With DACA in danger, three young North Carolinians talk about the future

A section of fencing on the border between the United States and Mexico. Image by Bill Morrow.

On his first day in the Oval Office, Donald J. Trump will have the power to strip away legal protections from more than 700,000 young immigrants.

They are immigrants brought to this country illegally as children. Before 2012, when the Obama Administration gave many of them a route to temporary legal status under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, better known as DACA, they couldn’t legally work. In many states, they could not get a driver’s license, either. They could be deported at any time.

Effectively, it was permanent punishment for something that happened to them as children.

Trump has promised to repeal DACA. Because it’s an executive order, not an act of Congress, he can do so whenever he wants.

In the most moderate scenario, Trump would simply direct U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to stop accepting new DACA applications. Eligible young immigrants who don’t have the status would never get it; people with DACA would gradually lose their status as their permits expired.

In the more dramatic scenario, the Trump Administration could pull DACA status immediately from everyone. It could even target DACA recipients and their families for immediate deportation.

More than 26,000 North Carolinians have received protection under DACA. Scalawag spoke with three of them before Inauguration Day about the election, bigotry, and how they view their futures in the country they consider home.

Here are excerpts of those conversations, condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

Jazmin Mendoza Sosa

Jazmin works for an education nonprofit in Chatham County, N.C., where she has lived since she was eight years old. We spoke in the offices of El Vínculo Hispano, an advocacy organization in Siler City, N.C., a week after the election. “I grew up in Siler City, and I don't know any other state than North Carolina as my home,” she says.

Applying for DACA can make you vulnerable. Like other applicants, Jazmin had to give her information to the government. In doing so, she’d be exposing herself as undocumented. By extension, she’d be exposing her parents, too. She applied anyway.

I didn't think about the consequences, because I felt like the benefit of getting [DACA] was larger than my fear. At that time I had great community support. We were encouraged, we knew the benefits of having it, and I wasn't afraid of having my information at the immigration office. Instead of fear, I saw hope.

I think after the elections was the first time that I felt the fear that I felt when I was driving without a license for the first time [before DACA]. And that is something that I don't want to experience anymore, at all. Not knowing, and being in that limbo, I think, is the worst feeling.

It's scary because I just know one country. I love Mexico because my parents taught me how to love my home country, but this is the country I grew up at, and thinking that I might leave…

My parents know Siler City only. Siler City is mostly Hispanic. Many of them work in low income jobs, harsh jobs, and there are jobs that require you physically to be strong. My parents have had to do that [kind of] job for so many years. I can see the effects that those kinds of jobs have on my parents. And I don't want to experience that.

It's not about the money. I want to do something that I strongly believe. I know education is something that I want to do, something that I want to advocate for people. And now seeing how an immigration status is—might not longer be…I don't know how to explain it....It's just like, DACA gave me a protection. And I'm scared because I'm not sure if I'm emotionally strong to keep doing what I'm doing.

I never felt my life was in danger the way I feel right now.

How can I not feel emotionally drained when half of the country voted for someone who believes I don't deserve to be in the country where I have lived, worked, studied?

I pay taxes. I’m an advocate for education, and I'm not selectively advocating for just one group. No, I'm a strong advocate for education for everybody.

And now I can see hatred, and hatred in media. Going to the store, having to worry about—worrying about having to experience the feeling that I experienced when I was driving around Siler City without a license and worrying about police stopping me. Having to—I don't know how to explain it, but I always see, in my mom's eyes, there's a fear. I can't explain it, but I know it's there. And knowing that she had to deal with it for so many years and coming to think that I’ll have to deal with it? That, to me, is emotionally draining.

My siblings live, one in Greensboro, one in Charlotte. So I'm the only one for the entire community, for the entire family—not only my parents, but for my extended family. I’m the person who has to tell them about how the system works, having to explain to them their rights, having to explain how to protect themselves. I talk to the little kids about what this means, because if they ask you, like, “Would your parents be deported?” it's a harsh question. The only thing I could say is, "I will protect you." I can't promise that I'm not going to be deported, because unfortunately, that's not up to me. But I only can tell my little cousins that I will protect them as much as I can.

There are children in her extended family who are U.S. citizens. She knows what it feels like, she says, to feel separated from your family by circumstance. When she came to the United States as young child, she lived with her aunt. Her dad lived in an all-male trailer. He mother and siblings were back in Mexico then.

