On a recent Saturday morning, 29-year-old Juan Vega was preparing for the soccer tournament he’d been planning for years: Cascarita – named after the Mexican slang word for classic street pick-up game of fútbol.
Cascarita was his brainchild and started this summer with the goal of allowing participants from across Houston to represent their neighborhoods.
The final was here. He arrived at the parking lot behind the Houston Dynamo and Dash headquarters in east downtown a couple of hours early. He set up the goals, inflated balls, and spray-painted markers on the asphalt that would be their field for the day.
It was the culmination of many months of hard work. But Vega debated attending at all.
Only a few weeks prior to the final, Vega was forced to leave the job he loves leading youth programs for the Houston Dynamo. The reason? The expiration of his DACA permit – the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program that protects qualifying individuals who lack legal status from deportation, allowing them to also work legally.
Vega is one of the more than 830,000 individuals – commonly referred to as Dreamers – who have found protection under DACA since its inception in 2012. The program protects those who were brought to the U.S. as children illegally and can meet a list of requirements, such as: entering the country before June 15, 2007, being enrolled or having graduated high school, and not posing a threat to national security or public safety.
But DACA is constantly being challenged.
Just last month, Judge Andrew Hanen of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas, here in Houston, issued a ruling finding the program unlawful and expanding a 2021 injunction that paused all new applications from being processed, while allowing renewals to continue.
That decision stems from a lawsuit filed by mostly Republican-led states – Texas, Alabama, Arkansas, Kansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Nebraska, South Carolina and West Virginia – that argued the Obama administration did not have the authority to create the program and that the states’ citizens are financially harmed by immigrants in the country illegally.
The case is awaiting appeal, which is expected to be heard in the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in 2024.
In Texas, there are about 80,000 applicants in limbo due to the injunction, said Bruna Sollod, senior communications and political director at United We Dream, an immigrant youth-led organization that provides resources for young people.
“It’s very tiring to be a DACA recipient who’s continuously going through this roller coaster of emotions,” Sollod said. “It’s really hard to plan your life into increments, or to plan your life around a court case.”
The Cascarita final
“I think I’m going,” Vega said, days before the soccer tournament final. He sat at a local coffee shop looking straight ahead as if pondering many options. “But I’m not sure how involved I’ll be. I might just sit and watch. Or I’ll play if they need me,” he added.
Vega didn’t play or just sit. Instead he was the go-to person for all questions. He confidently directed former coworkers, helped set up participants, and paced the sidelines, paying close attention to each game.
This year, Vega was in the process of renewing his DACA permit for the seventh consecutive time. But it didn’t go as smoothly as other years, and his protective status expired before receiving a final answer from the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services.
He was given until next year to renew, but in the meantime, he can’t legally work, forcing him to resign the job he held for six years with the Houston Dynamo.
Every two years, Vega must resend the same documents, along with the renewal fee of $495, then nervously wait for the notification letters to arrive. The first one says the process is underway, and eventually a second notice summons him to get his biometrics – photos and fingerprints. This is what normally tells Vega that everything went well, and he is safe. At least for two years. He then moves on to renew his driver’s license, which also expires every two years.
“I feel like I can’t complain about it, because it is a luxury at this point,” Vega said. “So it’s like, should I be grateful for getting the absolute minimum? Or should I see it as a negative, that I’m only getting that?”
The only home
Vega said three things impacted his identity growing up: his parents, DACA and fútbol.
As a child, he never thought of himself as American, but he felt very much a Texan and Houstonian. “So, by default, I must be American,” Vega recalls thinking.
He was brought to Houston from México by his parents when he was 3 years old. He attended Edgewood Elementary School in Spring Branch, then he landed in Edwin M. Wells Middle and Westfield High School in Spring.
There was no talk about his immigration status growing up, he said. But once he was in high school, rite of passage events just looked different for him.
