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How the Supreme Court's Decision on Immigration Affects America's Undocumented Youth

Undocumented youths like Juan Carlos Ramos would have qualified for legal benefits under a program introduced by President Obama and struck down by the Supreme Court last week. Now they face potential deportation.

Julian Gomez of the non-profit Define American stands outside the Supreme Court last week, after the court delivered a heavy blow to the White House's immigration program. Photo by Xinhua/Yin Bogu/Getty Images

Last Thursday, on his day off from work, Juan Carlos Ramos took the train from his suburban Maryland home into Washington, DC, to stand on the steps of the US Supreme Court. He huddled with several friends, all of whom checked their iPhones feverishly, refreshing the court's live blog for news on a groundbreaking decision: whether or not the court would uphold President Barack Obama's deportation relief for five million undocumented immigrants.


For Ramos, a 22-year-old undocumented immigrant from El Salvador with a final deportation order, the ruling could change his whole life. But he didn't think it would be announced so soon.

"I almost didn't go to the court that day," he told me. "People expected the decision to come out [the next] Monday, or the last day of the month."

The decision did come out that day: The eight judges decided 4–4, reinforcing the lower court's ruling and effectively blocking Obama's immigration reform plan.

"Everyone around me was like, 'What has just happened?'" Ramos said. "Of course, in the back of my mind, I knew what the ruling meant."

It meant the end of Obama's directive, which would have granted deportation relief to parents of US citizens who had lived in the country since 2010 (a program called Deferred Action for Parent Arrivals, or DAPA) and people who arrived at age 16 or younger and had lived here since 2010 (an expansion of a program called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA). The existing DACA program, which gives deportation relief and other legal benefits to people who arrived at age 16 and have lived in the US since 2007, was not affected.

"It took a little bit to sink in. It was a shock for everyone," Ramos told me. "A lot of people were sharing their feelings, but I went for a walk because I needed to distract myself. I thought I was going to cry but I didn't. I felt disappointed, angry, and frustrated because we were so close to it passing."


Since he moved to the United States at age 15, Ramos has come to expect disappointments as a result of being undocumented. Like when he graduated high school in Charlotte, North Carolina, in 2012 and got into all five colleges he applied for, but didn't qualify for in-state tuition or federal loans because of his undocumented status.

"Senior year was when my status hit me. Every high school student can to go to [college] as soon as they graduate, but for me it was not the case, because I couldn't afford it," said Ramos.

If he had qualified for the original DACA program, which was launched in 2012 and granted special immigration status and legal benefits to undocumented youth who arrived in the United States before their 16th birthdays, he would have received in-state tuition. But the program only included youths who had lived in the country since 2007, and Ramos had arrived in 2009.

"The original version of DACA happened six days after I graduated high school. At first it was very frustrating because I was so close to the cutoff, but at the same time I was like, 'I can't be depressed, I need to move forward and do something,'" Ramos told me.

Related: Undocumented College Students Share How Deportation Relief Changed Their Lives

So instead, Ramos started helping his peers to apply for DACA. Every time he helped someone put together their application, he says they would ask him, "Have you applied yet?" and he'd have to tell them, "I don't qualify for DACA, and that's why I'm personally helping people like you apply."


He also began working for the largest youth-led immigrant organization, United We Dream, campaigning to pass immigration reform in Congress and then to expand DACA to include more recent arrivals like himself.

The expanded DACA program, announced in 2014, would have included people who arrived in the United States before 2010 and removed the age cap (previously, DACA recipients had to be younger than 31). The DACA expansion would make an additional 275,000 undocumented immigrants eligible for deportation relief, according to estimates from the Migration Policy Institute.

"New life goals started to build in my mind: I could start college, I could get a better job and help my family," Ramos said. "But two days before I was supposed to file my application, I found out about the lawsuit. I was like, 'OK, here we go again.'"

A coalition of 26 Republican-controlled states had filed a lawsuit against the Obama administration, claiming that the immigration orders were an overstep of the executive branch. The case zigzagged all the way up to the Supreme Court, which was seen as the last chance to save the immigration reforms.

"When the executive action passed, I thought I was going to move to DC, get a better job, and go to school." — Juan Carlos Ramos

As the lawsuit made its way through the courts, Ramos waited. He moved from North Carolina to Maryland, to avoid North Carolina's increasing crackdowns on undocumented immigrants and to live closer to Washington, DC, where he could pursue his interest in politics. He traveled to New Orleans to sit in on the lawsuit hearing by the US District Court, which he could tell clearly opposed Obama's executive action. But when the District Court ruled against the order and the Supreme Court agreed to hear an appeal, Ramos once again became hopeful.


"All of my friends said it would be better if went to the Supreme Court, so we got into this mindset that the case would be more in our favor. The same thoughts came to my mind as when the executive action passed—that I was going to move to DC, get a better job, and go to school," said Ramos.

But as he became a vocal part of the DACA movement, Ramos knew he was putting himself at risk for deportation. He had no desire to return to El Salvador, which has become increasingly violent in the past few years, prompting a massive influx of asylum seekers entering the US.

"I used to live in San Salvador, one of the most dangerous cities in the country," Ramos told me. When he was ten, he says he narrowly avoided a gang shootout while he and his sister were on their way to school. "That's the kind of environment I grew up in. But the violence wasn't as bad as it is now. Now gangs are taking over."

Ramos can no longer look to the expanded DACA program for protection—nor is he eligible for a work permit, discounted college tuition, or the relief of knowing he won't be forced to leave the country.

"All my hopes and dreams are up in the air somewhere, but we're always trying to prepare ourselves for whatever happens. Now we have to focus on what's next," he told me. "For the moment the focus is to stop as many deportations as possible, and to draw attention to the ones that are happening."

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