With the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program in jeopardy, undocumented immigrants who arrived in Oregon and the rest of the country as kids wait and worry
Jhoana Monroy doesn’t know the name of the woman who sneaked her into the United States. She was only 5 years old, and her brother, next to her in the back seat of the light blue Volkswagen Beetle, was 6.
Monroy believes they entered through an official immigration checkpoint, posing as the woman’s children.
Now 25, she is married to a U.S. citizen and has two daughters, ages 6 and 8, who are both U.S. citizens. Her application for residency was denied in 2015 because she didn’t enter the country lawfully, she says. As a result, her future is still uncertain, secured only two years at a time.
The election of Donald Trump, who famously said he was going to build a wall at the Mexican border to keep out all of the “bad hombres,” has shaken the ground beneath immigrants’ feet.
Monroy, a student at Portland Community College’s Rock Creek campus, is one of nearly 800,000 undocumented immigrants who are legally in the United States, thanks to Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). The immigration policy, crafted by the Obama Administration, gives many so-called “Dreamers” the security that they won’t be deported for two years, and the ability to live and work here legally. But they must reapply every two years.
Like many Dreamers in her situation, Monroy considers America her home but does not benefit from many of the privileges that U.S. citizens have, including the ability to leave the country without permission, the ability to apply for federal financial aid, and the ability to vote.
Trump promised to terminate DACA in an August 2016 campaign speech, but has yet to make good on that campaign promise.
This could change, though. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton recently sent a letter to U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions “respectfully requesting” that DACA be rescinded, and that no more permits be issued or renewed. Paxton has the support of nine other states. Those states don’t include Oregon or California, which has the highest number of undocumented immigrants in the United States.
If Trump does not agree to phase out DACA by Sept. 5, Paxton has said he will file a lawsuit. Although it is not yet clear whether Trump will willingly phase out DACA, there has been no commitment from White House officials to defend the program in court.
Dreamers — who could relax a bit under Obama’s DACA policy — are again living in limbo, worried about their fate and that of their families.
Running from “La Migra”
For some of the 21,000 DACA recipients in Oregon, the fear of having a family member deported is not new. It’s a harrowing reality they’ve lived with since their arrival.
Growing up, Monroy lived with her family in a Beaverton apartment complex alongside many other migrant families. She didn’t yet realize the significance of her immigration status, but on some level, she knew they were living with a secret.
In their spare time, the young children would gather and play a game of tag called “La Migra.” The child who would have normally been designated as “it” was referred to as “La Migra,” or an immigration officer, and would “deport” as many migrant children as possible by tagging them.
“We thought it was normal,” she says. “That was our life.”
When Monroy was in elementary school, her father was deported. Immigration officers approached her dad while he was working as a landscaper and sent him back to Mexico, she says.
“I just remember that me, my mom and my brother just laid down in her bed,” Monroy says, thinking back to when her mother broke the news. “We were just really sad.”
Her dad, wanting to provide for his family, sneaked across the border and was back in their Beaverton home about one week after he was deported, she says.
But the fear of another deportation and the stress of being an undocumented teen took its toll on her.
“As I got older, I realized that we weren’t normal and I started hiding my status,” Monroy says. “I fell into depression.”
She wasn’t making the best decisions and her judgment was clouded by depression. She got pregnant at age 16, and her second daughter was born two and a half years later.
Although in retrospect she wasn’t ready to be a parent, she now says that motherhood has changed her life for the better.
But Trump’s threats to DACA have made being an immigrant mother to U.S citizen children increasingly difficult. Despite that, Monroy says that she has tried to be as open with her daughters as possible, given their age.
“I’m really trying to create in them the pride of just being a brown Latinx kid,” Monroy says, using the gender-inclusive version of Latino/Latina.
There have been challenging moments, she says, such as during the 2016 presidential campaign, when her 8-year-old daughter came home from school asking questions like “Who is Donald?” and “Does he hate Mexicans?”
She navigates these moments of motherhood carefully, not disclosing the real possibility of her getting picked up by immigration officers. Instead, she explains the situation to them in gentler terms: “Maybe one day Mommy might have to go on a vacation.”
Short window of opportunity
When DACA was first announced in 2012, Ivan Hernandez was 21. He was working 60 to 70 hours a week in restaurants, getting paid under the table, nine years after emigrating here from Southern Mexico. He sought counsel from a lawyer at Catholic Charities, a social services organization in Portland, and was discouraged from applying for DACA when he learned the law provided protection from deportation for only two years. Hernandez thought he’d be deported after two years and didn’t know he could apply for a renewal.
But when a mentor reminded him that “two years of something is better than 100 years of nothing,” he applied.
He had just finished a 16-hour overnight shift picking blackberries in May 2013, when he received the letter informing him that his DACA application had been approved.
“I was the happiest man on the face of this earth.”
Hernandez, now 26, has begun chasing his dreams and honing his leadership skills, serving last year as PCC Rock Creek’s student body president.
The price they pay
Imminent deportation is a fear of many Dreamers considering DACA. To qualify, they must admit to being in the country illegally.
