'We won': DACA recipients overwhelmed by surprise Supreme Court victory over Trump

Alan Gomez

Just as she'd done every day that the Supreme Court released its opinions, Itzel Hernandez sat down at her computer in her home in central New Jersey on Thursday morning and repeatedly clicked refresh to look for the court's ruling on DACA.

Finally, just after 10 a.m., there it was. Hernandez, like so many other DACA recipients across the country, started speed-reading the decision. It appeared that the court was ruling in her favor, that President Donald Trump and his administration were being shot down in their attempt to end the program.

"I was like, 'Wait, I don't think I'm reading this correctly,'" said Hernandez, 26.

Then she saw a tweet from a legal expert declaring that DACA had survived. 

"That's it," she thought. "We won. There's already so many tears that have been shed. Nobody can believe it."

In a deeply divided 5-4 opinion written by Chief Justice John Roberts, the court ruled that the Department of Homeland Security's "arbitrary and capricious" process to end DACA was unlawful. That means that the Deferred Action for Childhood Protection (DACA) program created by President Barack Obama in 2012 will endure, allowing more than 650,000 DACA recipients to continue legally living and working in the U.S.

Carolina Fung Feng, third from left, Martin Batalla Vidal, fourth from left, and Eliana Fernandez, third from right join other DACA recipients heading into hear arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court on whether the 2017 Trump administration decision to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA) is lawful on Nov. 12, 2019.

Trump called the "politically charged" ruling the latest in a series of "shotgun blasts" to the face of Republicans and conservatives.

Karen Caudillo saw it and started crying tears of joy.

Caudillo was illegally brought to the U.S. by her parents from Mexico when she was 4 years old. She was approved for DACA when she was a junior in high school, and that allowed her to attend the University of Central Florida, where she graduated last year with a bachelor's degree in political science. It also allowed her to start her own house-cleaning business that uses only organic cleaning products.

When Caudillo first saw that the decision was released on Thursday, her heart sank, fearful of what it would say. But once it became clear that DACA had been upheld, she FaceTimed with her mother, and the two wept.

"She told me, 'This is proof that all of our efforts, all of our sacrifices to get into this country, to give you a better life than what we had, it was all worth it,'" said Caudillo, 24.

For Gaby Pacheco, the ruling removed a huge weight she has carried on her shoulders for nearly a decade.

While most undocumented immigrants live their lives in the shadows, always fearful of alerting police or government officials, Pacheco was among the first "Dreamers" who publicly advocated for legal protections, blasting out her name and her face for all to see.

In 2010, she and three other young undocumented immigrants led the Trail of Dreams, a four-month march from Miami to Washington, D.C., to push for passage of the Dream Act, a bill to protect young undocumented immigrants from deportation that has been repeatedly proposed and defeated in Congress.

She participated in a sit-in in Sen. John McCain's office. She helped lead the pressure campaign against the Obama administration to create DACA. And when Obama created it, she was part of a team of negotiators with United We Dream that worked with the Obama administration to implement DACA.

One of the key wins during that negotiation was persuading U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the federal agency that operates the DACA program, to seal off the personal information provided by DACA applicants from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the federal agency that arrests and deports undocumented immigrants. That agreement lasted until Trump won the presidency in 2016. Ever since, ICE has threatened to use that information to target DACA recipients with standing orders of removal if and when DACA was terminated.

"When Donald Trump won and his first promise was that he was going to end the program, that’s when I stopped sleeping," Pacheco said Thursday. "I feel responsible for all the lives of all these young people. That's what I've been carrying all these years."

That's why Thursday's ruling was such a relief for Pacheco, 35, who was part of the DACA program but no longer needed it after she became a permanent legal resident in 2017. 

"I started trembling: my hands, my feet, my whole body. I thought, 'Oh my gosh, this actually happened,'" she said. "I feel like that little monkey that’s been on my back all these years, I can say, 'Get off of me.'"

Demonstrators arrive in front of the US Supreme Court during the "Home Is Here" March for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), and Temporary Protected Status (TPS) on Nov. 10, 2019 in Washington D.C.  They completed a march from New York City to Washington DC, to the US Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court is set to hear oral arguments regarding termination of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy on Nov, 12.

Despite the excitement – and the countless virtual parties to come Thursday night – Hernandez, Caudillo and Pacheco each made clear that there is still much work to be done.

Pacheco, who is now the program director for advocacy for TheDream.US, an organization that helps "Dreamers," said immigrants need to continue watching closely to ensure the administration continues operating the program properly. The administration could try to end the program again, just as it proposed multiple versions of a travel ban targeting majority-Muslim countries before the Supreme Court finally approved the third iteration.

Caudillo, who also works as a digital organizer for FLIC Votes, a Florida-based organization that advocates for immigrants, said she's concerned about problems that still plague undocumented immigrants who are Black and transgender, and young undocumented immigrants who were left out of the DACA program.

Dreamers Karen Caudillo, 21, of Florida is comforted by Jairo Reyes, 25, of Rogers, Arkansas as Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., accompanied by members of the House and Senate Democrats, speaks during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Sept. 6, 2017. House and Senate Democrats gather to call for Congressional Republicans to stand up to President Trump's decision to terminate the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) initiative by bringing the DREAM Act for a vote on the House and Senate Floor.

And Hernandez, an immigrant rights organizer for the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker organization that advocates for justice reform, said there are still 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the U.S. who continue being arrested, detained and deported that they need to protect.

"Tomorrow we wake up just as committed to pushing for what we want: full citizenship," she said.

But for one day, at least, each of them will take the time to celebrate. 

"I'm probably going to get some really good sleep tonight," Pacheco said.