750,000 DACA 'Dreamers' are holding their breath. Here's how one is coping.

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Yahoo News
Thanks to a recent federal court ruling, NYC college student Fairooz Haider is eligible to apply for a two-year renewal of the protections covered under DACA. (Photo: Caitlin Dickson/Yahoo News)
Thanks to a recent federal court ruling, NYC college student Fairooz Haider is eligible to apply for a two-year renewal of the protections covered under DACA. (Photo: Caitlin Dickson/Yahoo News)

Late last August, Fairooz Haider was about to embark on her senior year at New York City’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice with big plans for her future. An international criminal justice major with a minor in law, Haider was preparing to apply to Harvard’s Junior Deferral Program, an opportunity for early admission to Harvard Law School that requires at least two years of work, research or studying after college. She’d already secured an internship, and was about to enroll in an LSAT prep course that would begin in late December.

But before she had a chance to do any of that, an announcement came from Washington that left the 23-year-old feeling shattered and hopeless. The Trump administration was terminating the Deferred Action for Child Arrivals, or DACA, program that since 2012 had enabled Haider, who was just 6 when she moved with her family to New York from their native Bangladesh, to live in the city she calls home without fear of deportation.

Suddenly, Haider’s seemingly boundless ambition and excitement about the future gave way to an overwhelming sense of hopelessness.

“I remember the day it got rescinded, I was crying so badly, just broke down,” she said. “I felt like I had to throw all those dreams out in the trash can.”

From the start, the conditions of the announcement were confusing. Though the program, which covers around 750,000 residents who were brought to the U.S. as children, was officially terminated on Sept. 5, 2017, President Trump gave Congress until March 5 of this year to renew it. In the meantime, he assured DACA recipients, existing permits “will not begin to expire for another six months, and will remain active for up to 24 months.”

However, as Politico recently pointed out, this comforting message from the White House was inaccurate and misleading. Contrary to Trump’s claims, a memo issued by the Department of Homeland Security on Sept. 5 explained that, in reality, DACA recipients whose current two-year permit would expire by March 5 now had just a 30-day window to apply for renewal. Applications would not be accepted after Oct. 5, and any recipients who did not submit their renewal paperwork before that date would immediately lose their DACA protections as soon as their permit expired.

Slideshow: Activists protest against the Trump administration’s immigration policies >>>

Demonstrators, many of them recent immigrants to America, protest the lack of a deal on DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) at Federal Plaza in New York City, Jan. 22, 2018. (Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
Demonstrators, many of them recent immigrants to America, protest the lack of a deal on DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) at Federal Plaza in New York City, Jan. 22, 2018. (Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

That changed again earlier this month, when a federal court judge in San Francisco ruled that Trump’s termination of DACA was illegal and issued a temporary injunction ordering DHS to resume processing renewal applications for anyone whose DACA status expired or was about to.

As a result, explained Allan Wernick, director of CUNY’s Citizenship Now! program, “there are two groups of people applying now: one are people who for some reason had let their DACA lapse, and the other group of people are the people whose DACA was going to expire March 6 or after.”

Haider, whose DACA permit was not set to expire until this fall, is a part of that second group. She spoke to Yahoo News at a DACA renewal assistance event hosted by Citizenship Now! this week, just a couple of days after discovering that she had another chance to extend her protections.

“You can’t feel completely relieved because the problem’s not solved,” Haider said. “I just feel like it’s an emotional roller coaster of ups and downs.” She compared her situation to a patient on a respirator. The plug could be pulled at any moment.

Though she was referring to the current political battle over DACA, which led to last week’s  brief government shutdown, Haider has been on emotional roller coaster for most of her life, describing a constant ebb and flow of anxiety over her immigration status.

“I feel like most of the DACA recipients grew up not knowing that they were undocumented,” Haider said. She was no different.

She said that most do not learn about their status until their junior or senior year of high school. Those are “the two most depressing years for people who are undocumented,” because the excitement of applying for college is overshadowed by the realization that many colleges and student loans are out of reach. But Haider said she first started to realize that she was different from her classmates during her last year of middle school.