Then they must document that they’ve continually resided in the United States since June 15, 2007, were under 31 years old, and present in the country on June 15, 2012, and that they are pursuing education, have graduated or have received a GED. They also must pay a $465 application fee, which deters some from applying.
Christian Calzada, 20, was preparing to apply for DACA a few years ago when his dad lost his job at Nike. Calzada had to use the money he’d been saving for the application fee to help support his family.
His dad eventually found work as a custodian, but Calzada, a PCC student, continued to put off the DACA application until early November.
“On election night I stayed up all night just waiting for the rest of the states to turn blue,” Calzada says.
When they didn’t, he started preparing for what was potentially to come.
He worked with Monroy and Hernandez to get PCC declared a Sanctuary Campus, meaning that PCC will protect undocumented students and won’t allow immigration officers on campus without a warrant. He worked with his social justice youth group at St. Alexander’s Catholic Church in Cornelius to make sure that other migrant families knew how to defend themselves, no matter what.
Calzada couldn’t afford to hire an attorney, so he had a friend help him with his DACA application. He finally applied in February, but hasn’t yet been approved.
He worries about the future of DACA under Trump, but still hopes to gain even the temporary security it would provide.
For many Dreamers, DACA is not a silver bullet of immigration reform. PCC student Petrona Dominguez, 20, says she has an immigration lawyer’s phone number memorized, despite having DACA status.
“DACA has me feeling safe,” Dominguez says, “but I don’t think I’ll ever feel free.”
In September 2001, when she was 4, Dominguez and her mother traveled from their home in Guatemala and entered the United States illegally at the Mexican border, hiding under the seats of a van. Her mother was six months pregnant.
After the 2016 presidential election, Dominguez increasingly began to fear the profiling and stereotypes that she and her parents, who work in a nursery, might encounter.
“If I go out with my parents and they have dark skin and dirty clothes …” she trailed off. She knows what people will think.
Dominguez, who lives with her family in Forest Grove, knows that sharing her story through her activism puts her parents at risk, but she can’t stand the idea of not fighting for what she believes in.
“Even if I end up dying,” Dominguez says, “at least I would know that I tried.”
She cringes when she hears the term “alien” used to describe people like her or anyone with brown skin. It makes her think of a “weird, extraterrestrial thing,” she says.
“That’s not what defines me.”
She says it helps when she is being distracted, either when she’s focused on her education, or at home playing with their 7-month-old chihuahua puppy, Tito.
Her family usually avoids watching the news on TV, because it leads to harrowing questions about who will watch over her three younger siblings, all U.S. citizens, if she and her parents are deported.
They can change the channel or even turn off the TV altogether, she says, but “you can’t turn off reality.”
The uncertainty that her family is living with under Trump is difficult for Dominguez to handle. She is studying at PCC to become a dental assistant, and works in a pawn shop to finance her education. Work is a good distraction for her, too. But she says she doesn’t think the stress is ever going to go away.
“It’s hard to stay positive,” Dominguez says. “It’s been a rough year for me after the election.”
Crossing the desert
Naela Cabrera, 21, a Portland State University student and DACA recipient, can relate to struggling with her mental health due to her immigration status. Cabrera and her mother came to the U.S. as soon as she was old enough to walk across the desert. They met her dad here, when Cabrera was 3 years old.
Originally from Veracruz, Mexico, Cabrera says her grades have suffered as a result of her shame and emotional distress, going back to her freshman year of high school, and continuing in the past year, triggered by the political rhetoric around immigration.
“I honestly thought I was going to go through college without ever talking about it,” says Cabrera, who grew up in Salem but lives in Portland. “But it’s not as much of a secret as it was growing up.”
With counseling and a supportive partner, Cabrera is learning to reclaim her identity as a Dreamer, and fight for immigrant resources at PSU.
Along with others at PSU, Cabrera is in the process of getting together a group for undocumented students of any ethnicity. This, she says, would give them the opportunity to find support and help each other find the resources they need to succeed.
In addition to helping declare PCC Rock Creek a Sanctuary Campus, Monroy, Hernandez, Calzada and Dominguez have organized “Know Your Rights” workshops to ensure that undocumented folks are prepared for any interaction with immigration officers, and are now working toward establishing a Dream Center at PCC as a resource for undocumented students.
“More than anything, it’s hard talking about it,” Monroy explains. “I want other individuals to know that there are resources for them if they are undocumented.”
The Dream Center would provide legal advising, scholarship opportunities, counseling and support for undocumented students.
Hernandez, who walked across the Sonoran Desert with his family when he was 11, wants to help others like himself. At PCC Rock Creek, he works to help Spanish speakers earn a high school equivalency diploma or GED, a resource for migrant farmworkers.
“I’ve come too far to give up right now,” Hernandez says.
Chasing the dream
Undocumented immigrants who arrived in the U.S. as children are often referred to as Dreamers, relating to the DREAM Act, which was first introduced in 2001 but never passed. The DREAM Act stands for Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors, and would have allowed childhood arrivals to obtain a green card and stay in the U.S. legally as residents, but remain citizens of their native countries. The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, known as DACA, while similar to the DREAM Act, is granted for only two years at a time, and does not give these immigrants the ability to gain residency.
Story first published here.