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DACA At The Supreme Court


Good morning. DACA goes to the Supreme Court this week - in the balance, the legal status of 700,000 people who grew up in America. Often called the DREAMers, they were brought to the U.S. illegally as children. They signed up for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program after President Obama put it in place seven years ago. DACA deferred their deportation and allowed them to get Social Security cards so they could work. President Trump tried to shut the program down after he took office, but he was blocked by the lower courts. NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg has the story of one of those DACA recipients.

NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: Mitchell Santos came to the U.S. from Mexico when he was 2. His father and mother came with temporary visas and brought Mitch and his older sister. They never left. Soon, Mitch had two more siblings born in the U.S. who were American citizens. Mitch's father managed to support the family doing manual labor under the table.

MITCHELL SANTOS: He would tell us time and time again, your priority here is to study. Your priority is to do the best you can academically.

TOTENBERG: Mitch doesn't remember an aha moment, a realization that he and his family were undocumented.

SANTOS: You start going through these milestones of adolescence, like applying for a driver's license. And then I realized, oh, wait; I can't do that.

TOTENBERG: He couldn't even accept a scholarship from a private school. He watched his older sister, an academic star, unable to go to college. But even that didn't stop his ambition.

SANTOS: I grew up like any other American kid, right? You get these images of these colleges thrown at you. I was exposed to images of, you know, UC Berkeley, No. 1, you know, state school in California. And even though after my parents let me know, this is going to be really tough for you, I still wanted to try.

TOTENBERG: And he got into UC Berkeley but, like his sister, he couldn't figure out a way to pay the full freight. And in those days, undocumented students did not qualify for scholarships or loans. Eventually, his mother suggested an alternative. Why not take courses at the local community college, where tuition was more affordable and he could go part time?

SANTOS: My schedule almost on a daily basis was, wake up, take a morning class before work, go to work and then drive back to school and then take a night class.

TOTENBERG: Much of this would not have been possible without DACA. Mitch concedes he was scared when he applied because it meant telling the U.S. government everything about himself and his family. But after not jumping at other opportunities out of fear that he would put his family in jeopardy...

SANTOS: I said, you know what? I got to do this not only for myself, but realistically, I got to help support my family.

TOTENBERG: As soon as he got his DACA status, he applied for a driver's license and for a Social Security number so he could work legally.

SANTOS: I remember getting my Social Security card in the mail, and I cried. I really cried. The doors of opportunity that that little piece of paper allows - it's life-changing.

TOTENBERG: After four years part time in community college, he transferred to Berkeley. In 2016, he graduated with highest honors, and he was selected as the class speaker in the legal studies department. Until then, his parents had never visited him on campus. They couldn't fly or drive because they're undocumented. So Mitch and his sister arranged to have them driven from LA to Berkeley in Northern California.

SANTOS: They actually didn't know that I was going to deliver that speech. And I remember them walking into the auditorium where the graduation was held and being ushered into the front row. And they assumed they were in trouble. And then they saw me onstage.


SANTOS: It is an honor to speak in front of all of you this morning, but it is an indescribable honor to be addressing two particular people from the stage, my mother and father. And if I know my Latino parents, they're probably wondering if I'm in some kind of trouble right now.


TOTENBERG: His speech was a tribute to his education, to his life in America and to his parents.


SANTOS: They managed to raise four children on a monthly budget of next to nothing in a country where they knew no one. We lived in a violence-ridden, graffiti-covered neighborhood in South Central Los Angeles, yet they made it home, and it was beautiful.

TOTENBERG: At the end of his nine-minute speech, Mitch's composure finally faltered.


SANTOS: (Speaking Spanish) You both mean more to me than you will ever know.

TOTENBERG: This spring, Mitch will be graduating from Harvard Law School. And if his DACA status is renewed, he has a job at a law firm afterwards.

SANTOS: I just want to remind everyone that this is much bigger than the DREAMer narrative. This is about an entire group of people who are your friends, your neighbors, the people who you least expect. And they're part of the American fabric. And this is our home. We don't consider it home. This is our home.

TOTENBERG: Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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