From a young age, Haider was serious about schoolwork. Her parents stressed that the chance for a good education was their main reason for emigrating from Bangladesh.

With dreams of attending an Ivy League college and eventually law school already playing out in her young mind, Haider studied rigorously throughout middle school.

“I worked so hard for my grades,” she recalled. “So hard that I wouldn’t eat sometimes.”

Her goal was to get into a good high school that she hoped would serve as the launching pad to her college career. But when she was accepted to Townsend Harris, a highly ranked public magnet school in Queens, whose long list of distinguished alumni include Nobel Prize winners, her parents refused to let her go. Though they also lived in Queens, the school was located on the opposite end of the borough, 10 miles from the family’s neighborhood in Ozone Park, and her parents didn’t want her traveling that far and risking an encounter with police.

“That’s how they lived their lives, never really went anywhere,” said Haider. “I guess, we always lived in a fearful environment, always afraid of getting caught by the police or if we did anything wrong we would get deported.”

“That’s the mentality I’ve always grown up with,” she said.

Haider said her parents never actually sat her down and explained that she and her two older siblings were undocumented. But she had some conversations with her older sister, who was applying to colleges around the same time and, with the help of the internet, “kind of just had to put three and three together.”

“By the time I was in ninth or 10th grade, I knew four people in my school who were just like me at that time, so we all just started talking to each other and discussing what’s going on,” she recalled.

But something changed for Haider after discovering her undocumented status. The realization that she could not apply for student loans, and would probably have to go to community college like her sister, began to sap the drive that had propelled her through middle school. Once seemingly attainable visions of her future, college, law school and a career now felt like an unrealistic fantasy.

“When I found out that I couldn’t apply for FAFSA [Free Application for Federal Student Aid], it was just like … I don’t have any options,” she said. “I felt like my life was planned already, even before I had a chance to think about it.”

Jasinta De La Cruz, an attorney with the City University of New York’s Citizenship Now! program, assists Fairooz Haider with her application to renew her coverage under the DACA program. (Photo: Caitlin Dickson/Yahoo News)
Jasinta De La Cruz, an attorney with the City University of New York’s Citizenship Now! program, assists Fairooz Haider with her application to renew her coverage under the DACA program. (Photo: Caitlin Dickson/Yahoo News)

But then, in June of 2012, as Haider was completing her junior year of high school, that dark cloud began to lift. Amid another political stalemate over immigration reform, then President Barack Obama signed an executive order creating renewable two-year permits that would allow certain qualifying undocumented young people to live and work openly in the U.S.

Two months later, Haider applied. Soon, her goals were again within reach.

“It was hard to believe,” she said, describing the period of adjustment to the new freedoms she received under DACA. “I guess I’ve been so psychologically traumatized to feel isolated because of my immigration status, that the fact that I could get a job, like a legal job with Social Security and get taxes was … it didn’t hit me at first.”

Five years later, she still smiles excitedly at the memory of receiving a Social Security number that she could use on her college applications.

“It’s really small, but it’s just really significant,” she said. “Just seeing that was just like, wow, that’s my number. That’s something I can use that everyone around me has. I have the same opportunity.”

For the first time in her life, this New York City teen with a Queens accent finally started to feel like a normal American. Over the past five years, she’d eventually become so accustomed to the freedoms DACA provided that they almost started to feel permanent. So when she heard the news that the program that had provided her so much joy and comfort was about to be rescinded, it was as though she’d been transported back to eighth grade, when she first realized she was undocumented.

The difference this time, however, is that she and the nearly 800,000 other young people who’ve benefited from DACA are no longer in hiding. By allowing them to legally work, study and come of age alongside their documented peers, the program enabled this group of young people to weave themselves into the fabric of American society, while further instilling in them the cultural identity and values — basic rights and all — that come with having grown up in the United States.

