In a crowded office in Baltimore’s Station North, María Perales Sánchez spends most of her days working alongside a group of lawyers to win legal protections for migrant workers.
Yet her own status in the United States is uncertain.
Once protected from deportation by a federal program that covered people whose families brought them to the U.S. as children, Perales Sánchez was left in limbo in 2017. While she was a student at Princeton University, the Trump administration pulled the plug on the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.
Princeton — and Perales Sánchez — decided to fight back. Now, their lawsuit will be heard in consolidation with others next week at the U.S. Supreme Court.
Princeton and other organizations argue they would be poorer without the skills and diversity DACA participants provide.
For Perales Sánchez, the reason is more personal: “I wanted to fight back.”
In a brief submitted ahead of Tuesday’s oral arguments, the U.S. Justice Department argues that the government had the authority to end DACA because it was an unlawful policy to begin with.
About 200 immigrants and supporters walking from New York City to Washington plan to stop Friday in Baltimore for a rally to bring awareness to the plight of DACA participants. On Tuesday, Perales Sánchez will join them on the court steps as they voice their support for DACA before the oral arguments begin.
In the small town in Guanajuato in central Mexico, where Perales Sánchez was born, most people could not afford to study beyond the sixth grade, she said. Her mom dreamed of giving her children more educational opportunities, and the family brought her to Houston without a visa when she was 8.
Moving to one of the busiest cities in the country was a shock at first, she said. A new language, a new school; it was a far cry from the ranchito of her young childhood.
However, Perales Sánchez excelled academically in high school and was accepted to Harvard University, as well as her dream school, Princeton.
But with the imminent threat of deportation and without legal authorization to work or qualify for federal financial aid, going to Princeton seemed impossible.
The introduction of DACA in 2012 opened a door. Under the initiative, undocumented immigrants were shielded from deportation if they met a set of requirements, passed a stringent background check, and paid an application fee of nearly $500 to renew it every two years. DACA also allowed people to obtain work permits and, in some states, drivers’ licenses.
Through an aspect of DACA called “advance parole,” Perales Sánchez was even able to travel for a semester at Oxford University and volunteered in Mexico with Centro de Los Derechos del Migrante, the nonprofit migrant rights organization where she now works full-time.
Then, Republican Donald Trump, who had promised on the campaign trail to end DACA, was elected president in November 2016. In response to concern on campus about the possible end of the program, Princeton’s lawyers met with DACA students to determine how to support them, according to university spokesperson Ben Chang.
In September 2017, the Trump administration ordered an end to DACA. Perales Sánchez was one of nearly 700,000 DACA recipients left in limbo.
“After considering the potential risks to herself and her family, María — whose courage and commitment continue to shine forth to this day — decided to join the university in filing a lawsuit and to use her own name (rather than proceeding as a Jane Doe) despite those risks,” Chang said.
Perales Sánchez, who in her senior year was co-director of DREAM Team, an immigrant rights organization on campus, felt her leadership and voice were necessary in the legal battle.
“I wanted to stand with the migrant community, and this was a very particular opportunity ... not every campus was asking to take on a lawsuit. So, I knew I was at a particular place for a reason,” Perales Sánchez said.
Princeton, together with Perales Sánchez, filed its lawsuit in November 2017 in federal court in Washington, D.C., claiming the government’s actions violated the due process clause of the Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, including its guarantee of equal protection under the law, as well as the Administrative Procedure Act.
“We asserted then — and still believe now — that Princeton will suffer the loss of critical members of its community if the administration’s action is left to stand,” said Chang.
Three U.S. district courts — in the District of Columbia, California and New York — issued injunctions and required the program to continue accepting DACA renewal applications. While that offered a sliver of hope to Perales Sánchez and others, it wasn’t a solution for the millions of people who are undocumented.
“There are still folks that are being deported, there are still folks that are in cages. Regardless of the small, little victories, it’s still so many losses,” Perales Sánchez said.
The legal dispute continued, with Trump administration appealing the courts’ decisions and asking the Supreme Court to intervene.
“I don’t think I ever imagined I’d be inside the Supreme Court for a case — let alone for one that I brought forward,” Perales Sánchez said.
The issues at hand in the case that now includes hers — Trump, President of U.S. v. NAACP — are whether the lower courts had the authority to review the Department of Homeland Security’s decision to end DACA in the first place and whether that decision was lawful, according to the court docket.
“It is DHS policy not to comment on pending litigation,” said Vic Brabble, a department spokesman. The Justice Department also declined to comment.
In a brief submitted ahead of the case, the Justice Department argued the government’s decision to end DACA was justified because the creation of the program violated federal immigration law.
“At best, DACA is legally questionable; at worst, it is illegal," the brief states.
More than 140 businesses, including major companies such as Facebook, Starbucks, Target and Verizon signed on to an amicus brief last month in support of DACA.
“By expanding the opportunities available to DACA recipients, this program has benefited America’s companies, our nation’s economy, and all Americans,” they stated.
On Twitter, President Trump urged the court to strike down the program and said that Congress will have to find a solution to allow DACA recipients to remain in the United States.
"If they do what is right and do not let DACA stand, with all of its negative legal implications, the Republicans and Democrats will have a DEAL to let them stay in our Country ... ” Trump tweeted Oct. 9.
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However, it’s more complicated than that, said Elizabeth Keyes, associate professor of law at the University of Baltimore. She said it’s unlikely Congress will take up the controversial issue.
While her case has advanced, Perales Sánchez graduated from Princeton in 2018, got a job at the Centro de Los Derechos del Migrante and moved to an apartment in Bolton Hill.
She tries not to get too comfortable in one place because her future is so uncertain, she said. The only decorations in her living room are reminders of what gives her hope. A Virgen de Guadalupe icon sits on her TV stand, next to an old photograph of her grandpa, and a picture of her parents, just before cancer claimed her mother’s life.
“I focus so much on work because I think in that way I keep her memory alive," Perales Sánchez said. “Focusing on the two things she loved — education and life service — made me feel like I was commemorating her in a good way and made me feel even closer to her.”
Perales Sánchez wants to get a law degree and continue to defend migrants’ rights.
She sees her case and her everyday work as part of a broader movement — one of pursuing freedom and the ability to choose where one calls home, regardless of where you were born.
“I’m prepared to keep fighting.”