Without a ballot: During election season, DACA students remain without a voice in politics

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Photo Credit: Elias Huerta

This is the second installment of The Texan’s series “Raising Voices,” which highlights issues of diversity at UT. Stories are produced in partnership with UT’s chapters of Asian American Journalists Association, National Association of Black Journalists, National Association of Hispanic Journalists and the National Lesbian Gay Journalists Association.

When people ask José Martínez if he’s voted yet, he has to say no. 

Martínez is one of the 120,000 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals recipients in Texas who will not be able to vote in the state’s midterm elections because of their undocumented status.

The estimated 690,000 DACA recipients who were brought to the U.S. illegally by their parents are protected from deportation and are allowed to work. But they don’t have a voice in politics, including the debate about their future.

“It’s ironic that I can vote back where I’m from in El Salvador, a country I’ve never experienced, but I can’t vote in the country I’ve lived most of my entire life,” said Martínez, an economics and plan II freshman at UT. 

Martínez left El Salvador when he was just 1 year old and grew up in Cypress, Texas, for as long as he can remember, but he won’t be able to vote there or in Austin.

DACA recipient Luis Roa Santoyo, who is a sustainability studies and plan II freshman, said election season is uncomfortable for him.

“It’s disheartening having to tell them I can’t vote,” Roa Santoyo said. “I got to the point where I’m just like ‘Yeah, I voted,’ just so that I wouldn’t have to deal with the uncomfortableness or the awkwardness.”

Roa Santoyo was born in Mexico but moved to the U.S. at age one, and he recently renewed his two-year DACA status. He said he wishes he could vote for officials who support a permanent solution for DACA recipients like him.

“People who are able to vote don’t realize just how amazing it is,” Roa Santoyo said. “The day I’ll be able to vote is the day I’ll feel like a citizen. Until that day, I won’t feel fully welcome.”

Denise Gilman, director of the UT Law Immigration Clinic, said DACA was never created as a means to create a pathway for permanent residency or U.S. citizenship, which would eventually allow them to vote. Instead, DACA allows individuals who meet the criteria to have work authorization.

The only way someone with DACA could vote would be if they first became a permanent resident or if they qualify for a very specific and narrow humanitarian form of visa, Gilman said.

DACA recipients who want to receive permanent resident status would still have to wait anywhere from two to 20 years because there is a limited number of people who can receive green cards every year, Gilman said.

The only way to resolve this issue is for Congress to adopt a permanent solution that would regularize the status of DACA recipients in order to put them on a path to permanent residency and eventually to citizenship, Gilman said.

“Providing DACA recipients a pathway to citizenship will create greater stability in our communities, which is better for all, and will have significant economic benefits to the state and the country,” Gilman said. “They deserve a permanent solution and eventually it will come, but it’s going to depend on the rest of the community voting members of Congress who will develop that path for them.”

In the Texas election for U.S. Senate, challenger Beto O’Rourke has said he supports granting DACA recipients a pathway to U.S. citizenship, while U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz previously said he was in favor of President Donald Trump ending DACA, but most recently Cruz said he was unsure of the legal standing of the Obama-era executive order.

Martínez said the future of DACA scares him because without it, Martínez loses his work status, driver’s license and social security number. He said it would also make it harder to receive scholarships. 

“We’re all struggling,” Martínez said. “We’re just hoping for the best. The thing that upsets us is we can do as much as we can, but we just have to wait on the government to do something.”

Martínez cannot vote but tells his friends who can vote to exercise their rights. He has also created political ads and videos for two Houston-area candidates, Marty Schexnayder and Jon Rosenthal, this past summer. Martínez said it was a “humbling” experience to work for local candidates who share his views.

Roa Santoyo said he is happy to see lots of engagement at UT but said students should also take the time to vote in local elections. After growing up in a low-income neighborhood in Arlington, Texas, Roa Santoyo said he wishes he could vote for more funding for his school district.

“Laws that affect me — I can’t vote on them even though there are direct implications on me,” Roa Santoya said. “It’s just frustrating.”