The DACA Program Is Always Under Threat—My Family Is Too

After last-minute immigration deal fails, Dreamer, educator, and mother Juana Montoya grapples with how (or if) to explain her status to her American kids.

DACA Dreamers Protesting

Anadolu Agency | Getty Images

When COVID hit in 2020, my then 8-year-old daughter began taking ballet classes over Zoom with her aunt in Mexico. She loved learning how to pirouette and plié, and she quickly bonded with my sister-in-law. Soon, she began begging to visit Mexico, where most of our extended family lives.  

Her pleas have grown stronger with each passing year. She watches her friends celebrate holidays with their grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins and longs for the same connections in her own life. I understand her yearning. I felt it, too, when I was her age growing up in the United States, far away from my relatives.  

So it breaks my heart when I’m forced to make excuses for why we can’t travel. We’ve blamed the pandemic, said her baby brother is too little, or that her dad and I are busy with work. But eventually, we’ll have to share the real reason: Our immigration status prevents us from leaving the country. If we did, even for a short trip to visit family, we wouldn’t be allowed to return.   

My husband and I are Dreamers, undocumented immigrants from Mexico who came to this country as young children. We’ve lived nearly all our lives in America. For the last decade, we’ve been able to legally work and live here under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program or DACA. But DACA provides no long-term security; in fact, it’s constantly under threat. And that means our family—including our two American-born children—are threatened, too.   

During his administration, President Donald Trump tried repeatedly to rescind DACA and the program stopped processing new applicants. Last year, nine Republican governors brought a lawsuit against the program. This fall, a three-judge panel ruled that DACA was illegal. And last week, a last-minute bipartisan legislative immigration deal failed. It was a devastating blow. With DACA on its last legs, and no permanent protections in sight, my husband and I—and hundreds of thousands of Dreamer parents like us—may be forced out of the country and separated from our American-born kids. If you’re a parent, surely you understand why we’re so terrified.    

For years, DACA recipients have been talked about as children or young people, eager to advance our education and join the workforce. But today, we're full-grown adults, and frequently parents with families of our own. We’ve graduated from American high schools and colleges. We have careers, bought homes, and are raising American children. Our lives are ordinary, American lives.

I wake up each morning with a mission to make sure my kids are doing well in school, making friends, eating at least something green at dinner. Our kids are now 10 and 1, which means my husband and I are always busy—arranging play dates, overseeing homework, and cooking dinners every night. Like most families, we are also juggling two full time jobs; my husband works as an assistant professor of Spanish at Colgate University. I’ve got a master’s degree in childhood education and work as a teacher’s aide. Soon, I’ll have my own classroom in elementary school.    

But my husband and I never forget our immigration status. We constantly navigate how much of our immigration status to share with our daughter. She doesn’t deserve the burden of this knowledge. So we don’t tell her that our life could be ripped away from us because of callous politicians and judges. Still, every day brings us closer to the moment when we’ll have to tell her the truth. When I rehearse these conversations in my mind, I feel paralyzed. How do you explain to a kid that your own country doesn’t protect you? How do you explain that if our status was revoked, she and her brother could stay in the U.S. but mom and dad would be kicked out?   

It’s hard hiding this from my daughter. We are incredibly close. We spend many long nights talking about her future. She asks for advice that only a mom can provide. I take her to after-school activities and I make sure she does her homework daily. I love every moment I spend with her, from comforting her after a hard day at school to celebrating her accomplishments after a soccer game, violin concert, or ballet rehearsal. In turn, she has been there for the important moments in my career—when I returned to school, got my master's and, soon, when I’ll be leading my own classroom. I work at her school, so she sees my passion for teaching up close. She knows that one kindergartener in my class struggles with separation anxiety from his parents, but runs to hug me when I show up. She knows that I listen to him and help him draw pictures, which calms him down. My daughter also knows that our school (like so many schools in this country) is short staffed, which means my responsibilities have multiplied. I’m often being pulled in so many directions that I end up skipping the 15-minute break in my schedule. Even though I often feel exhausted at the end of the day, my daughter sees the joy in my face when I talk about my work.

I do my best to be an example for my daughter. She says she’ll be a doctor or teacher when she grows up, so I encourage her to work hard toward her dreams. I don’t want anything to stand in her way. That’s why I’m not ready to tell her about the precarity of DACA and the likelihood that it will be ended for good. Part of me hopes that I won’t have to—that maybe one day Congress will finally protect us as so many of our representatives have long promised to do. I hold onto the hope that the conversation I ultimately have with my daughter will be a happy one. Of course, we can visit your aunts, uncles, and cousins in Mexico. Of course, mom and dad will be there for your next birthday and your ballet recital and your high school graduation. We are Americans. This is our home. Why would it be any different?     

Was this page helpful?
Related Articles