The Trump administration’s September decision to rescind the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program has led to months of court battles and public debates. On Tuesday, yet another judge ruled in favor of the “dreamers,” though their status remains uncertain. Even as most Americans focus on the end game, however, the dreamers themselves are enduring a waiting period fraught with worry, fear and sleepless nights.
As I’ve learned from my research into worry and waiting, that kind of deep uncertainty can be even more stressful than facing down the worst-case scenario when the wait is over. Even if all ends well, a happy conclusion cannot erase the suffering that preceded it. To paraphrase a comment from a study about the experience of awaiting biopsy results, a benign outcome is not a benign experience.
In a recent study, I found that DACA recipients are experiencing an even more acute version of this emotional bind. It’s not just that they don’t know what coming but also that they don’t know when it’s coming. Uncertainty amplifies uncertainty. And that’s terrifying.
Throughout my career, I’ve studied law school graduates waiting to learn whether they passed the bar exam. I’ve studied graduate students waiting to learn the outcome of job applications, and researchers like me waiting to learn the outcome of a manuscript submission. I’ve studied patients waiting for the results of both routine and potentially life-changing medical tests.
Other researchers focus their attention on lives that have taken a turn for the worst, after fate has dealt layoffs, cancer diagnoses and grief of all kinds. I, on the other hand, want to know what happens before the cards are dealt, when people are in a state of suspension awaiting their fate.
In the case of the dreamers, all three branches of government have helped create a waiting period more stressful than any I could contrive in my lab. The stakes are high: The dreamers face the possibility that their educational and career pursuits will come to a screeching halt, and they and their families may be deported to their country of origin.
To better understand the uncertainty dreamers face, particularly dreamers pursuing higher education, I reached out to DACA recipients at the Riverside and Merced campuses of the University of California with the help of Kyla Rankin and Dulce Wilkinson, two graduate students in the UC-Riverside psychology department. Several of the students in our study expressed intense anxiety over their now-uncertain future:
“Now I’m living in fear,” one told us. “I have a year and a half of school left and only a year left on my status. What am I supposed to do when I graduate? Was this all for nothing?” Another claimed that upon learning that DACA had been rescinded, “I was thinking my entire educational goal was going to come to an end and all I ever worked for was gone.”
In my research, I have studied the benefits of bracing for worst-case scenarios, a coping strategy that confers a sense of preparedness and buffers the blow of bad news. For dreamers, however, contemplating the end of DACA means more than simply planning ahead. It means confronting the possibility of a fundamental shift in their identities, from “American” to something uncertain and unfamiliar. It also means losing the comfort that one study found the DACA program provided to its recipients.
A student in our study articulated this fuzzy expectation of loss in just such terms: “When the DACA program was rescinded, I cried. I began to develop anxiety and was also fearful. I thought, we are back to square one with nothing to help us survive,” the student said. “Having a California ID was so rewarding, it gave me so much confidence and it made me feel like an American.”
Most of the waiting periods I study are relatively brief, ranging from the week-long pause before biopsy results come through or midterm exam grades appear online, to the several months that it takes for bar exam results and manuscript decisions to arrive. More importantly, while these interregna elicit different feelings, they almost all have definite conclusions after a set amount of time: a follow-up appointment, the promise of a professor to post grades on a particular day, the date in November when the California Bar releases exam results online.
That awareness of a coming conclusion is especially important when you’re dealing with an uncertain situation. In a study of patients awaiting the results of medical tests, half said that they would choose to wait longer for their test result if it meant knowing when the call from their doctor would come. For many people, not knowing when their wait will end adds a layer of uncertainty that exacerbates their already-high levels of anxiety about the future.
Dreamers do not have the luxury of knowing when their uncertainty will end, and their wait may be a long one. Since the program was rescinded in September, the moment of truth when dreamers would finally learn their fate has approached and then receded into the distance time and time again.
The White House’s mercurial stance on the program has vacillated between encouragingly supportive and ominously oppositional; Congress has taken up and then abandoned the issue numerous times; and the courts have handed down rulings on the DACA program that have largely protected the dreamers but nonetheless serve to prolong their uncertainty and complicate efforts to manage their expectations. No wonder one student in our study said that she is “hopelessly anticipating any further action on DACA.”
The dreamers are buried under layers of doubt as they await a final decision on the DACA program. The latest court decision gives the Trump administration 90 days to provide a compelling argument for the rescission of the program, failing which the program will reopen to new applications. In the meantime, the dreamers face another period of waiting and worrying. Even if their wait ends with a satisfactory fix to the DACA program, I suspect that its recipients will not soon forget the suffering they endured during this time of uncertainty.