The clock is ticking for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which is at risk of being declared illegal if Congress doesn’t pass legislation to save it, said U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-San Antonio) on Tuesday.

Castro gathered San Antonio business leaders and others for a virtual press conference to urge Congress to use the post-election period to pass legislation that provides permanent relief to DACA recipients, also known as Dreamers.

“Today, [Dreamers are] small business owners, teachers, veterans and essential workers. They are small business owners who kept our economy running during the pandemic and they are doctors and nurses who saved American lives and continue to do so,” Castro said.

He was joined by Richard Perez, president and CEO of the San Antonio Chamber of Commerce; Dawn Larios, executive director of the Texas Restaurant Association West Region; Teresa Niño, vice president for university relations at UTSA, and Giovanni Castillo, a DACA recipient and San Antonio small business owner who came to the U.S. as a child 20 years ago.

Castro called on the state’s senators, John Cornyn and Ted Cruz, to “make good” on claims the two have made about supporting relief for DACA recipients and said he welcomed the participation of the senators, along with other Republicans in the House and Senate. 

Castro said one strategy for saving DACA could include issuing visas to those in the program. Many Dreamers are now parents themselves, to more than 250,000 U.S.-born children, Castro said. Texas has the second-highest number of Dreamers of any state — more than 101,000 reside here.

Castro said all options should be on the table to protect this vulnerable population, including seeking Republican support, which would be needed to overcome a Senate filibuster.

“We’re going to look at whichever ways we can make it happen whether it’s attaching it to a larger bill, or whether its a standalone bill, but that’s still going to require some kind of negotiation and participation from Republicans in order to do that.”

In early October, a court case challenging the legality of the program was sent back to a lower court in Texas after a three-judge panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled agreed with the lower court that the implementation of DACA in 2012 was illegal. But the court kept the program in place for the time being, allowing recipients to renew their status, but preventing first-time applicants from applying. 

The case is anticipated to reach the Supreme Court, where the conservative majority could rule that the program is illegal. 

Without action from Congress, nearly 600,000 DACA recipients could be at risk for deportation, said Perez, while an additional 400,000 DACA-eligible youth nationwide are currently prohibited from applying to the program.

“Only Congress can fix this and they must pass a permanent legislative solution to protect Dreamers before the end of 2022 and in this lame-duck session,” he said. “Congress must act now to protect Dreamers and prevent families from being torn apart and kicked out of our workforce.”

Under the program, people who arrived in the U.S. unlawfully as children before 2007 are protected from deportation. They do not get legal status or a pathway to citizenship through DACA, but can apply to obtain a driver’s license, a social security number and work permit. Dreamers must submit an annual application and pay about $500 plus legal fees.

Castillo, the DACA recipient, said he has worried about deportation for years.

“I worry everyday, not knowing what’s going to happen,” he said. “My kids, one is 16, my daughter is 12, they know what’s going on. They know I could not be here next year or next month. It’s always been really hard on my kids, my family and I’m sure for many other DACA recipients.”

While the court case is pending, Castillo said he’s thought about what he would do if Congress doesn’t pass legislation to grant permanent protection. 

“Honestly it’s really hard … not knowing what’s going to happen to us,” he said.

Raquel Torres is the San Antonio Report's breaking news reporter. A 2020 graduate of Stephen F. Austin State University, her work has been recognized by the Texas Managing Editors. She previously worked...