Juan Carlos Cerda has a degree from Yale. He’s influenced rooms of politicians with his public speaking and meets with some of Texas’ top business leaders every week. But if the Supreme Court ends protections for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, Cerda will no longer have freedom from deportation in the country he’s lived in since the age of 7. That ruling could come any day.
“I’m scared,” Cerda says. “I’m very scared. I’m worried that I may not be able to get my first house. I don’t know if I’m going to be able to enroll in an MBA program, which is what I’ve been thinking about doing—going to UT Business School. And I just want a solution.”
Cerda is one of 92,000 DACA-eligible individuals in North Texas, immigrants who arrived in the U.S. as children and have spent most of their lives here. Instituted in 2012 under President Barack Obama, DACA gives them the ability to get a job, drive a car, and be free from deportation. It does so in two-year increments, and each new application costs nearly $500. DACA recipients do not have a path to U.S. citizenship. But despite its imperfections, the program has been a crucial piece of immigration policy, even as some advocates view it as a stopgap toward a more permanent immigration policy.
It could soon go away. The latest the U.S. Supreme Court is expected to rule is June. Cerda says that based on the conservative-leaning makeup of the court and gleanings from the November hearings, his organization, the Texas Business Immigration Coalition, is bracing for the worst.
A lot is at stake. According to the North Texas Commission, DACA-eligible households earned $1 billion in 2017, contributing nearly $200 million to the federal, state, and local tax rolls. DACA-eligible immigrants have a 96.2 percent employment rate in Dallas-Fort Worth. Going beyond the personal impact of uprooting people who’ve lived nearly their entire lives in the U.S., an elimination of DACA without policy to replace it would have a significant impact on the region’s economy.
Cerda’s job is to bring that message to people of influence. After hearing him speak a few years back, the Texas Business Immigration Coalition brought Cerda aboard as DFW Business Outreach Manager. He spends his days driving across the region, enlightening executives on how immigration law impacts their bottom lines, and telling his personal story.
“There’s leadership coming from these business owners, these CEOs, and these philanthropists,” Cerda Says. “It all starts from the story—my story, and the story of my parents, the story of some of my friends.”
There is much for Cerda to share. He came to DFW from Mexico in 2000, his family reuniting with his father who’d been working as a painter for two years in Atlanta. He can speak about the challenges of an undocumented status and of growing up in a household just trying to get by.
Cerda thrived. He remembers the impact of a history teacher who believed in him. He remembers how his academic decathlon team at Grand Prairie High School made it to state, only to have to pull out over concerns that a few of the team members, himself included, would be given trouble at checkpoints in El Paso, where the competition was held. He remembers being unable to drive legally or take a job even as he secured a scholarship to Yale. And he remembers starting to find his voice after talking to the Yale Daily News about his undocumented status.
After college, Cerda made the decision to come back to DFW and to Pleasant Grove for Teach For America. He received a scare in 2016. An error with the system left Cerda without a work permit. He could not return to his job for five weeks. He says it wasn’t until U.S. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson caught wind of his story and helped him state his case that he got back his permit. The experience left him only more hungry to help peers whose residency is similarly set on shaky ground.
His advocacy has taken on new weight. The conservative-leaning high court is expected to make those 92,000 DACA-eligible North Texans deportable. President Trump announced it would rescind protections for DACA recipients in September 2017, but lower courts have blocked his attempt.
“I knew when President Trump got elected that the DACA permit was going to end, because his entire campaign promise was to do things like that,” Cerda says. “I knew it was coming. We were all scared.”
But Cerda says there may be an opportunity to flip a bad situation into something more permanent. “This could create some urgency to address the 275,000 DACA eligible dreamers in Texas, for them to be protected, for them to finally have a pathway to citizenship,” he says. “As far as what can we finally do to get to that point, we have to organize. This is where things like the Supreme Court ruling on DACA can help the organizing.”
One business leader with whom Cerda has worked closely is the North Texas Commission’s Chris Wallace who, for his part, expresses optimism about what an unfavorable DACA ruling would mean. He believes the court would institute a temporary hold for DACA recipients so that nothing would happen until congress acts. The companies he has talked to feel comfortable that they won’t suddenly be without part of their workforce. “They’ll punt back to Congress and say, ‘Now it’s your opportunity to fix this,’” he said. “We need the workers.”
Emma Chalott Barron organizes workshops through the North Texas Dream Team that inform DACA-eligible immigrants about the program and application process. She says she continues to advocate that anyone due for renewal submit their applications. Chalott Barron expects that the government would wind down the program over time, because of the sheer logistics of terminating hundreds of thousands of permits at once. She is encouraging individuals who don’t have the means to pay for their applications to seek financial help through organizations or consulates, which sometimes cover the fees. Chalott Barron, too, is cautiously optimistic that an unfavorable Supreme Court ruling could spur Congress toward action.
“It’s very cautious,” she says, “because we know that in previous attempts to legislate a pathway to citizenship for folks, it’s always been in exchange for a concession of increased enforcement spending and militarization of the border.”
Like Cerda, Chalott Barron has been in the U.S., and in DFW, since she was seven. She has been planning her life in two-year increments since 2012.
“Meanwhile, in the back of our mind, I think we always had a clock,” she says. “Like, our time was going to be up.”