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He received DACA status at 24. 10 years later, ruling reminds him 'you don’t belong here'

The ambitious executive immigration plan known as DACA, or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, is now likely heading back to the Supreme Court. The Obama administration enacted the program in 2012, allowing hundreds of thousands of undocumented people brought to the U.S. as kids temporary protection from deportation and a work permit.

One Phoenix morning in January 2013, José Patiño was thumbing through the mail when he found a thin package from Citizenship and Immigration Services.

"And then touching the package, it felt like a little card, I just couldn’t hold on opening it, I opened it really fast," he said.

It was his first-ever DACA card.

"I was just jumping for joy. My brother was like, ‘What’s going on?’ And I told him, and he was really happy for me. And both of us were jumping. Then my mom came out, and she was crying. I was just, extremely happy. It just felt like now I was in a position where I could do more, like I could spread my wings and fly," he said.

Patiño was part of the first cohort of undocumented people to get DACA. He found out on his 24th birthday. He’s 34 now.

"Honestly, if you would have told me that this issue hadn’t been resolved by the time I was this age, I wouldn’t have believed you. It still shocks me," he said.

Over a decade of ups and downs for program

""It’s just that you are different and you don’t belong here, even though you try as much as you can. It’s a reminder that you’re not at home. Even though you want to be home, you’re not necessarily welcome here." — José Patiño

Patiño has been in Arizona since he was a toddler. Today, he's the vice president of education and external affairs at Aliento, a DACA-led immigrant advocacy group in Phoenix. He’s seen DACA go through three U.S. presidents, countless lawsuits and even one round at the Supreme Court.

This week, U.S. Court District Judge Andrew Hanen in Texas ruled the Biden administration’s version of the DACA program is illegal. Current recipients like Patiño can reapply to get the status and the work permit attached to it. New applicants are still barred.

Now, the U.S. Supreme Court is expected to consider whether the program can continue. It will be the second time since 2020.

Julia Gelatt with the Migration Policy Institute, an immigration think-tank, says DACA recipients like Patiño have broad public sympathy and support on their side if the Supreme Court were to terminate the program.

"If the Supreme Court says that the DACA program cannot stand, it will matter a lot to DACA holders who is in office," she said.

If the court were to end DACA, it would likely do so in a slow decimation, unwinding it over two years. That would mean an estimated 800 people a day would lose protections.

Patiño knows the risks well. He says Hanen’s ruling wasn’t exactly unexpected — the Trump appointee already ruled the Obama administration’s version of the program was illegal back in 2021. His new ruling says the same about Biden’s version.

Still, Patiño says it’s a painful reminder.

"It’s just that you are different and you don’t belong here, even though you try as much as you can. It’s a reminder that you’re not at home. Even though you want to be home, you’re not necessarily welcome here," he said. "It's a weird feeling, because I have a lot of people who tell me they care and a lot of support, but at the same time ... the government tells you that you don't belong here."

But, Patiño says it also underscores a vital DACA fact — it was never intended to be a permanent solution. That would need to come from Congress, he says, and it's been elusive for years. 

An impermanent solution — and still not for everyone

Would-be recipients like Daniela Chavira have been cut off for years. Her family came to Phoenix from Hermosillo, Mexico, when she was 10 months old. She’s the oldest of four siblings and the only one who isn’t a U.S. citizen. She tried to get DACA when she turned 15.

"But September 5th, 2017, DACA was rescinded for the first time under the Trump administration, so I couldn’t apply," she recalls.

The Supreme Court ruled to uphold DACA in 2020. And a new opportunity came in 2021 — when the Biden administration re-opened the program to new applicants. Chavira raced to send in her application.

"And I was waiting to hear back, and then they closed it again under Judge Hanen’s rule in July (2021)," she said.

That was the first time Hanen ruled against the program. That was the first time Hanen ruled against the program. The case went to the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals this year, where the three-judge panel sided with him, but sent it back to the lower court to consider the new rules created under Biden. 

Meanwhile, Chavira's application and thousands of others are still stuck at Citizenship and Immigration Services.

Seeing the latest ruling now, she says she feels for the people who have the status, like Patiño.

"I grieve for them ... they have the safety from deportation, the work permit, driver's license ... they've made families and have houses ... when the decision comes, what's left? This is all taken away," she said.

But Chavira says watching her opportunity to get DACA close again in 2021 also made her feel numb to the future of the program.

"I'm still undocumented, I never had DACA to begin with," she said. "So, nothing changes for me. Like I said, my faith and hope don’t lie there. My faith lies in God, my hope lies in us as a community, and my family, myself."

As for a hope in Congress or the courts, Chavira says at least right now, that’s slim to none.

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Alisa Reznick is a senior field correspondent covering stories across southern Arizona and the borderlands for the Tucson bureau of KJZZ's Fronteras Desk.Prior to joining KJZZ, she covered border and immigration at Arizona Public Media, where she was awarded a regional Edward R. Murrow Award for her coverage of Indigenous-led protests against border wall construction.Reznick started her career working in bilingual newsrooms and as a freelance journalist in Amman, Jordan. Her reporting on migration, refugees and human rights has appeared on PRX’s The World, Al Jazeera and Nova PBS, among others. As a recipient of the International Labour Organization's FAIRWAY Reporting Fellowship, she spent six months reporting on labor migration issues across Arab States.Originally from Flagstaff, she likes climbing, being outdoors and Pluto.