“The ship has left the dock. The train has left the station,” said Wernick, director of Citizenship Now! “People that think, like Donald Trump, that somehow you can pull back and make America the way it was when it was a mainly white country and immigration didn’t have the impact that it had, I don’t think they’re going to be able to do that. Once you have people [as] part of our society, they’re going to have a great impact.”

Demonstrators hold illuminated signs during a rally supporting the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, Jan. 18, 2018. (Photo: Zach Gibson/Bloomberg via Getty Images).
Demonstrators hold illuminated signs during a rally supporting the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, Jan. 18, 2018. (Photo: Zach Gibson/Bloomberg via Getty Images).

For Haider, the prospect of being forced to return to the country she left at age 6 is something she’d rather not even think about.

“I don’t even know how to describe the feeling because it’s just so terrible,” she said. “I feel like I’m completely lost. If I go back there, I can’t even speak the language properly. I can’t read it, I can’t write in it.”

But it’s not just being deported to a country she hardly remembers that terrifies her. She’s under immense pressure from her parents and others close to her to marry a citizen so she can remain in the U.S., a path she’s adamantly against.

“All the friends that I know who came here undocumented, they got married,” she said.

“I’m just so against it, and everyone around me is just like ‘Give in, you’re gonna get married anyway.’ It just pisses me off so much,” she said, explaining that she has witnessed other marriages based on immigration needs turn into abusive situations. “I don’t want that to happen with me.”

“Especially because [in] the community I’m from … reporting [abuse] is very stigmatized,” she continued, describing the patriarchal aspects of Bangladeshi culture. “Even [in] a normal case of divorce, you’re considered a failure because you couldn’t keep your marriage.”

“I guess back there people place more emphasis on collective values, thinking about others before yourself,” she said. “I grew up here so I have more individualistic values.”

She considers herself “the lucky one,” because she does have options beyond marriage. Still, she’s been following the daily back and forth over DACA in the news and she knows she needs submit her application for renewal while she still can.

NYC demonstrators protesting the federal government shutdown. (Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
NYC demonstrators protesting the federal government shutdown. (Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Though DHS has obeyed the San Francisco judge’s injunction and resumed processing renewal applications like Haider’s, the Justice Department appealed the ruling directly to the Supreme Court, attempting to bypass the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. On Tuesday, just a couple of hours before Haider arrived the CUNY event to fill out her renewal application, the Supreme Court justices agreed to consider the DOJ’s request, creating a new potential avenue to resolving the DACA dilemma, amid a congressional stalemate over the issue. Adding to the confusion is the continuously vacillating stance of President Trump. After rejecting a bipartisan deal that included a pathway to citizenship for DACA recipients like Haider, on Wednesday Trump told reporters that he was now open to legislation that would allow so-called Dreamers to “morph into” citizens “over a period of 10 to 12 years.”

“I want to do it before the whole Supreme Court mess works out,” Haider said, clutching a folder full of paperwork, including her near-complete DACA renewal application. CUNY Citizenship Now! aims to make the application process as easy as possible, requiring that volunteers make sure anyone who doesn’t submit their application onsite leaves with their paperwork secure inside a stamped envelope addressed to the Customs and Immigration Service. Though Haider confirmed that she is, in fact, eligible for renewal, there were a few things she still needed to add to her application before putting it in the mail, such as her passport number, her previous addresses and, of course, a check for the $495 application fee.

“I’m trying to get it in fast but I don’t want to be careless,” she said. “That’s why I didn’t file it today.”

Haider said it usually takes between 120 and 150 days for DACA renewal applications to be processed. But as she headed home Tuesday to work on a final paper that was due at midnight, she was already starting to feel more optimistic about the future.

“Before I knew that I could renew it, I kind of lost all motivation,” she said, noting that she would’ve taken the LSATs this week if her plans hadn’t been derailed back in September.

Now, she said, “Those options are not off the table. … I can do it, but it’s just gonna be delayed.”

Haider predicted more tears if her DACA is renewed — “because I’m just going to be so relieved.”

“And if I do get it,” she added. “There’s nothing that’s gonna stop me from going to grad school. Nothing.”

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