Undocumented immigrants brought here as children have been caught in the uncertainty of President Donald Trump’s changing messages about the future of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.
DACA, the program started by former President Barack Obama in 2012, allows these individuals to have quasi-legal status by giving them work authorization and deferring deportation. Ten attorneys general from conservative states have threatened to challenge DACA in federal court if Trump doesn’t decide to end the program by Sept. 5.
Trump is expected to make an announcement as soon as Friday. His stance on DACA has changed multiple times. On the campaign trail, he said he would end the program; at a news conference in February, he said Dreamers – undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. as children – were “incredible kids”; last week, top aides urged Trump to use DACA as a bargaining chip in an immigration deal with Congress.
There are nearly 800,000 people in the United States with DACA, and some 18,000 of them are in Washington state, according to the most recent data from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
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Local Dreamers are waiting to see what happens.
“We grew up here, we don’t have a life over there.”
Brothers Jason and Gerson Zamora spend their evenings working the swing shift at a lumber mill near their home in Lynden.
Jason, 21, said he decided to put his education on hold to work when he received DACA in 2012. He has an associate’s degree from Whatcom Community College and hopes to attend Western Washington University in the future to study chemistry. Jason is now an assistant manager at Selco Incorporated. He and his brother work to support their father, who is unable to work because of a medical condition. Jason also helps to support his fiancée’s education.
Jason and his fiancée have been together for 8 years – they started dating in middle school. Jason’s fiancée, who is a U.S. citizen, has been worried about their future and has told him they should get married soon.
Gerson, 24, is a machine operator at the same mill. They came to the U.S. from Guatemala in 2003 – when Jason was 7 and Gerson was 10.
“We grew up here, we don’t have a life over there. I don’t even remember my family,” Jason said. “We’d be starting from zero, trying to get a life together over there.”
Five years after the Zamoras came to the U.S., the company their father worked for in Bellingham went out of business and his health worsened. The family didn’t have any income and moved for four years between friends’ homes.
When DACA came around, the brothers said it changed everything. They were authorized to work and didn’t feel the need to hide. They got jobs, a house and a car.
While the program has never been a permanent solution, it’s all they have.
They are worried about the fact that U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services has all of their information. Gerson said he fears that one day, he’ll receive a letter saying he has to leave the country.
“We’ll start getting ready to prepare for the worst,” Gerson said.
“And hope for the best,” Jason added.
“We just want a chance.”
Elizeth Castro, 28, has two young boys and lives in Sumas. She was 12 when she arrived in the U.S. from Guerrero, Mexico.
Once in the U.S., her mother started working in the fields. Castro said her mother would work 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., leaving her in charge of watching her two younger brothers. They lived in constant fear of their mother being taken away by immigration authorities.
DACA brought Castro some relief, and she said the program made her feel she no longer had to live in the shadows.
“Now I feel like we’re going to be hiding again. I have the pressure again, like I can’t breathe anymore,” she said. “You’re always scared and it’s the worst feeling in the world. We can’t live like this anymore.”
Castro said she has been experiencing anxiety attacks thinking about what could happen not only to her, but to her children. She worries about how she would start a life in a country she hardly knows.
Castro’s memories of growing up in Guerrero are of walking miles to go to school, moving between relatives’ homes and not having enough to eat. Castro’s mother raised the family on her own, and Castro remembers her mother sometimes choosing not to eat, so her children would not go hungry.
“That’s when she made the decision to come here,” she said. “She decided that staying there wasn't going to take us anywhere.”
Castro hopes Americans will change how they see the parents of DACA recipients. She said it’s true children do not choose to immigrate to the U.S. when they accompany their parents, but feels her mother did not have much of a choice either.
“I want people to go inside themselves and really think about us as humans. We just want a chance,” she said. “This is the home I know. I love living here, not because of what this country gives me, but because I know I can become a better person being here.”
Castro is currently attending Whatcom Community College and works for Sourcing Northwest in Everson. She has dreams of one day opening her own business.
“The American people have to make up their minds”
Juan André Macedo de Alba was 16 years old in 2014 when he was stopped and detained in Blaine. His plans for a day-trip to the city with a friend turned into two-and-a-half weeks in a youth detention center because of his undocumented status.
DACA requires applicants to have been in the country since June 15, 2007. Macedo de Alba was just three weeks late when he came to the U.S. as a 9-year-old boy from Jalisco, Mexico.
In 2014, Obama announced plans for immigration reform, including changing the cutoff for DACA from 2007 to 2010. Macedo de Alba waited in anticipation as the change would make him eligible for deferred action and work authorization.
But it never came – the executive orders were blocked by a 4-4 tie in the Supreme Court. Despite the disappointing ruling, Macedo de Alba, now 20, said he still believes in American democracy.
“I knew there was more to still be done, and I knew no matter how much Obama could do, the American people have to make up their minds about what to do with these children,” he said.
Macedo de Alba describes himself as technically “still deportable” – a federal immigration judge closed his case, but it could be reopened. He keeps a copy of the judge’s decision with him at all times because it makes him feel safe, he said.
He won’t be impacted by DACA, but is paying attention, hoping the American people will speak up to defend the program and those like him who fall outside of it.
“Whether you accept me or not, or whether you think the law should accept me or not, I want to say that I love this country and I love it despite its democracy’s slow process or despite Trump,” he said.