With the election of Donald Trump as president, a countdown of sorts began for one particular group of people: those who are here illegally but were granted temporary reprieve from deportation by President Obama.
They arrived in this country as children, too young to have any say in the lives their parents chose for them. They grew up as undocumented youth, are still in high school or have graduated and received their GEDs, kids who flow between cultures and languages. They call themselves American and Mexican (and in Colorado, nearly all are from Mexico). They are the flesh-and-blood bridges between their parents’ pasts and presents.
Between 2012 and this past June, more than 740,000 young people had been granted two-year renewable work permits under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals [DACA] program, according to government data. Of those, 16,676 lived in Colorado. This state has the 10th-highest number of DACA youth in the country.
Because deferred action was an executive action, it can be undone by executive action. President-elect Trump threatened precisely this on the campaign trail. He could rescind DACA immediately upon taking office in late January.
I have met many of these young people over the years. I’ve known some long before DACA, when they were still in high school and saving money for college — or questioning why they should bother with college when they saw no path beyond it without Social Security numbers. I met them again after DACA passed. It was no small thing for them to register for the program. It meant declaring oneself here illegally, becoming an entry in a government database, all the time knowing that administrations change and, with them, policies. Those who registered did so as an expression of faith in this country and belief in themselves. They did so for the work permits that unshackled from lives as under-the-radar laborers in kitchens or gardens or construction sites. They are enrolled in college, working full-time, donning suits, ensconced in mainstream American life.
I reached out to two such young people Wednesday. Under ordinary circumstances, they would have had no concerns about me using their last names or their places of employment. They no longer feel safe doing so.
I have known Brenda since she was about 10 years old. Her family has become what families in the absence of immigration reform become: a hodge-podge of legal statuses, some safe from deportation, some not. Brenda is 20. She was first approved for DACA in 2013 and renewed her status again last year. She will have to renew her permit again next November. Brenda’s brother is also a DACA recipient. They have two little brothers who are citizens. Her parents are both here without legal status.
When I asked Brenda how she was processing the results of the election, she responded with a two-page outpouring. She told me she had worked a 10-hour day Tuesday, watched the returns until 10 p.m. and then woke up at 2:30 a.m. to check her Facebook feed.
“And that’s how I found out,” she wrote. “It’s only 2:30 a.m. and I’m just thinking what is going to happen? It’s my third year of college. I’m pursuing a medical degree … Should I give up? Or is this time to work harder?”
She said she knows Latinos who supported Trump and it infuriates her. “How could you?” she wants to ask them. “You were undocumented at some point … Did you forget at some point that you had to do the dirtiest jobs and at some point in your life you were an ILLEGAL who immigrated like millions of undocumented did? Do you remember the purpose of you coming to the U.S.? It was to achieve the famous American Dream and because our country couldn’t promise us a safe environment nor a decent income.”
She wrote that she’s not scared of deportation, but that if Trump took DACA away, “then what? How would I pay for tuition or where would I work? Thanks to DACA, I have been able to continue going to school and work at a bank. I’m a junior full-time student with a full-time job.
“All I can think of, too, is my family, my parents both undocumented, yet unafraid. They have taught me to work hard and to never give up. … I can see my dad worry, but I tell him ‘Don’t worry I will help you guys and I will finish school and become an assistant physician.’ ”
Brenda has had the same boyfriend since they were both students at Lincoln High School, where she was a cheerleader. He is a U.S. citizen studying mechanical engineering. They long have talked marriage, but planned to wait until they both graduated from college and had careers and a house, “just the perfect scenario.”
Her parents, she wrote, want her to marry now, even though her DACA permit does not expire for another year. They tell her who knows what will happen between now and then, and she will be better protected as the wife of a citizen.
“There they are, both mom and dad, telling me, ‘You need to get married…’ Hahaha! I’m only 20 years old and he is 21. I never thought my parents would actually encourage me to marry this young.”
And so, she says, she will. Gladly. “Everything is happening so fast, but everything is for a better tomorrow.”
Marco is the second DACA recipient with whom I spoke. I met him only recently. He works in leadership development for a nonprofit. That’s his picture. He arrived here in 1995, when he was three years old. He was approved and received DACA in February of 2013. He renewed in 2015 and has submitted his paperwork for another two-year renewal. Without it, his work permit and protection from deportation expire at the end of January. This is what he told me:
My friends know I have DACA and they’re asking, ‘What does this mean?’ And the problem is I don’t know what it means. We don’t know how swiftly the president of the incoming administration will act in terms of the executive order. But what he does will impact my livelihood, it will impact where I can work and the trajectory I have been on for the last four years in this country.
We didn’t anticipate this. We didn’t see this coming, whatsoever. I did not make contingency plans. Now, it’s not only what do I do next, but my family, my community. What do we do next?
After Tuesday night, I was dreading two conversations. One was with my employers. They know I’m DACA, but we needed to talk about my future at work. The second was with my mom. I am looking at this from the perspective of losing DACA, and my family is looking at it from the perspective of, ‘Are we going to get deported?’ Which I don’t think is going to happen.
I remained undocumented until right before I turned 21, so what this is doing is kind of bringing back the thoughts I had before we were able to get in-state tuition in Colorado, and before DACA. I would ask myself, ‘What does it mean to be who I am in this country?’ and ‘Will I be limited by something that is completely out of my control?’
I wonder whether my days are numbered as far as my ability to fulfill this immigrant bargain that I bought into. That bargain is the idea that our parents made great sacrifices for us and we must look at those sacrifices and reflect upon them and ask ourselves how we honor those sacrifices.
Thinking about these two conversations I needed to have, I just broke down on the light rail on my way to work Wednesday. I don’t know what this election means for the life I have created for myself, and for all the hard work we have put into the movement to get us to where we are today.
The conversation with my mom, it means talking about what are we going to do as a family next. I kept thinking, wow, this woman, my mother, who is undocumented, who has lived in this country for 21 years with this uncertainty and has always found a way to get through it. My mom might be the one to temper this fear because this has been her reality. Those of us who were privileged to receive DACA are asking what’s next and we need to remember our friends and family have been asking this for years, that it’s ingrained in their experience here. I have to be mindful of that. I have to use it as a source of inspiration.
The election tells me that our country really is a tale of two different realities, and so the question is, how do we build the bridge that will bring these two halves together to create a whole? Because if we don’t, we are doomed to a terrible reality in which we swing from one extreme to another, never connected.
I talked to Marco again Thursday. He said he had spoken to his mom. She first wanted to tell him that he was going to be an uncle again, and so they rejoiced in that. Then she shifted to the election. What do you think is going to happen? she asked. They spoke of the uncertainty ahead, but he said she did not sound worried.
Instead, his mother was what she has always been to him: a comfort, an inspiration, the voice of perseverance in the face of adversity. We have to keep moving forward, she told him. That’s all we know how to do, anyway.
Photo by frankieleon via Flickr, Creative Commons