was arbitrary and did not comply with “the procedural requirement that it provide a reasoned explanation for its action,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the majority opinion.

“The ruling surprised us not only in allowing the program to continue, but in reinstating new applications, not just renewals,” Jahanian said.

Poll after poll shows a majority of Americans from both major parties support the program and permanent legal residency or citizenship for recipients. Dozens of organizations representing health care, labor, education, the military, religious institutions, and business filed briefs in support of the program. 

Today’s decision provides DACA recipients another reprieve. For how long remains unclear. The administration could try to rescind the program again, though that seems unlikely, legal experts say, before November’s election, the result of which will also determine DACA recipients’ futures.

As a Supreme Court decision loomed the past few weeks, five Colorado DACA recipients talked about the difference the program has made in their lives, how they manage anxiety around a future that often feels as though it’s built on borrowed time and why they continue to hope that one day they will be recognized as Americans. Their accounts have been edited for clarity and brevity.

Kenia Pinela, 25, Carbondale, director of community-based care at the nonprofit, Valley Settlement, which serves immigrant families. She arrived in the U.S. from Mexico when she was eight months old.  

Kenia Pinela (Photo courtesy of Kenia Pinela)

I got my DACA card eight years ago. I can’t believe I have had it for eight years. Oh, the joy — I could cry right now — the joy of just seeing everything unfold. I was in high school when people started talking about it. I remember everything unfolding through the news. I remember I was so thrilled, but at the same time, I was terrified because you were going to have to put your parents’ information down. I’ll be honest, at first I opted out because there was no way that, for my sake, I was going to put my parents in jeopardy. So, I waited. I remember my mom being so frustrated, saying, ‘Just do it, that’s why we are here. We did this for you.’ I remember turning 18, this was like four months into it passing, and thinking at 18 I can be independent and not have to put my parents down. I went to a local lawyer and she said, “I wish you didn’t have to, but even if you’re 18, even if you’re 25, all your parents’ info has to be on there.”

My parents were like, ‘You need this. If you want to be someone here, you need to have a Social Security number. You need to have some kind of permission to be here.’ I was like, OK and I remember praying and praying about it — praying is huge in my family, we have a lot of faith. 

I remember going to give my fingerprints and, honestly, I tried to be as white as I could. I dressed up. I tried to be professional. When my card finally came in the mail, it was so exciting, and then applying for a Social Security card and then getting that. Oh my god, the weight just lifted off my shoulders. It was opportunity. Looking at the card, I was visually seeing my future. 

Waiting for the Supreme Court, I have definitely gone through so many emotions. That Social Security card, it’s just a tiny little card, but it meant to me that someone else was pushing for me, and right now, I look at it and I am fearful that it is in jeopardy. Everything you have worked for can be taken away. 

You go through waves of anger and frustration and then fear and anxiety and then you go into sadness and what-in-the-world-is-going-to-happen and then there are times when it’s like, you know what, it’s going to be what it’s going to be and if I continue to internalize this, I am going to harm myself. I am going to harm my body. I am going to harm my soul. A decision is going to come, no matter what. 

I want to be optimistic. I want to say, we have done so much for our families, our friends, our nation. On DACA, you have to pay taxes, you have to go to work. You have to go to school. It is something so good. We are not delinquents. You have to be a good citizen. So, I want to think there is no way they can do this to us. 

My parents, they — I don’t know if it’s a cultural thing — but when it comes to talking about emotion and feelings … I’m the feely one in the family. They are like, “Oh, man, here comes Kenia, the fruity, looty, lovey, dovey one.” I have learned to read their bodies. I know they are scared. I know the one thing on their mind is me, my future. I had my conversation with my dad and he said, “There is no way you can make it in Mexico. I was like no, I can do it dad, I can milk the cows — I’ve never milked a cow — I can do it.” He was like “No, you have dreams and aspirations. You just started your Masters’ degree.” 

My brother, I think about him, too. He was born here, so he grew up in a completely different world where the rest of his family wasn’t legal, so he grew up with a lot of pressure, maybe some survivor’s guilt. 

