Until he was 25 years old, Eli Oh made his living by waiting tables off the books—in spite of holding a nursing degree.
His family arrived in San Jose from South Korea on tourist visas in 1998 when he was 11 years old, having borrowed money to move across the Pacific during an Asian economic crisis. Without legal immigration status, he weighed moving back to South Korea.
Help arrived in Oh’s mid-20s. Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals—the federal program popularly known as DACA—made it possible for people who arrived in this country as children to make a life for themselves with official paperwork.
In the absence of comprehensive immigration reform, an entire generation of “Dreamers” was able to obtain work permits and protection from deportation through executive action, a move that was nonetheless challenged from the get-go.
Oh was able to work as a nurse at last, eventually joining Stanford Health Care and moving back to San Jose.
“DACA really just saved me,” Oh, now 36, told The Standard.
But just as a federal judge in Texas threatens to strip Californians of access to a widely used abortion medication, a federal judge in Texas is considering whether to find a revised version of the program illegal. The ruling would affect an estimated 580,000 DACA recipients nationwide, including 165,000 in California.
Rather than passively await their fates, Dreamers are actively exploring options from employer-sponsored green cards to starting their own businesses and obtaining citizenship through marriage.
DACA has been around for more than a decade, but it was only ever intended to be a temporary fix. Like the Affordable Care Act, also passed during the Obama administration, the program has faced multiple challenges. Many legal experts expect the program will likely end up at the Supreme Court, which now has a conservative majority.
Last fall, federal judges in Texas ruled that DACA is unlawful for exceeding the White House’s authority and stepping past Congress. Any existing recipients is still allowed to renew their status with a roughly $500 filing fee, as they must every two years. Another legal challenge that began earlier this month may mean even current Dreamers could lose their protections.
Some 2,700 reside in San Francisco as of 2020, working in a wide variety of jobs, including as nurses, community organizers and office administrators. With a median age of 28, many Dreamers nationwide have little recollection of their birth countries.
“We are concerned about what’s going on in Texas and how that’s going to impact people in California,” said Jorge Rivas, executive director of San Francisco’s Office of Civic Engagement and Immigrant Affairs. “The bigger question is what is Congress going to do?”
This instability in recent years has Dreamers weighing the options that other undocumented immigrants have long tapped: starting or growing a business to maintain their income, pursuing an employer-sponsored green card or leaving the country.
“A lot of them are seeking an additional avenue simply because they don’t want to be on the receiving end of detrimental overturn of this policy,” said Denea Joseph, a DACA recipient from Belize and organizer with Immigrants Rising. “Instead of being blindsided, they’re making preparations for what seems to be a ‘beyond DACA’ moment. The blueprint is there.”
Under both Republican and Democratic administrations, Congress has not been able to agree on making DACA permanent. And though there’s a bipartisan 2023 Dream Act proposed, its fate is unclear. It would not provide a pathway to citizenship for many undocumented immigrants.
DACA recipients are now looking anew at what undocumented immigrants have for years done to survive and thrive: running their own businesses.
When Yaquelin Valencia, a DACA recipient who grew up in Richmond, was laid off from a community organizing position during the pandemic, the 31-year-old immediately sought another way to keep contributing to her parents’ mortgage for their home of 25 years. The loss of income combined with the instability of DACA turned into a floral business called Vals For You with her friend, another Dreamer.
“It’s court hearing after court hearing,” said Valencia, who came from Mexico at the age of 2. “It just comes in waves. We do need to expand and get [a shop] and make more money if DACA comes to an end. That’s the next step.”
Valencia’s business is one of over 800 to receive $5,000 to $10,000 state-funded grants from Immigrants Rising intended to foster entrepreneurship among undocumented immigrants.
From floral shops like Valencia’s to street vendors, the program aims to build stable income for both those in danger of losing their work permits with DACA and those who never had one.
For Valencia and her friend, it meant being able to stock up on supplies for big events like Mother’s Day and Valentine’s Day. She continues to work as an organizer for Faith in Action while running Vals For You on the side in the hopes she could turn it into a full-fledged business.
“People in our communities have been entrepreneurs before we even knew what that meant,” Joseph said. “We’re quickly coming to that reality that no longer serves us. It’s not just DACA that continues to be under attack. It’s time that we demand more.”
Just before President Donald Trump took office, Oh started to worry about deportation. Even then, attorneys advised him to pursue lawful permanent residence through an employer sponsorship—particularly because he had an advantageous paper trail showing his father had tried, though failed, to do the same.
It’s often assumed that only high-skilled workers like those in tech are eligible for what’s commonly known as a green card, but most employers can sponsor their workers. It’s a route groups like Immigrants Rising are trying to spread the word about.
But the path is tough, costly and can be lengthy, especially depending on the employee’s country of origin. It can take two to three years and cost $2,500 to $20,000.
Ghassan Shamieh, an immigration attorney in San Francisco, suspects more people may try to pursue sponsorship in the coming months and years. Though big corporations like Amazon or Microsoft are used to sponsoring employee visas, his firm has helped small restaurants and car dealerships do it as well.
“It can be something as small as a mom and pop restaurant to a big tech firm and everything in between,” Shamieh said. “People seem to be afraid to reach out because they’re so nervous about their situation. It can be a viable option for a lot of DACA recipients.”
The Central American Resource Center in San Francisco said that DACA clients have constantly called asking about options, including employment-based sponsorship, for the last few years.
“Sadly, this type of difficult news is not new to the DACA and Dreamer community, and we will wait and see what happens as it continues to be litigated,” said Sarah Gavigan, senior staff attorney at the resource center. “We continue to be involved in the fight for a legislative pathway to permanency for those who are DACA eligible, which would eliminate the constant state of limbo and disappointment in which we find ourselves.”
Rivas is closely monitoring the University of California’s Regents, who voted last month to hire students regardless of their immigration status. A legal argument that the 1986 law prohibiting hiring undocumented people does not apply to state entities could serve as a blueprint.
In the meantime, Oh recommends being persistent when it comes to employer sponsorship. His first request to Stanford Health Care failed in 2017 due to its unwillingness to shoulder the cost. He then pursued sponsorship through a travel nursing agency he worked for on the side, putting down $5,000 of his own money for lawyers' fees, but that failed.
Seeing an opportunity with new management at Stanford, Oh asked the medical center associated with Stanford University once more—and to his relief, it said yes. By November 2018, he had received his green card.
This fall, Oh can apply for citizenship.
Many of his fellow undocumented friends found their pathway to a green card or citizenship through marriage. Between 2012 and 2019, about 76,000 people who had DACA went on to obtain legal permanent status largely through marrying citizens, according to the Congressional Research Service.
“It was really surreal, and in some ways, it still is,” Oh said. “This was just such a big existential crisis, and now, I live a normal, privileged life. You never know what your options are.”
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