Living the dream?

DACA recipients happy with Supreme Court ruling, but know it's not a fix-all

Karina Ambartsoumian-Clough, who lives and works in Philadelphia says while she’s happy that protections were given to Dreamers like her in the recent support ruling, it’s really “a band-aid” on the bigger issue that is immigration reform. | Image courtesy: Karina Ambartsoumian-Clough

Although she has – and now will be able to retain – DACA status, Philadelphia resident Karina Ambartsoumian-Clough, 32, is technically stateless.

In a landmark decision, on June 18, The Supreme Court ruled to block President Trump’s plan to rescind the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program known as DACA, which protects undocumented immigrants brought to to the United States as children. However, while this ruling provides some breathing space for DACA recipients, or “Dreamers,” a lot of questions remain about the fate of this population. 

Born of Armenian and Ukrainian ethnic background, she came to the United States with her parents when she was just 8, who escaped persecution and economic despair in the collapsing Soviet Union. After three different appeals, a Philadelphia immigration court denied the family citizenship, but the Ukrainian embassy did not recognize Ambartsoumian-Clough’s birth certificate.

“I am stateless, meaning that there is no country in the world under the application of a law that recognizes me as a citizen,” Ambartsoumian-Clough said. “The United States does not have any legal framework or recognition or pathway to protection for someone that is stateless. The country I was born in no longer exists. The country that replaced it does not recognize me in the country and now doesn’t have any pathway for me.”

So Ambartsoumian-Clough and her family lived undocumented in the United States for years, until she was an adult and learned she could apply to DACA, which allowed her to live and work lawfully in this country – a status for which she and other recipients have had to re-apply for every two years since the statute was instituted by President Obama in 2012. Researchers estimate that there are between 650,000 and 800,000 DACA recipients in the U.S. A recent report by the Center for Migration Studies of New York estimates that approximately 218,000 potentially stateless people, or people at risk for statelessness, live in the United States.

To gain DACA status, individuals must have been under the age of 31 as of June 15, 2012; have arrived in the United States before their 16th birthdays; have continuously lived in the United States since June 15, 2007, to the present; have had no lawful status on June 15, 2012; be currently attending school, have graduated or obtained a high school diploma or a general educational development certificate, or be an honorably discharged veteran of the U.S. Armed Forces; and have not been convicted of a felony, significant misdemeanor, or three or more other misdemeanors, among other requirements.

The documentation that allows Dreamer Karina Ambartsoumian-Clough to work in the United States, but doesn’t allow her to ever leave it. | Image courtesy: Karina Ambartsoumian-Clough

DACA is not a path to citizenship, and it was in legal limbo after Trump ordered it terminated in 2017. It wound its way through the courts until earlier this month, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 to maintain the program. Until this ruling, however, DACA recipients had been fretting about their uncertain status and not knowing what their futures might look like, in addition to experiencing all the anxieties of the COVID-19 pandemic, creating a sort of double-whammy of worry for these individuals.

Prior to Thursday’s ruling, both the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) declined to comment on the status of DACA recipients due to the pending litigation.

“Philadelphia stands with DACA recipients across the country,” Philadelphia Mayor Kenney said immediately following the June 18 ruling. “DACA recipients came out of the shadows, and many of them are thriving as students and young professionals, contributing to the progress of our cities. They are a vital part of our communities. Today’s Supreme Court ruling is a huge victory for Dreamers across the country. In Philadelphia, we respect DACA recipients and all immigrants who choose to call our city home; we love them, and we will continue fighting for them and their families.”

Jorling Sarria, 24, who came to Philadelphia with his parents from Nicaragua when he was 9, became a DACA recipient at 18.

“My feeling with the Supreme Court decision, I’m just relieved and having faith that later or sooner something better will come out from DACA, because DACA is good and everything, but DACA only helps us so much.”

For DACA recipient Jorling Sarria, the opportunity to live and work in the United States is a blessing, one he hopes will lead to even more reform down the line. | Image courtesy: Jorling Sarria

For instance, Sarria, who works in a tax office and even does some modeling on the side, said he would like to be able to visit Nicaragua and his roots but is unable to as a DACA recipient without special permission.

Maria Sotomayor, deputy director of the Pennsylvania Immigration and Citizenship Coalition, a Philadelphia-based advocacy organization that supports the rights of immigrants and refugees, said that waiting for the Supreme Court ruling was incredibly taxing for DACA recipients.

“You can believe this causes a lot of anxiety and stress on both our members and also their families, especially through this uncertain time, through a pandemic where a lot of people have been left behind from support from the government, or are also having trouble just being able to feed their families or support their families or have even access to health care during this time,” Sotomayor said. “So, we find ourselves in a very difficult situation, not knowing what’s going to be happening and being able to advocate for the immigrant community at this moment.”

Even before coronavirus hit the world, “it felt very lonely for a long time,” Ambartsoumian-Clough said. “I felt lonely, isolated… I did not know anyone outside of me, my own immediate family [who was stateless]…It feels like you don’t belong. It doesn’t feel like you can be involved in anything. The idea of civil society, you don’t belong. Your voice is not heard.”

Ambartsoumian-Clough went to college for one year but was unwilling to take on more debt without knowing what her long-term status would be. She has worked in the restaurant industry and with nonprofits, including the one she is now heavily involved with, United Stateless, a national organization led by stateless people whose mission is to build community among those affected by statelessness and to advocate for their human rights. 

Ambartsoumian-Clough found the organization two years ago after she posted a talk she gave about her background on YouTube. That speech introduced her to other stateless people around the country. “It was incredible to hear other experiences just like my own,” Ambartsoumian-Clough said.