The biggest thing is I don’t want anyone to feel sorry for me. We are a community of young, you know, Dreamers. I really do love that word that identifies us. I am so resilient and I will get through anything. I know that about myself. I will figure out a way to be OK and continue to strive. Maybe when I was in high school, I didn’t know if I would make it, but now that I am 25 there is nothing that will stop me from doing what I want to do.

Rene Cardenas-Gutierrez, 20, Fort Collins, student at the University of Northern Colorado. He came to U.S. from Mexico when he was five. 

Rene Cardenas-Gutierrez (Photo by Marie-Dominique Verdier, mdvphoto.com)

My life has taken some serious hardships, but I never ask, why me? You know what I think? This is just another test, another obstacle and it will make me a better person. 

My mom brought me when I was five. It was just her and me alone to join my stepdad. All of our family was in Mexico. Honestly, I just thought we were coming to visit. And we stayed, and she never said anything about it. She just said we are going to try something new. 

I was used to being raised by my grandma in Mexico, but here, both my parents were working two jobs, so I was always home by myself. I was walking to the bus stop alone at five. All of the apartments looked alike so I used to count the steps to the bus stop so I would know which one was mine. I remember it was roughly 193 to 200 steps. That was in Fort Collins. I still live in Fort Collins. But we did move around a lot. We moved to Loveland at one point and bought a house and tried to live the American Dream, but we had financial problems, so we came back to Fort Collins. I went to three different middle schools, but everywhere I got along. In 7th grade I was in Wellington, which is predominately white. I was the only Hispanic kid taking advanced classes. The principal would take the 4.0 kids to lunch and she took me to Subway and that was the first time she said she had spoken to a Hispanic kid one on one. 

I honestly can’t tell you when I got DACA and I can’t tell you how much time I have left. My mom has all that in a big portfolio. I am just not worried about it. You ever hear of imposter syndrome? Like in class, I am the only Hispanic kid in advanced classes. But ever since I was little, I knew deep down that this is my home and I know I have nothing to worry about and things will work out. 

For example, there was a point when I wanted to drop out of high school. I was 17 and a server making good money and sitting in algebra class and thinking, “How is solving a parabola going to help me when I can make money?” And deep down, you think, “Why go to college? My parents can’t afford it.” I was a 4.0 about to drop out and my teachers convinced me to stay and things worked out. Now, I am in my third year of college. 

I go to UNC in Greeley. They have a program called the Dreamers Engagement Program and they receive students who are undocumented or DACA. Year by year, the group grows. I used to be so worried about exposure, but I finally grew a pair and I am proud of who I am. I get it that I am not from here, but literally, this is all I know. 

All my life, I have seen things I shouldn’t have and when I was a kid, sometimes I couldn’t sleep because I kept worrying, “What if tomorrow isn’t a better day?” And one day, I just stopped asking myself that. I just started living my life. And with the Supreme Court, I can’t worry about that and I am not planning for anything. To be honest, I will tell you one thing my great-grandfather told me that you can plan everything out and one mistake, one turn can mess all those plans up. So, I just go by the flow. I can’t stress about the future. I really can’t. 

Deep down, I have always wanted to be a change in my community. Ever since I was a kid, I always wanted to be in law or law enforcement, so I’m studying criminal justice and criminology. I decided I want to be a cop. I want to impact my community and if you want the system to change, you gotta integrate the thing. 

I know people consider us criminals because we didn’t do it the legal way. When you are a child, you don’t know the legal way and for people to say, “Yeah, you broke the law,” makes me so mad because all my life I have abided by the law. I wish I could have done it the legal way, but it is what it is now. 

I remember when I got DACA, I felt like I actually had a future, like I was not going to be stuck in some boring job. I would be the first one in my family to go to college. I would be the first to make my family proud. Let’s be honest. People like me, especially Latino, we are the ones with the lowest graduation rates from high school. I can’t be that person. I need to break the chain. I need to break barriers. When opportunity is given to you, you don’t let it go to waste and you prove it through your actions. So, I guess I would say let my actions speak louder than words.

Abner, 26, Pueblo, commercial sales, arrived in Pueblo from Mexico when he was four years old. (Abner asked that his last name not be used.)

I was 19 years old when I got DACA. My younger brother and sister also have DACA and my youngest brother is a U.S. citizen. 

