On a Tuesday in early September, Josué de Luna Navarro, an undergraduate studying biochemical engineering at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, skipped class. Instead, he stood outside of the White House to protest the government’s anticipated shutdown of the federal Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which had protected him — and 800,000 other young immigrants — from deportation for more than five years.
With the uncertainty about his immigration status looming over him, Navarro said he could not focus on learning his coursework — and he was not alone. Other undocumented students had stopped sleeping at night or quit attending school altogether, their anxiety becoming too much, he said. “What’s the most important thing right now? Learning about how molecules move through space,” Navarro remembers thinking, “or putting all of my energy into protecting my family and community?”
For months, the anti-immigration narrative of President Donald Trump had fueled rumors about the possible rollback of DACA, a temporary Obama-era policy that provided a work permit and a renewable two-year shield against deportation to young adults brought to the United States illegally as children. The program did not offer them a permanent solution or a pathway towards citizenship, but gave them the chance to pursue a career.
That won’t happen, of course, if DACA is repealed — a move that studies have suggested could have negative impacts not just for program recipients and their families, but for the U.S. economy as a whole. And as the case of Navarro and students like him suggests, American scientific prowess might well suffer, too. While it’s difficult to know exactly how ending the program would affect the country’s research networks, input from students, professors, and scientists who know what it’s like to be undocumented, and who have nonetheless worked hard to succeed within American academic and scientific communities, suggests that the end of DACA could cut off a rich intellectual vein.
“Many DACA students make significant contributions to the scientific and engineering enterprise in the United States,” said Rush Holt, the chief executive of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, in statement last September.
“Our nation’s immigration policies have profound implications for scientific — as well as humanitarian and economic — interests,” Holt added. “Our nation needs an immigration policy that advances U.S. innovation and prosperity and stays true to foundational American goals that seek contributions to society from all.”
For his part, Navarro, 21, crossed the Mexican border with his family when he was only nine years old. He took a bus from the state of Coahuila to make a new home in New Mexico, where he stayed with his parents even after their visas expired. To them, there was nothing to go back to. So, when DACA was established in 2012, his father urged him to apply. “It felt like a dream,” Navarro says. “It was as if I was carrying a very heavy backpack and then someone said, ‘Stop, let me help you with that.’”
Other immigrants describe similar experiences.
“I spent my senior year hiding in the basement of my high school,” says Pamela Harris, a Mexican-born mathematician who is now an assistant professor at Williams College. “It basically got to the point where I developed a lot of anxiety and suffered from depression.”
A few years after graduating, Harris married and became a U.S. citizen. But one of her siblings remained unprotected. In 2012, he applied for DACA. “It was such a sense of relief,” Harris says. “Almost like there’s this kind of cancer eating out at you all the time. And to think that here there may be a cure makes you feel ridiculously overwhelmed with joy.”
That feeling would not last long.
Five years later, hundreds of DACA supporters who had gathered in D.C. during the September rally saw their fears become reality. That day, Trump administration officials announced the end of DACA and pressed Congress to find an alternative before some of the people protected under the program would become subject to deportation in March of this year. Late on January 9, a federal judge temporarily blocked the administration’s decision, ordering that current DACA recipients be allowed to renew their protected status. Though the White House moved to fight the ruling, President Trump seemed to shift his stance last week, announcing to reporters that he may extend the March 5 deadline and is open to providing a permanent path to citizenship.
Still, with the onus on Congress to pass legislation — which Trump has said must include funding for a border wall and increased border protections — young scientists, technicians and health care professionals raised and trained in the country, like Navarro, could ultimately be forced to leave.
“It’s so depressing to think about all the dreams and hopes that [undocumented] folks have built,” says Harris. “And it’s terrifying to think that people who have no personal experience in this matter get to decide how this ends.”
There’s a good deal of evidence to suggest that DACA recipients are pursuing, or have an interest in careers in science and related fields. A 2015 survey of 909 DACA recipients from 34 states, for example, showed that 256 — roughly a third — were pursuing a major in science, technology, engineering, or mathematics. In another report, interviews with 1,759 DACA recipients indicated that at least 12.2 percent envisioned a career in science. Many of these young immigrants could be at risk of deportation if Congress doesn’t craft new legislation in the next few months.
“It’s awful. I really think that this decision is short-sighted,” says Adán Colón-Carmona, a plant geneticist from the University of Massachusetts, Boston. He says that legislators aren’t considering how science will evolve in the coming years “when these students are able to enter the workforce.”
Now a mentor and advisor at his institution, Colón-Carmona arrived in the U.S. at the age of six, and eventually became a citizen. When he heard that Trump had moved to end the immigration program, a question stuck in his mind: “How many of us are there — scientists who came to the U.S. as children that are now having an influence on how science is done?”
To try to find out, he sent out an anonymous survey to members of the Society for Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS). Of the 94 people who responded, a quarter indicated they were at some point undocumented.
SACNAS members include scientists at the National Institutes of Health and various universities across the country, who “were living the lives of current DACA individuals,” Colón-Carmona wrote in a Medium post in September. “Think about this for a moment. What would science in the U.S. look like if we were not here?”
For Mario Pizarro, a 26-year-old master’s student in biochemistry at California State University, Los Angeles, losing DACA means directly hurting the scientific community. “The current science is what? It’s like old white men, right? Most of the ideas are coming from them,” he says. “What we need is different schools of thought. And that’s all going to be lost.” Pizarro, who was able to renew his status before it expired in January, is currently using bacteria to study molecular mechanisms that could help explain the development of autoimmune diseases in humans, such as lupus, and hopes to create affordable and accessible therapies to marginalized communities.
He’ll be able to continue that work for now, but if no legislation gets passed, Pizarro could still be forced to leave the country later down the road. DACA recipients were disappointed on Monday after Congress approved a temporary spending bill to end the government shutdown without including a deal to protect them.
“It really puts us in a state of ‘Can we really do this again?’” says Pizarro, who was brought to California in 2001, when he was nine years old. “I already left most of my family and community once, when I emigrated from Chile. I don’t want to do that again. I feel like I can thrive here.”
Noe Labrado, a 21-year-old from Ciudad Juárez, Mexico shares a similar experience. When he was just six years old, Labrado and his family crossed the border to Texas and never returned.
Now a physics student at the University of Texas at El Paso with a concentration in atmospheric sciences, he’s preparing to graduate this summer and plans to continue his education at the University of Oklahoma School of Meteorology. “I would like to make a difference in those areas of atmospheric sciences that are not really settled, like early-warning systems for hurricanes and tornadoes,” he says.
When asked whether he would be willing to do research in Mexico, Labrado replies without hesitation. “I would only do it if I were deported someday. There’s not a solid base in Mexico for what I want to study.”
The recent efforts to block the government’s decision to end the DACA program — and Trump’s announcement that he may extend the deadline for passing permanent legislation — have been received with both joy and skepticism by the immigrant community. Even though the president has said he’s open to providing a pathway to citizenship, for now there are no guarantees.
“We’re tired,” says Navarro, who is graduating from college this May. “We’re tired of having to pay [a fee of] $495 every two years, of being in this limbo all the time, of being second-class citizens. At the end of the day, this is my home. And I will do everything to find a way to stay.”
Emiliano Rodríguez Mega is a Mexican science journalist who has covered Latin America for publications such as Scientific American, Nature, and Science. He is currently a graduate student at NYU’s Science, Health, and Environmental Reporting Program.