The US government program helps protect more than 650,000 immigrants, providing security for some of them to pursue their athletic goals
Adrian Escarate remembers the 2017 Miami Open final very well. That day, his mission was to help Roger Federer prepare for the championship match against Rafael Nadal.
A Chilean immigrant who had captained the tennis team at St Thomas University in Miami, Escarate spent 30 minutes warming up Federer at center court. And maybe the preparation helped Federer, who went on to win the title.
“I was really nervous,” Escarate said. “He was super nice, the nicest guy ever.”
It was one of the highlights of Escarate’s 10-year career coaching tennis – which might have been impossible had it not been for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or Daca.
Established during the Obama Administration, Daca helps young undocumented immigrants like Escarate stay in the US and find work. Today there are about 650,000 Daca recipients in the country. (They are sometimes called Dreamers – a term that covers all undocumented young immigrants in the US, a number estimated between 2 million and 2.5 million.) Sport is part of the Daca narrative. Interviews with current or former Daca recipients indicate that overall the program has helped them find opportunities in sport, and if it survives the latest challenge in court, it can help the next generation of immigrant athletes as well.
Perhaps the first prominent Daca athlete was Miguel Aguilar, who was selected by DC United in the 2015 Major League Soccer draft.
In an essay for The Players’ Tribune Aguilar recalled “how pivotal it was for me to have Daca coming in.” He added: “It allowed me to follow my dream, to finally become what I always wanted to be.”
Aguilar now works for the State of California after his MLS career ended in 2018. He is no longer a Daca recipient having married a US citizen and gained a green card. Yet, he said, the program is “something very near and dear to me. I still follow it very closely.”
Last summer, the US supreme court ruled against the Trump administration’s attempt to rescind Daca. The Biden administration issued an executive order in January calling to preserve and fortify Daca and an immigration bill is currently in Congress, but Texas district court judge Andrew Hanen is scheduled to rule separately on the program, leaving advocates fearful.
“It might be that he declares the program unlawful and so the program goes away,” said Juliana Macedo do Nascimento, a Daca recipient who is a state and local policy manager for the organization United We Dream.
“It’s tough, right?” Aguilar said of the impending court case. “Because it would decide the lives of [650,000] people. Because let’s not forget, we talk about Daca, we talk about people like me, from many places, all here doing something with their lives, something positive.”
When Daca was enacted in 2012, it helped fellow Aguilar’s fellow Dreamer, Escarate, become a respected tennis coach. The recent college graduate got a social security number and a driver’s license, and found employment coaching at prestigious Miami venues like the Biltmore Tennis Center and the Salvadore Park Tennis Center.
“When Daca began, it opened doors for me,” Escarate said. “I was able to breathe a sigh of relief … It catapulted me into opportunities.”
Arguably the biggest opportunity was working with Federer at the Miami Open. “It was amazing,” Escarate said. “I still can’t put it into words.”
From 2017 to 2019, he helped other top professional players get ready for the tournament, including Kei Nishikori and Grigor Dimitrov.
“There were one or two instances when a professional player’s coach asked me if I was playing on the pro tour,” Escarate said. “He saw how well I was playing, that I was trying to make it as a pro as well. I wasn’t [playing on the pro tour], because of my immigration status. I needed to make money, needed to teach tennis. I couldn’t really go travel, even in the States. It was going to be a financial burden to do that.”
Escarate taught a few lessons to his then-congressman, Carlos Curbelo, a tennis enthusiast who invited him as his guest to the 2018 State of the Union address. Although many Daca recipients were invited that year, Escarate was the only one invited by a Republican. He gained an appreciation of working across political divides, although not when it came to Donald Trump.
Trump said that “[he] was willing to work with Daca legislation in exchange for billions of dollars for a border wall, in exchange for all these negative bills that would be attached to Daca legislation,” Escarate remembered. “Poison pills to ramp up border security, ramp up deportations, get rid of family-based visas … I was not on board with that.”
Trump’s speech also frustrated Nicolle Uria, a Daca student-athlete from Virginia who attended that State of the Union address as well. At the time, she was a standout player for her high school volleyball team.
“Volleyball did help me come out of my comfort zone sometimes,” Uria said. “I was able to really expand my energy through volleyball. It helped me so much in high school to deal with the fear of either losing my Daca or students who knew I had Daca and bullied me about it. I loved playing volleyball.”
After she shared her immigrant journey with the Washington Post, the resulting article got the attention of her congressman, Gerry Connolly, who invited her to the State of the Union.
“I met Cory Booker, Nancy Pelosi, people who are really in favor of Daca, who support Daca,” Uria said. “It was so awesome. At the same time, it was a little bit scary … Multiple people messaged me with mean stuff.”
As for the president’s speech, it was a letdown for her and fellow Dreamers she sat with.
“He said we were gang members, a menace to society,” Uria said. “Some Dreamers were so disappointed. It was very sad that he would say something like that right in front of us.”
A Bolivian immigrant, Uria first learned that she was undocumented when her father explained why she could not get a learner driver’s permit as a high school sophomore. She initially kept quiet about her status, unsure of how people at school would react.
But the next academic year coincided with the 2016 presidential campaign. Trump disparaged undocumented immigrants and called for a border wall with Mexico. His sentiments were reflected in jokes Uria heard while sitting at a volleyball award ceremony, listening to teammates who did not know she was a Dreamer.
One step toward recognizing her ability to be vocal was winning a leadership MVP award at a tournament.
“It really helped me feel like a leader to my peers, all my team, the girls playing with me,” Uria said. “A lot of times, I did not have that confidence playing volleyball when people started to find out I had Daca. A lot of my friends stopped being friends with me … One teacher said there should be a wall [because] Mexicans were crossing the border. There were lots of jokes. I had to come out and educate my peers.”
Sometimes, acceptance replaced animosity, including when she won the leadership award.
“Our coach was super-happy,” she said. “My teammates hugged me. It was so great getting all this lovely support from the community, teammates, classmates after coming out on being a Daca student.”
Daca has “awesome benefits that helped me so much,” she said, including in-state tuition for college. “It scared me that I would not be able to pay.”
She is currently attending Northern Virginia Community College and working several jobs to help pay tuition. Before the Covid-19 pandemic, these included teaching volleyball to children at a local community center. She played college volleyball in her first semester, but had to stop because of job commitments. She is hopeful that if stronger protections emerge for Daca recipients, tuition can come down and she can visit her home country – something she was unable to do this past year when her uncle in Bolivia died from Covid-19.
As for Escarate, he got his master’s in communications from St Thomas in 2019 and began looking for full-time work in that field. He found a position in the Bay Area, working for the nonprofit Define American, which seeks a fairer depiction of immigrants in the media. He has become its deputy chief of staff and still teaches the occasional tennis lesson.
“I think sports and immigration are intertwined in every way,” Escarate said. “There’s immigrants, immigrant youth, immigrant athletes I’m sure are out there who have Daca.”
For Daca recipients looking to make it in sports as he once did, he said, “keep a positive outlook on things … try not to be let down or hindered by what happens with their legal status. Keep at it, stay positive, stay involved.”