Local DACA recipients still dreaming but fearful of future
For hundreds of thousands of young people living in the United States, last week's announcement by the Justice Department that the Trump administration will end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program thrust an already-tenuous future into deep uncertainty.
Azucena Javier and Yaretzi Cadena just graduated from Tualatin High School. They will begin classes at Portland Community College this month. Javier said she plans to work while going to two-year college, then transfer to get her political science degree from a four-year university, then go to law school. Cadena wants to become a certified veterinary technologist.
When they talk about their plans for furthering their education and starting their careers, they speak in the present tense. But they have each also memorized a date and a fact: when their DACA status is set to expire, and whether or not they are eligible to renew it for two final years.
'We are part of this country'
The DACA program was announced by President Barack Obama in 2012 as a sort of stopgap solution to the conundrum the U.S. government is confronting: What should authorities do about the hundreds of thousands of children, teenagers and young adults who were brought to the United States without documentation when they were minors?
Obama's announcement allowed these so-called dreamers to remain in the country without fear of deportation, provided they meet certain criteria. However, the legality of the program — it was created by an executive order after Congress failed to pass a bill called the DREAM Act, which would have created a path to legal residency for them — has been questioned by opponents. And, as its name suggests, it merely "defers" the enforcement of federal immigration laws for people who qualify, rather than offering a way for them to become legal residents.
"I feel, along with the other 800,000 dreamers, that we are part of this country," Javier said. She wants to see the DREAM Act become law, she added: "The immigration system is so deeply broken. That would be … the easiest way to get legal status here."
"We've spent most of our life here," she said. "I think it's fair that we are known as Americans and that we get a path to citizenship."
Cadena and Javier's stories are familiar ones: They were both brought from Mexico to the United States at a young age — Cadena was 4, Javier was 3. Cadena said her father came to the United States first and then sent for her and her mother. Javier said her parents emigrated first and then paid a "coyote," or human smuggler, to take her across the border.
Both recalled being given some sort of medicine to put them to sleep during the border crossing.
Both said they have not been back to Mexico, or even left the United States, since then. Neither remembers much about the country of their birth, and Cadena said she doesn't even know exactly where in Mexico her family came from.
"I'm just very used to here, and I don't see myself having a life over there in Mexico, just because … I don't know anything over there. I don't remember where I lived, how it looks. I'm very used to here," Cadena said.
Javier's family is from Michoacan, a Mexican state bordering the Pacific Ocean. Javier said her relatives who still live there, whom she has never met, live in a very poor indigenous village where they speak Purepecha, a Native language. She speaks Spanish, and even at home, she mostly speaks English, she added.
Javier has heard frightening stories about her birthplace. One of her grandmothers was raped and murdered by corrupt police officers, she said. (As Cadena added, it is not uncommon in Mexico for police officers to accost people and ask for bribes.)
"I don't know — I just feel like if I went home, I might die," Javier said, tears rolling down her cheeks. "I'm scared because they have power over there."
'I don't know what's going to happen'
Javier said she was "very, very angry" when U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the end of the DACA program. She was incensed to hear him use the phrase "illegal aliens," considered highly offensive to many in the immigrant community, over and over as he described people like her.
"For me, that's such a dehumanizing term, because it's saying we're not people, that we don't have dreams … or feelings," Javier said.
She cried as she talked about what the announcement could mean for her and her family.
"My parents came here for us to get an education," Javier said. "And I feel like I'm not going to be able to pursue my dream anymore."
Javier has three siblings, all of whom were born in the United States, she said. They are citizens by birth. They will not be at risk of deportation, even after their older sister's DACA status expires.
"I'm the only DACA recipient in my family — which I'm, to an extent, really grateful for. … I'm really grateful that they don't have to go through what I'm going (through), because I know that I'm strong enough to handle this," said Javier, who was honored earlier this year by the Tualatin City Council as one of the city's "Youth Volunteers of the Year."
Javier is eligible to renew her DACA status, as long as she submits her application by Oct. 5. That will give her two more years' permission to remain in the United States. After that, she risks deportation if she remains in the country.
Cadena is not so fortunate. Her current DACA status doesn't expire until next September, well after the March 5, 2018, cutoff date that Sessions announced.
"I don't qualify to renew again," she said. "So a year from now, I have no idea what's going to happen."
Even though President Donald Trump had declared during his campaign last year that he would end the DACA program if elected, Cadena said she was "very heartbroken" upon hearing the announcement, because she believed he might change his mind.
"I had a lot of hope that maybe, probably, that he would not end DACA," she said. "I'm a very religious person, and I was praying that he would change his mind and not do it. But now, I don't feel as secure as I felt before."
Trump has said he will revisit the issue if Congress fails to act within the next six months. Congressional Democrats, as well as some Republicans, are pushing for legislative action on immigration reform. However, it remains unclear whether Trump would sign a piece of legislation like the DREAM Act even if it were to pass both Republican-controlled chambers of Congress and make it to his desk.
For now, Cadena and Javier are trying to live their lives while preparing for the worst.
"I'll get two more years — I don't know what's going to happen after that, you know? I'm going to struggle," Javier said. "Before DACA, though, I was too young, so I didn't really get to fully experience what 'undocumented' means being here in this country. But I'm really scared. Two years goes by very fast, and it's not enough time for me to get my education and everything that I want to achieve."