(PHILADELPHIA) — For nearly 20 years, as a son of Colombian immigrants, Miguel has been living out his American dream without any certainty he’ll be allowed to stay in America.
Soon, he says, he’s calling it quits on the U.S. and moving to Canada instead.
“I still consider myself a dreamer in the sense that I’m a DACA recipient, but I’m done dreaming. I want a real life,” the 23-year-old college graduate and masters student, who’s chasing a career in education administration, said in an interview.
“I don’t think it’s going back to square one, but it’s still disheartening that it didn’t work out in America,” he said.
More than a decade after President Barack Obama created DACA, or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, to temporarily protect young undocumented immigrants like Miguel from deportation, a growing number say they are looking to leave the country on their own terms.
Immigrant and community advocates say interest among DACA recipients in building a future outside America’s borders has been surging in recent months, after a federal appeals court in October said the DACA program is likely illegal and should be eliminated entirely. Legal experts expect the case to eventually reach the U.S. Supreme Court.
“I think that’s why we’ve had an increase of membership and folks asking questions just because they’ve been discouraged for so long,” said Tawheeda Wahabzada, a former DACA recipient who self-deported to Canada in 2020 and co-founded ONWARD, an online support network of hundreds of disillusioned American dreamers.
Congress has repeatedly tried, unsuccessfully, to create a pathway to permanent residency for the estimated 3.6 million American dreamers brought to the country as young children, and a legislative solution is not on the horizon.
“For me, personally, it is sad, but at the same time, being able to live life on my terms, and not what Congress or a judge or lawyers far away decide, is incredibly empowering for me,” said Miguel, who asked to withhold his last name to protect his family’s privacy.
Nearly 700,000 young immigrants are currently enrolled in DACA, according to the Department of Homeland Security. It is not known exactly how many are considering uprooting from America, or how many have already left.
Several independent analyses have estimated that losing the contributions of DACA recipients from the U.S. economy could cost hundreds of billions of dollars in lost income and tax revenue.
“Brain drain, essentially,” Wahabzada said of the exodus. “Many are declaring an end to their American dream in the U.S., but the components of that dream, the essence of that dream, could still continue elsewhere.”
In interviews with ABC News, several former DACA recipients who are rebuilding their lives abroad said that years of uncertainty in America — because of a situation that was no fault of their own — took a steep emotional and financial toll.
“Stability. That’s what I want,” said Miguel. “All I want is just to have a nice apartment or a nice home. A dog. And I don’t have that right now because I’m living my life in two-year increments.”
He said the process of renewing two-year DACA authorization to live and work in the U.S. has cost him more than $10,000 in application and legal fees.
“The States is basically a golden cage. You have all these opportunities but you can’t really go anywhere past a certain point,” said Madai Zamora, a former DACA recipient who lived in the U.S. from age 3 but self-deported to Mexico in 2018 when she was 24.
Zamora, who grew up in California and North Carolina before graduating college and becoming a teacher, runs a video blog “Diary of a Native Foreigner” that documents her transition to a place she lived briefly as a child but has never truly known.
“Just having to navigate everything by myself, without my mom or my siblings or my nieces has been very difficult,” she said.
Her family still resides in the U.S.
Jason Hong, a former DACA recipient and co-founder of ONWARD, spent 18 years growing up on the East Coast before leaving home in 2019 for Spain, where he got an entrepreneur visa and now runs two startup companies.
“Immigrants are the ones who create the jobs,” Hong said in an interview from Madrid. “So for me, I really wanted to kind of represent that segment where I can create a company based on my ideas and, hopefully, to create job opportunities for other people.”
Critics of extending permanent legal status to DACA recipients say it would be an “amnesty” for families that broke the law, and could compromise jobs for other Americans. It remains a sticking point in congressional negotiations over the dreamers as immigration authorities face near-record levels of migration along the southern border.
DACA recipients and their advocates — which include Democrats and Republicans — say the college graduates are filling vital roles that remain in high demand, including health care workers, teachers, and small business owners.
Monsy Hernandez, a former DACA recipient from South Carolina, moved to Germany at 23 in order to pursue a career in social work, leaving the US at a time when social workers are in short supply.
“I wanted very badly to consider myself American and to be seen as American. However, it was very obvious to me in the way that I was treated and the way that people spoke to me, that I was not welcome,” Hernandez said in an interview.
“I do not have any regrets about self-deporting. I’m no longer illegal, and I found that it’s been incredibly healing to be able to settle down and live in a country where I am accepted and feel accepted,” Monsy said.
DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas told ABC News that the Biden administration does not want DACA recipients to abandon their American dreams.
“We’re committed to youth who know no other country, no other home than the United States of America, who’ve contributed so much to the well-being and prosperity of our country,” he said. “We’ve sought to fortify the DACA program through our regulation, and we are hopeful that the Supreme Court will recognize the integrity of the DACA program and protect the Dreamers.”
Miguel, who is preparing to move to Canada this summer to enroll in business school and apply for permanent residency, says years of political promises have failed to materialize.
“I think it shows that the American Dream has, you know, in many ways left us out, unfortunately,” he said. “That’s not to spite the American people. I consider myself American. I love this country. But unfortunately, the dream has really left us out.”
“We’re not bad people. We’re good people,” he added. “We just want a chance to succeed.”
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