It's late March 2020, the first phase of coronavirus is in full swing and I'm frantically filling out my renewal paperwork for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, otherwise known as DACA, as I read the news that processing centers for immigration services will be temporarily closed.
A rush of adrenaline hits my gut, my breath suddenly thickens and the familiar feeling of wanting to crawl out of my skin takes over.
I've been here too many times. As a DACA recipient, formerly undocumented, this unique mix of uncertainty, isolation and a deluge of unknown variables is all too familiar. I step away from the pile of documents in front of me to catch a moment of stillness.
"Breathe. I am here. Present. Let it go. Breathe." My body falls into the self-soothing routine that has helped me brace against all types of unknowns that came from life before the program, which offers me temporary protection from deportation and permission to legally work in the country in which I was raised.
Growing up undocumented and living with chronic anxiety and stress — some of which was directly correlated to being undocumented, but was also influenced by secondary factors of being an immigrant without networks or financial safety — I've slowly learned survival mechanisms. But it hasn't come without a mental and physical cost, triggered by what seems like a constantly moving goal post. As a DACA recipient, my battle to manage my own mental health is a daily one.
Thanks to the DACA program, I've been able to climb the ranks in media and co-author my first book alongside Mika Brzezinski. But by now, I have conditioned myself to prepare for the worst with so many unknowable factors that have the potential to derail everything. Since DACA's implementation in June 2012, my fellow "Dreamers" and I have been on a whirlwind ride of ups and downs about our future. In 2017, five years after DACA recipients found some footing by going through an extensive background check and being granted a work permit, the program was rescinded, leaving its future up to the courts. This left more than 700,000 recipients at yet another standstill.
As a DACA recipient, my battle to manage my own mental health is a daily one.
On the heels of the Supreme Court decision in June 2020, which called the Trump administration's approach to rescind the program "arbitrary and capricious," we found hope in seeing the attempt to eliminate DACA derailed. We breathed a sigh of relief. Yet many of us knew that there were still too many open-ended questions, mostly, "What happens now?" Because the court didn't specifically lay out whether DACA was in itself unconstitutional, it left the program's future up for interpretation.
On July 28, 2020, the Department of Homeland Security provided a memo outlying the next steps for the program. In summary, it established that no new first-time DACA applicants would be approved, the two-year renewable permit would now be lowered to one-year renewal periods and advance parole (the document that allows us to leave the country and return) will not be accepted or approved. The sigh of relief that came from the Supreme Court's decision earlier this summer has turned into one of exasperation. Each decision, amendment and reversal of the program has felt like a threat at our livelihoods. Right when we think we're in the clear and can feel good about our contributions or start making long-term plans, there seems to be yet another reason to be discouraged. It feels like learning to walk; you're finding your footing, putting one foot in front of the other and then someone yanks away the rug right under your feet.
The failed inaction to create a permanent solution to DACA is like asking us to walk barefoot on an unpaved path filled with rocks and without any road signs in sight — you just have to keep walking, cautiously, hoping to find a sense of direction ahead. We must once again tell our stories, prove our worth and show we've "earned" our way. And in doing so, we are retraumatized with all the experiences that have told us we are not enough.
We are tired. We are burnt out.
In the past decade, some "Dreamers" have luckily found a path to legalization (whether it be through marriage, family sponsorship or another method). Others, like myself, still wait on the sidelines for the government to find a permanent solution to our legal limbo. And those would-be "Dreamers," who missed the date or age cutoff, find themselves in even greater uncertainty in absence of a comprehensive immigration plan.
No matter the scenario, one thing binds us all: the unforeseen mental health issues we've experienced by being out of control of our own narrative. Many of us have seen the affects of stigmatization around mental health within our immigrant families, resulting in intergenerational trauma. Knowing our own families have "had it worse" and that we should be grateful only adds to the difficulty in letting out our pent-up emotions. The bubbling anxiety, fear and impotence over our situations can manifest psychologically or physically at any moment.
Something as simple as filling out paperwork, spotting an ICE officer, watching developments in immigration news or hearing testimony of children and teens being separated from their families are just a few of my triggers. I've learned emotional resilience, but it's come with scars. With all this extra time of sitting still during this pandemic, I've had no choice (for better or worse), but to come face-to-face with many of the emotions I've buried in order to keep going.
I'm learning to manage the burnout by letting myself feel the rollercoaster of emotions as they come: shame, guilt, fear, uncertainty and, finally, talking through it with family and loved ones.
Whatever outcome is ahead for my long-term legal status, I'm learning that managing my emotional burnout and mental health doesn't define me, but rather is a testament to my own self-worth despite navigating a system that is constantly questioning my worthiness.