I saw on Facebook, people I went to college with, I sat next to them, and thinking that they had voted for someone like him hurt me. I'm still grieving. I'm still processing. I feel like my identity is in danger. I'm still trying to find ways to encourage, to empower myself, and ways to empower others. And making decisions. My decision is, I'm not going to let the system silence my voice.

I know I don't have the power to change things right away, but I am here to fight for what I have to say, for my community, and to raise my voice, and embrace that I'm an undocumented Mexicana. And that's just who Jazmin is.

Janet Ramirez

Janet also grew up in Siler City. She lives there now with her husband and their small child, both U.S. citizens. She works for the city, and also, part-time, for El Vínculo Hispano. We spoke in the organization’s offices in November. In high school, Janet was a high-performing and ambitious student, but being undocumented limited her opportunities.

My goal was to go to a four-year college. That's what I was really hoping to do. At first I wanted to be a psychiatrist. I changed my mind when I realized how much time and money it was going to take.

The guidance counselor [asked] “What am I going to school for?” And I told her “engineer.” We tried to apply for the gender…I can't remember the name of the scholarship—it's for females who are going into male-dominant careers, and it would cover my full tuition. But when we looked at it, we saw that the requirement was a social security number. And I didn't qualify for that. That's when I started realizing that I better take as many classes as I could in high school.

She got married before she finished high school. Shortly afterward, she learned that she was six months pregnant. She had the baby in the January of her senior year, and she couldn’t return until February. Her GPA dropped. She went to work at a production factory in a nearby town, and then went to a local community college. She had DACA by then, but, because of North Carolina law, she still couldn’t get in-state tuition.

The teacher was really touched when she met me because she had never met somebody with DACA. She knew about undocumented people and students, but she never really knew how hard it was for them to go to school. And she got touched and moved because she's like, “You have it in you, I really want you to know and learn it.” And we tried finding scholarships, but out of the—how much was it?—I know we saw at least twenty. Out of all of those I only got one, for a thousand dollars. Enough for one semester.

An average student who was born here and pays in-state tuition for a full career, they pay five thousand, six at tops, depending on how important the career is and how many credits it has. I, for a career, an associates’ degree, end up paying $20,000.

It sucked because a lot of people in my class had financial aid, and they wouldn't care. I'm over here dying to get an A, and they're so smart, but they're just lazy. So they just let the class go. They're like “It's fine, I can take it next semester.” I'm like “Ahhh, what?!”

The joy of being a citizen and being from here.

She was thinking about joining the military. After the election, that’s not in the cards.

I would do it if somebody else was the president. I just don't trust the country. I don't want to fight for a country that's getting run by someone who does not believe that I'm valuable to this country.

I'm not against him. He is the president and we should respect that. But I don't respect that he didn't take the time to meet me, and he just threw me in a stereotype with everybody else.

We were getting to that point where being racist or being so rude to people was wrong. We were getting to the point where you had to hide it, because people would criticize you about it. And people were just going under the radar. I think when he came out, everybody assumed it was okay.

I'm pretty sure people hear their voice in him, the same way I would hear my voice in Ilana [the director of El Vínculo Hispano], the same way I would hear my voice in anybody that fights for human rights. Even Martin Luther King. A lot of people identify with him. You believe in what he's saying, and you think that what he's saying is what you feel. He puts the words that you want to say, or takes out the words from your heart. And I think that's why people follow him.

I think people are also tired. They're just tired of how the country is being run, and they're tired of politicians going around the bush and not telling them straight up.

I got into a fight with one of my Facebook friends--not a fight, she just didn't like what I was saying. She said, “You know, I'm fed up with this. Tomorrow's going to be the same thing. We're all going to wake up and we're going to be the same.” And I was like, “For you it will. For many families tomorrow, it's going to be a difficult day, to figure out what they're going do, to get themselves together, just in case the worst happens.”

My own mother can't sleep. She wonders, if we get deported, “What am I going to go do in Mexico?”

We got kicked out [of Mexico] because of violence. The narcos, they asked for a protection fee, and it was a ridiculous amount. You have children, your family—all my family got kicked out of my little town. All of them. I don't have no first family members there. My uncles, my own grandmother. She got kicked out of her own house. They flipped her house upside down and came out with guns and told her you got ten minutes to leave. And what could she do about it? What are you going to do with people pointing guns at your face?

You can't hide in Mexico. If they're looking for your family, good luck hiding. It's harder for them to find us up here.

So, yeah. It's stressful for her.

We begin to talk about what will happen if she loses her DACA status.

I don't know. That's a good question. That's a question lots of people are asking. I don't know. I think I'll be at rallies. We're peaceful. These are peaceful rallies. Violence is not the answer for us. But we do need to be heard. And that's the only way.