From the very beginning, my mom sat us down and, not on purpose, but she planted that seed of fear in our lives. You know, “If anyone asks you, tell them you were born here and nothing else.”  So, luckily, my mom’s dad’s side of the family are from French ancestry, so I tell people I got the last drop of French blood. It was easier for me to pass as a U.S.-born Latino.

It wasn’t until high school that I decided to tell one or two of my best friends and actually it wasn’t until my senior year because my homeroom teacher kept asking me why I hadn’t filled out any college applications. I had hoped by the time I graduated, my parents, the government — someone — would allow us to get a green card, but I didn’t see that happening, so I started giving up on school. 

So probably like the third time she asked me, I was just like, “Miss, I really can’t.” She said “What’s going on?”  I just said, “Well, miss, I wasn’t born here. I can’t go to college because I am not from here.” You need a Social Security card to fill out FAFSA. I don’t have any of that stuff, I told her. 

It was kind of scary to say it out loud at first, but more than anything, it was — I don’t want to say I felt ashamed — but I just felt sad, it was really disheartening. 

At the time, I was working under the table. I started working at the age of 13 on the weekends. Basically, I saw how much my parents struggled and I thought at the very least, I could make enough so they didn’t have to worry about buying me food or clothes. I spent summers mowing lawns and cleaning cars. I saved enough to buy a car because I wanted to blend in, but also they were offering free college classes, but you had to drive to the college. I thought if I could go to college and get my degree, I don’t know, maybe someone will see me and help me. 

My brother and sister, all three of us wanted to pretend or believe we were truly Americans. And being the oldest, my parents always held me to a higher standard so I always felt a lot of responsibility, so I told myself I had to keep it together. For the most part I did. I thought I was American. I wanted to believe I was. I had English-speaking friends, I watched football. I ate a lot of American food. I guess the biggest thing in the back of my mind was I really wanted to go to college. Usually that would come up and I would get discouraged or sad or mad. I kept thinking, “You gotta figure out a different way to do life.”

When President Obama announced DACA, I was like, “What, is this real?” It was like shell shock. Inside of me, I just felt relief and I was like, “We made it, that’s all I need.” It was an overwhelming feeling of joy and excitement and nervousness. My parents were beyond happy for us. It was something they always told us, “We really don’t care what happens to us, as long you have opportunity.” 

I went to college at CSU-Pueblo as soon as I could. My high school adviser, she had transferred to CSU so I had a contact with the university. If it hadn’t been for her, I wouldn’t have made it out of high school. It took me five years to get a BA in business, with an emphasis in marketing and a double major in Spanish.

Now, I manage accounts for a company that does business internationally. And here is where everything comes into focus for me: I went to college because I knew it was the only way to get a better life and the only way to get my parents a better life. In May 2020, I closed on a house. That house is for my parents. I saved and I saved. I put down 90% of the down payment. I’ll pay 70% of the mortgage. My brother is helping with the mortgage and my sister is going to help. We plan to pay it off in 15 to 19 years. The front and the backyard of the house have a lawn and a sprinkler system, and my mom says she always wanted a big window and the sun coming in the morning. And now she has that. 

So, as you can tell, I am a planner and so I have thought out multiple scenarios based on what the Supreme Court might do. If it gets phased out immediately, I may consider a job in Canada. I have been reading that a lot of DACA recipients are going there. 

Sometimes I give myself an hour a day to feel what I have to feel and then just move on. 

But I would be lying if I said I was thinking about my DACA status and what’s going to happen more now than I was before. I think it goes back to how we compartmentalize things. Sometimes I give myself an hour a day to feel what I have to feel and then just move on. 

I have been reading a lot of stories of DACA recipients and they talk a lot about how people make us feel that we are not wanted, but the thing that gives me hope is that I have found a lot of people who believe in me and support me and have made a huge difference in my life. I just want to make an equally huge difference in theirs. If I could pay them all back for what they have done for me, I would, but all I can do is pay it forward and do the best I can.

Armando Reyes Zapata, 22, Olathe, 2019 graduate of Colorado Mountain College’s restaurant and culinary management program. Now working in a Steamboat Springs restaurant as line cook. He arrived from Mexico when he was four years old. 

