On DACA anniversary, Kansas dreamer seeks permanent path to citizenship for all immigrants

By: - June 13, 2021 3:55 am

Esmeralda Tovar-Mora doesn’t want to live in limbo any longer. She’s advocating for a path to citizenship. (Submitted to Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — Esmeralda Tovar-Mora is thankful for the opportunities provided by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, but she wants a full path to citizenship.

Tovar-Mora, 24, is one of 5,500 immigrants living in Kansas under the DACA program. Her parents brought her to Kansas in the 1990s when she was just 2 years old. Every two years, she faces the threat of being forced to leave the place she calls home.

The Obama administration created the DACA program in 2012, granting Tovar-Mora an opportunity to work and live with a little more peace of mind. The immigration policy allows some individuals with “unlawful presence” after being brought to the U.S. as children to receive deferred action from deportation and a work permit for two years, subject to renewal.

Those who are granted this status are required to register with the federal government, get an education, keep a job and stay out of legal trouble. They are known as dreamers.

“I have been told you probably should have done it the right way, or I can’t believe your parents did that to you, and I just sit back and think, ‘What do you mean?’ ” Tovar-Mora said. “All they did was live their entire life so that I could dream, so that I could go further in life than they ever did.”

June 15 is the ninth anniversary of DACA, and Sunflower Community Action is celebrating the landmark legislation while calling for further immigration reform. The organization is seeking a path to citizenship for all so immigrants can have a sense of security not offered to an estimated 690,000 people in the DACA program.

Recently, Tovar-Mora was able to meet with President Joe Biden in May and advocate for the Dream and Promise act in person and discuss some of the difficulties face under DACA. She was one of six dreamers from across the country invited to meet with the president.

Esmeralda Tovar-Mora was one of six dreamers invited to speak with president Biden in May about her experience with the DACA program. (Submitted to Kansas Reflector)

Tovar-Mora points to the two-year renewal period. She now lives in Hutchinson with her husband and daughter, both U.S. citizens, and every two years, the possibility of being separated from them looms large. 

Depending on the presidential administration, some years are more stressful than others. Two years ago, when Tovar-Mora went to renew her permit, she was met with a system overload resulting in a weeks-long documentation gap. During this period, she could not work or drive or continue to take college classes.

Last year, a U.S. Supreme Court ruling kept DACA alive after the Trump administration attempted to end the program.

“We’ve been in limbo for too long,” Tovar-Mora said. “The Supreme Court did not say that the ability to end it was wrong, just the way that the last administration went about it was wrong. It’s still a possibility that one of these days someone will come up with something to end it.”

Yeni Telles, a community organizer for Sunflower Community Action, said there is hope Congress will act on pending legislation. She said the American Dream and Promise Act — already passed by the U.S. House but pending in the Senate — would offer a pathway to citizenship.

Certain immigrants who are learning or working in the United States would have a clearly defined way to procure legal status under the proposed legislation, Telles said.

“This will be a path for citizenship for them which will allow them to actually plan the rest of their life rather than asking every two years to have that opportunity,” she said.

Michael Sharma-Crawford, an immigration attorney, described DACA as an interim fix. He said when people envision a path to citizenship they are actually talking about a path to residency.

“I think we should begin by giving them the statutory process, so in the end of this DACA process we give them some hope that they can become permanent residents of the United States,” he said. “That’s the first step that we have to take if we truly want to stand at the gates and follow the law and do it correctly.”

Tovar-Mora is fighting for that hope of residency. On top of work as a case manager at a local mental health center, she works with a local nonprofit, is a member of her local NAACP and is a chairwoman for the multicultural diversity committee at her hospital.

“Only a pathway to citizenship can provide the certainty that dreamers’ lives won’t be ripped away from their spouses or workplaces,” Tovar-Mora said. “All we are trying to do is continue living and being members of society, paying our taxes. All we’re trying to do is work and be with our family.”

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Noah Taborda
Noah Taborda

Noah Taborda started his journalism career in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Missouri, covering local government and producing an episode of the podcast Show Me The State while earning his bachelor’s degree in radio broadcasting at the University of Missouri School of Journalism. Noah then made a short move to Kansas City, Missouri, to work at KCUR as an intern on the talk show Central Standard and then in the newsroom, reporting on daily news and feature stories.