“I try to remind myself everything’s going to be OK, but that’s little lies you tell yourself because I’m scared to be undocumented again,” Ambartsoumian-Clough said before Thursday’s ruling. “It’s giving me such anxiety… What’s going to happen next week? Is there any end in sight, or is it just not an option to garner any type of status?… Even with my marriage to a U.S. citizen and my family, is there any pathway for me here?

“I was brought here when I was 8…Now I’m 32. This issue has just followed me my whole life. And it feels like a Greek tragedy… I have no control over it.”

“Racism and discrimination infect people. Citizenship is one of those things that are needed. But we also need to make sure that people have access to health care, education, and home security, job security, and so on, just like any other American in this country wants and deserves. The same thing [should be true] for the immigrant community.”

–  Maria Sotomayor, deputy director of the Pennsylvania Immigration and Citizenship Coalition

Ambartsoumian-Clough said the Black Lives Matter movement speaks to her “a lot” because it made her realize that it was not just undocumented, stateless individuals who lacked a voice in this country, but also actual citizens with all the rights she hoped for who were going unheard.

During the pandemic and the protests,  Ambartsoumian-Clough says she has become even more “scared of the state of the world and what it means for people that are extremely vulnerable.”

Sotomayor stressed that when people think about immigrants as essential workers during the pandemic, such as doctors, nurses, and hospital staff, that it was also important to remember that all immigrants are essential and that many were anxious about waiting for a decision on DACA while living and working through a pandemic.

“They’re working at grocery stores, cleaning, and so many other things,” Sotomayor said before the decision. “We have farm workers who are in the field, who are also getting sick and not getting much support. So, I think it’s important to acknowledge that it goes beyond just the medical area. And then also not knowing if there’s going to be a decision happening, whether they’re going to have a job or not, and then also the well-being of their families.”

Sarria said that despite the pandemic, the limbo of waiting for the Supreme Court ruling, and the institutionalized racism in this country that has raised a recent outcry, he had been feeling optimistic that the Supreme Court would take a stance in favor of DACA and that ultimately, something better for Dreamers will come out of the decision.

“I always say it’s a great time to be alive, because right now we are witnessing history,” Sarria said. “We are witnessing something new.”

Jorling Sarria, who has two jobs, one of which is as a model, says the knowledge that he’s not able to ever visit his native Nicaragua due to his DACA status is as unnerving as not being able to view it as a true home. | Image courtesy: Jorling Sarria 

The country sees “how important we are, and how much value we bring,” Sarria added. Ruling against DACA would mean losing a lot of productive members of this society, he added. “I have a feeling that something better is going to come up because we provide so much to this country and people have seen it.”

Alvaro Escobedo, 21, a DACA recipient in Lawrence, Kansas, was not quite as confident in his future as Sarria. Having come to this country at 18 months from Mexico, his DACA status enabled him to graduate from college. Escobedo wants to go to law school to become an immigration attorney but has had to put this on hold until he knows his fate in this country.

“It makes you really anxious to know what’s going to happen next because it’s your future on the line,” Escobedo said before the Supreme Court decision. “And that means whether or not you can work, whether or not you can be here legally, whether or not that deferred action is no longer going to protect you and possibly you can be deported. Those are among the real fears of many DACA recipients like myself.”

Escobedo said that when he heard that USCIS would no longer be taking initial requests for DACA, he started “almost hyperventilating…That could mean I might not finish my dream, might not get it accomplished in time. And honestly, you just have to live with it since you can’t change the law, and you can’t do anything besides call your representatives and hope that they listen to you and urge that change for you. And so every day this is on your mind.

“I think we should protect our recipients for all that they’ve been to this country,” Escobedo said.

Daiana Lilo, 20, a stateless student who studies at Harvard, is also a DACA recipient. She was born in Greece, but the government there wouldn’t recognize her birth certificate because her parents are Albanian. When Lilo was quite young, her family immigrated to the United States, where, at 15, Lilo gained her DACA status.

The combination of the pandemic, the protests against institutional racism, and waiting for the Supreme Court ruling made this a very tense time, Lilo said.

“The DACA decision was truly one of the biggest reliefs of my life, and it made this month of worrying and anguish worth it,” Lilo said. “I saw the news by skimming through the opinion and it just felt like an amazing weight being lifted from my shoulders… DACA is supported, and Dreamers are wanted; I know that I belong here. Now it is time for a path to citizenship for us Dreamers, and for others, too, who were unable to qualify for DACA.” 

Daiana Lilo
Daiana Lilo, 20, is a DACA recipient who studies at Harvard. Lilo was born in Greece, but the government wouldn’t recognize her birth certificate because her parents are Albanian. | Image courtesy: Daiana Lilo

Ambartsoumian-Clough said the ultimate goal should not be the indefinite extension of DACA, which is just a “Band-Aid on a huge problem.”

Instead, she agrees with Lilo, Sarria, and Sotomayor that Congress needs to pass comprehensive immigration reform, and that these matters cannot be forgotten even amidst a pandemic. Allowing the undocumented community access to citizenship is critical, Sotomayor said.

“Racism and discrimination infect people,” Sotomayor said. “Citizenship is one of those things that are needed. But we also need to make sure that people have access to health care, education, and home security, job security, and so on, just like any other American in this country wants and deserves. The same thing [should be true] for the immigrant community.”

Broke in Philly tag

This story is a part of the Philadelphia Weekly Behind the Frontlines series, which aims to look at the lives of other essential workers forgotten in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Behind the Frontlines is delivered in partnership with WHYY and Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project among 23 news organizations, focused on Philadelphia’s push towards economic justice. Read more of our reporting at brokeinphilly.org

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    Courtenay Harris Bond is a Philadelphia-area freelance journalist, who covers behavioral health, social justice, the opioid epidemic, among other topics.