Armando Reyes (right) with friend Axel Garcia, until recently, the only other DACA recipient he knew besides his brother. (Photo by John F. Russell and courtesy of Steamboat Pilot & Today)

I’m from the Montrose/Olathe area and this is a very pro-Trump area. I don’t shy away from conversations about my status, but I also don’t bring it up. I still think 80 to 90% of the people that I went to high school with don’t know I am undocumented or have DACA. I was around people who didn’t care about that kind of stuff. It wasn’t until my senior year in American government class and Trump was going to be elected that everything started coming out. It disappointed me to see classmates I played football with or had a camping trip with saying “Oh, we love you,” but I guess they don’t care about any other people.

There are seven of us in my family. My brother and I are DACA. My three younger siblings are citizens. My parents don’t have anything. I think a lot about my family. About what would happen if I am not here. If my brother is not here. If my three younger siblings suddenly don’t have parents anymore. My older brother and my parents discuss the “what if” because we need to know what to do if something happens. But I think I only talked to my younger brother once about it and that’s when Immigration was in Montrose. I think he saw me crying. I was scared. It’s hard to talk about. The first thing he said is, “Is mom alright?” I don’t remember all the details but I distinctly remember we talked about it because he said, “It’s because we are illegal.” And I was like, “Goddammit. You are not. You are fine. Your brother and I are fine. We just have to be careful.”

There are things we can’t control and that’s when you have to dig deep and move forward, and there are things you can control and that’s when you pick yourself up. My parents always taught me to work harder than everyone else because we kind of have something to prove. We have to show people that we are just like them. We have to go further to be seen as just a regular part of the community. 

My dad is a rancher. My mom worked in restaurants. She inspired me to go to culinary school. At first, it was just like it seemed interesting to be like “Oh, I can make this or that,” but as I grew up, it was more like I am making the same foods that my mom made for my family for years, that she learned from her mom, my grandma. Something clicked in my head, and it just took off. I love how you can make the most complicated thing out of a few ingredients or something traditional out of a couple of ingredients. I love the aesthetic of it, the plating. I just love it. 

I got DACA in 2012 or ‘13. DACA was an opportunity to get out of Montrose and Olathe. It was a future. It was being safe from deportation. My senior year at Colorado Mountain College I started getting involved with the Latinx club. From what I know, me and one other person, my friend, were the only two DACA recipients on campus. We had a chance to go to Washington, DC to meet with other Dreamers and visit Congress. My professor brought it up to me and the first thing that came out of my mouth was, “Yes, I’m going.” I surprised myself. I tend to make impulsive decisions, but not when it comes to bigger things — I’ve been stuck on whether I should buy a car for a year — but this was like, yeah, I’m blindly getting on a plane. 

I’m really proud that I went. I’m proud of myself and I’m proud of my friend. I knew that any interview that I did, any article, would be put out there for the entire nation. And really, one of my first thoughts was how many who didn’t know I was undocumented will know now. I knew I was sticking my neck out, but I also told myself, “It’s about time you do something.”

Before that trip, the most DACA recipients I knew were my brother and my one friend here. So, I went from like two other people to like thousands. It was surreal. At first I was like, this many people aren’t DACA recipients. It was uplifting and eye-opening. 

I do think about a lot about the future, what will I do if DACA gets canceled?  If it does get reinstated, then it’s full-force work and enjoy the time I have. But if it is scrapped and it ends, I have a hard time thinking about what I will do after that. If I can use it until my card expires next February then that’s what I will do, but once it expires, I don’t know what to do. My mind goes blank and I don’t want to think about it. 

What works for me is taking it month by month or at this point, week by week, day by day. If it works out, I have this really big idea of owning a business with my mom, an authentic Mexican restaurant, but not the kind where your food is brought out on a plate the size of a pizza. 

I would like to tell DACA recipients: “Keep your heads down and keep working. If anything, it will be worse if you give up.” For those who are not DACA, I know you don’t have the same life as us, but try to help out when you can. Imagine your boyfriend or girlfriend, your best friend you have known for years, ask what you would do if one day they weren’t there, if one day you said, “hey, let’s go to the park” and they never showed up. 

Sometimes I want to literally ask people, “What have I done that has personally affected you?” People say, “You are stealing our jobs,” but what have I done to you, what have I done to inconvenience your life besides exist?