“When I realized there was something different, I guess in a sense, was when all my friends were applying for their learner’s permit and their driver’s license,” Vega said. “And I asked my mom, and my mom kept putting it off and putting it off.”
He wanted to save up to get a car to drive himself to school, and his mother broke the news that even if he could buy a car, he could not get a driver’s license without a Social Security number.
“I remember asking, like, ‘OK, where do I go get this?’” Vega said. “Then everything kind of clicked, everything made sense.”
All of a sudden, he became aware that his life in the U.S. could be questioned. He could be asked to return to a country he hasn’t seen in 13 years.
“It’s an identity issue at its core,” Vega said. “At the end of the day, you had nothing to do with the decision… You were there, and you were brought along because you were a child.”
Fútbol, the sport he had played with his father growing up, became a big part of his identity.
The sport led him to land a four-year scholarship to the University of Houston-Victoria, where he played on the soccer team for four years before graduating in 2017.
After graduation, fútbol became a career. Vega started as a part-time youth coach with the Dynamo, then moved up to youth programs coordinator, youth programs manager, and, most recently, senior manager of youth programs.
A ‘precarious program’
“Todo tiene solución, menos la muerte.”
This is a dicho, or phrase, commonly used in Spanish-speaking families. Its direct meaning is: Everything has a solution except death. But culturally, it speaks of strength, optimism and the sense of fight, or lucha, that many immigrant families rely on.
This is also one of the first phrases that came to Vega’s mind when discussing his status under DACA.
“This was not something that I wished for,” he said. “But it did give me a good pause to kind of reflect a little bit and look into what I’m doing in my growth, both personally and professionally.”
DACA has been around for 11 years now, and supporters continue to push for updates to include more individuals, and a pathway to permanent residency and citizenship.
Individuals protected by DACA represent the most desirable kind of immigrant, said Tony Payan, director of the Center for the United States and México at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy.
“They’re already Americanized, so to speak. They came as children. They went through the educational system. They are acculturated. They’re almost Americans in every sense, but papers,” Payan said.
The instability of the program can discourage someone from applying, and it can also condition participants to stay in a certain job or position out of fear that their next employer might see hiring somebody with DACA as a risk, Payan said.
“I think it’s a precarious program and people who participate in it are under enormous stress,” Payan said.
The pressure can be a lot, Vega admits. Some days he wonders what his life would be if he moved to México, the country where he was born, but also where he doesn’t have any memories.
What does Houston lose?
But what does a city like Houston lose if people like Vega don’t have an opportunity to legally work?
As of 2022, DACA had about 580,000 active participants, according to USCIS data, with about 17 percent, or 98,600, of them residing in Texas.
Large cities such as Houston, Dallas and San Antonio are likely to hold a larger concentration of applicants or DACA participants, Payan said, making these cities more prone to losing qualified workers if the program were to disappear or if there’s no legal avenue for people to work and reside in these cities.
With an aging population, fertility rates dropping and a narrowing pathway to migrate to the U.S., Payan said cities like Houston should support legal pathways for these individuals.
“The country is going through an enormous demographic change,” Payan said. “And so, these are some of the most productive people in the economy at a time when we have a huge labor market shortage in just about every sector.”
Regardless of his situation now, Vega is grateful the program exists at all, he said. But he often wonders if the program’s limitations should stop him and others from asking for more out of their life in America.
“I’m eternally grateful for having DACA,” Vega said. “I’ll always see it as a privilege because it’s not something that’s offered to everyone at this point. It’s a luxury at this point. But I do believe that there should be a pathway for people like us that have been in this country, only know this country and view this country as home.”
Hola! My name is Danya Pérez, one of Houston Landing’s diverse communities reporters. I cover Latino/Hispanic communities here, including those who are mixed race or mixed status. ¡También soy México-Americana y hablo español! ¿Qué notas te gustaría leer? What topics or stories would you like to see me cover? Email me your ideas at firstname.lastname@example.org