What hurts me the most is that I would have to quit a job that I worked for so hard. Like [this job working for] Siler City, it would be obvious why I have to go. I don't know if that would give them pleasure or not. They seem to like me, but you never know.

Her family is from Michoacán, a poor state in southern Mexico. As undocumented migrants, her family has been unable to return there, even for funerals, because they would not be able to reenter the United States.

The mountains are incredible. You would go up to the mountains and you would pick a fruit.

My favorite spot on the mountains was the window. It's this big rock that sits outside of a mountain, and it stands right there, and you sit on it and you're able to see the little towns you just walked through. It's unique.

I miss it. I dream about it. I dream that I fly and I return to it.

Yazmin Garcia Rico

Yaz is studying for a master’s of social work at UNC-Chapel Hill. She was brought to the United States from Mexico when she was in middle school, and she grew up in Alamance County in central North Carolina. We met in a café in Durham two weeks before the inauguration.

People don't realize that we're part of the community—that they have friends that they went to school with, that they might be working with someone who's DACA. So whatever they hear on the news, that we're like criminals and stuff, that's the face that they think of when they think of immigration.

I think now more than ever it's more clear that immigration [services] could do something, if they wanted to. If they're going to do it, I don't know, if they're gonna come to our houses, or just check licenses out on the roads, we really don't know what they have in mind. And that's really scary. Because we don't know how to take action. How can you take care of yourself and your family if you don't know how they're trying to get rid of you?

I feel like my fear, right now, is not for myself. I mainly think of my family. My mother is here, my oldest brother, his wife and two kids. My nephews were born in the U.S., and they're growing up hearing things, especially after the election, and that really makes me feel just like I can't do anything. They were asking, “Are we going to have to go back to Mexico?” They've never been to Mexico. And they ask, “If Trump was president….”

One is three years old, the other one is seven, and they're starting to hear things, to put things together in their minds, like “What does this mean for our family?” So for me that's always in the back of my mind. I'm not afraid for myself, but I'm afraid for my family. That's why I tried to stay close to the area.

And we've seen a lot, because Alamance County was really hot in the past few years. A lot of people got deported. So I feel like we've made it this far, and we just have to find a way to make it in the next four years.

The day after [the election], I had to go to a training about LGBTQ issues, and that just made me realize, it's not only the Latino community, it's not only the community of color that is suffering from this decision. It's also the LGBTQ community. And there are so many other communities that I'm just learning about that are going to be affected, because the president-elect messed around with different communities, not only one. So in a way, I felt like, wow, we're not alone. Other people now are understanding or getting the fear.

For me, personally, I was thinking, I did so much to get to grad school, being DACA. For a whole year, I did so many things just to be able to be there, and now that I'm there, that's in jeopardy. If I lose my work permit, I can no longer be a research assistant, and I can no longer get tuition remission which helps to cover half of my out-of-state tuition. It's like one thing affects the rest, so all those things started going through my mind.

And it's hard. It's hard to not think of who's fault this is, and to feel like other people are understanding what you're going through.

I had a lot of friends who texted me, like, “How are you?” And I'm really—at that point I felt like I was angry and upset and frustrated, and I was like, “I'm not okay. And I'm not gonna lie, and I'm not afraid to say that I'm not okay.”

She came to the United States in eighth grade. She was lost at first, but she soon found her bearings.

It was in high school when I started realizing the many things that I couldn't do. I took driver's ed classes, and I drove with the professor, and I got my little certificate, and I went to the DMV, and at that point it had been maybe [a few] weeks since they had stopped giving driver's licenses to undocumented immigrants [in North Carolina], so I couldn't do anything.

So that was the first wakeup call—I cannot have a driver's license. And then in high school it was when a lot of people started getting deported.

And so I was just going through high school thinking about, how am I going to get to college? How am I going to get a driver's license? And just putting all those thoughts together.

Even when young people do get protected status, Yaz observes, others are left behind.

My mother, I feel like, deserves it more than anyone else. Our parents have worked, they're more careful than the young people. They drive at the limit. They don't drink and drive because they’re thinking about their kids and their wives. And yet the young people are the ones receiving this privilege.

It's just so frustrating to know that cheap labor is wanted and welcome, but you as a whole in the society are not.


Michael Schulson

Michael Schulson is a freelance journalist and an associate editor at Religion Dispatches, where he co-produces The Cubit, a section covering religion, science, technology, and ethics. He grew up in Chattanooga, Tennessee.