Mario Bravo-Fuentes, 20, Grand Junction, studying computer science at Colorado Mesa University. He came to the U.S.  from Mexico when he was seven months old. 

Mario Bravo-Fuentes, second from the right. (Photo courtesy of Mario Bravo-Fuentes)

Ever since I was a kid, I knew that I was undocumented. My parents told me, but I felt like I was a citizen. I felt like I was born here. I have roots here. I have no relationship with Mexico. 

When we moved here, we lived in an apartment and in a trailer, and in the trailer park, I would play with Americans to the left of my trailer and to the right of my trailer and they made me think that I was one of them, even though my parents told me later that I wasn’t. 

There have definitely been times when I have felt a certain way about my status, but it was instituted in me since I was a little kid by my mom and dad — my dad, especially — he told me, “Even if you are undocumented, you have two arms, two legs, one brain just like everyone else, so why can’t you do it?” He still tells me that. I have never limited myself because of who I am. I mean, yeah, I have some limitations, but I can become who I want to be. That’s why my parents brought me here. You have no limit to who you can become. I want to become an entrepreneur like Elon Musk or Bill Gates. 

My dad and mom are from rural Mexico and they stopped going to school after third grade and sixth grade and started working on the farm. I have always tried to be the best student I can and that’s been pushed on my siblings as well. The best way to be better than you were before is to be educated. Ever since I was a kid, I knew I was going to go to college. I had that feeling in my chest like my life depends on it, really. I am going to do this for myself, for my parents, for everyone who has helped me and supported me. Now, I’m on a full ride at Colorado Mesa University and studying computer science. 

A lot of my peers came from the same background as me. They knew who I was and I knew who they were. The school newspaper published an article about me when Trump was trying to remove DACA in 2017. I played a lot of soccer and a lot of kids who played with me were high-income and a lot of kids I knew were Republican. They seemed to respect me. They saw I was working hard to be better than I was yesterday. I never felt discriminated against or I never felt people were making fun of me. 

I got DACA in 2015, April 15, 2015. It was the spring of my freshman year. I was about 16. I just renewed again a couple weeks ago. If the Supreme Court goes against DACA, I have definitely looked at my options. Yes, I will be upset. That is human, to feel that way after something helps you that much. I’ve told my girlfriend that it’s OK to mourn if something doesn’t go our way, but I will still move forward to think about how I will overcome adversity and become who I want to become. 

I want to mention a local nonprofit in Grand Junction, the Riverside Educational Center. It’s in a neighborhood called Riverside and it used to be all low-income Hispanics in the ‘80s and ‘90s when Grand Junction had a bad reputation. Riverside was there to help those who are underprivileged by providing tutoring and enrichment for students. I didn’t have a desk at the time. I had the kitchen table, but my parents were also using the table because they were learning English and my sister was, too. We didn’t have a place to work and we didn’t have a computer. Because of REC, I was able to have a desk space and a computer. I was able to complete my education through REC and they also provided me with enrichments. I remember the day I signed up for a drums enrichment, hand drums, and they helped me ignite a passion. I’ve been playing drums since I was a fourth-grader. Now I play with a band in town. I was able to play with the top band in the high school and the city. I was able to grow as an athlete, a student, and a drummer. They helped me become the person I wanted to become. I think it’s important to note all the people who have helped us along the way. I try to give back by tutoring there now. So, there is a community within me and, if I fall, I know who is with me and who is around me. 

Knowing that I have that network of support and the fact that I am here because my parents wanted a better life for me, I think of what I am doing this for and who I am doing it for and I can’t give up. I have no choice. 

Next to me, to my house, is someone who has a Trump sign. I had prejudice against him. I wondered, “Does he know? Is he ignorant?” But one day my dad asked if he could come help us with the AC. I told my dad to be careful around him. But they connected in a way that I did not think was possible. He told my dad that he supported Trump, but he knew that some of us immigrants come for a better life, and even though he supported Trump, he knew his faults. He had this human sense that I didn’t think he had. It renews my faith and I keep thinking about that saying, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” That’s something to keep in mind. I think sometimes patriotism can get in the way of humanism. I think people should have a human touch when it comes to human beings. Instead of seeing what is different about us, they should see what is the same and that will bring us closer.

This story is brought to you by COLab, the Colorado News Collaborative.