Dream, Interrupted Facing deportation when your kids are U.S. citizens

VIDEO | Dreamer (and parent) Xitlaly Garcia

By Amy Wu

At the age of 5, Noelia Lopez can’t know how to be serious. During an interview with her mother, Xitlaly Garcia, who is describing the uncertainty she feels about being a Dreamer, Noelia is acting silly. She can’t help herself.

Xitaly explains what it’s like to be in the crosshairs of an international political debate. “I see my future as uncertain,” she says. And Noelia, nuzzling up her mother on a sofa in their modest Monterey apartment, mugs for the camera, waving coyly. She’s goofy, and you can’t help but smile at her playful innocence even as her mother describes her fear of the future.

“I’m scared for my kids,” Garcia says. “I’m the only one they have to take care of them.”

Noelia and her 9-year-old sister, Valeria, are among an estimated 200,000 children in the United States who have parents enrolled in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, also known as DACA. They have been bestowed a birthright privilege their parents don’t have: U.S. citizenship. They are the children of the U.S. residents known as Dreamers—the young men and women who were brought to the U.S. as children without documentation and who have long been unwitting political footballs.

President Barack Obama initiated the DACA program about five years ago, by executive order. The action was aimed at preventing hundreds of thousands of Dreamers from being deported,  and it gave them access to work permits, driver’s licenses and college educations.

But earlier this year, President Donald Trump signaled he was changing course. In a memo, the Department of Homeland Security urged DACA recipients “to use the time remaining on their work authorizations to prepare and arrange their departure from the United States — including proactively seeking travel documentation — or to apply for other immigration benefits for which they may be eligible.”

While DACA provided relief to millions of Dreamers that they wouldn’t be deported as long as they played by the rules, the rules are changing. For Dreamers who are parents of young children, the possibility of being separated from their children — children who are U.S. citizens — creates an additional level of anxiety. In the course of several months, they went from feeling secure about their status in the U.S. to worrying about what will happen to their children if they are forced to leave the country.

“I want my son to live in a country and not have to worry that I won’t be here,” says Oscar Escalante, 18, a Dreamer from Marina and a father to a 2-year-old named Anthony.

Escalante, who was brought to the U.S. from Michoacán, Mexico, when he was only 2, became a father while a junior at Marina High School. He is now taking classes at Monterey Peninsula College, with a goal to become a mechanical engineer. He also works full time as a houseman for The Sanctuary Beach Resort in Marina, earning $11.50 an hour. He had been working the strawberries in Salinas while in school, but enrolled in a job skills program at Marina High after learning his girlfriend was pregnant.

Xitlaly Garcia was also brought to the U.S. when she was 11 months. Her parents smuggled her and three sisters over from Oaxaca. They returned to Oaxaca, but came back to the United States soon after and have been living on the Monterey Peninsula ever since. Her parents are separated; her father lives in Mexico.

Garcia is now 30, and she stopped going to high school her sophomore year. Education was not a priority to her single mother, she says, and Garcia thought she was being “rebellious.” Like her mother, Garcia took low-paying jobs in the local hospitality industry. She was able to come out of the shadows after Obama issued the DACA order. Intent on getting better jobs, she and a couple of her sisters hired an immigration attorney and successfully applied for DACA status. She got her GED and she found a job, with full benefits, as a housekeeper at the Carmel Hills Care Center.

“Having a work permit helps you avoid dead-end jobs,” Garcia says.

She says the women she worked with inspired her to resume her education. They told her she had advantages they didn’t — she spoke English, she’s lived here most of her life — and she deserved a better life.

Garcia enrolled at Monterey Peninsula College, hoping to get a business administration degree. She juggled her job with school and her children.

In May, President Trump’s announcement upended the sense of security she and other DACA recipients felt. After discussions with her school counselor, she got involved with an on-campus resource group called Dreamers in Action Association, which held fundraisers and provided online resources. She was emboldened to speak out. She reapplied to extend her DACA status another two years.

She says she speaks frankly about her situation to her children. “I told them the truth,” she says. She told them she felt confident she would be remaining in the United States for at least two years. “If anything were to happen in those two years, I would do everything I could to stay here,” she says. “I tell them that there’s a chance that things can get ugly. But I also tell them that if anything happens to me, they should stay strong and fight for the cause. That might be a lot to put on their little shoulders, but I think it’s important.”

Escalante says he is naturally worried about being forced to move to a country he doesn’t really know. “I left Mexico when I was 2, so the U.S. is pretty much my home,” he says. “I don’t know anything outside the United States.” Beyond that, the potential separation from his son is an added stressor. Escalante says he’s been trying to save as much money as he can for his girlfriend and his son in case he is forced to leave the country. His girlfriend is a citizen, so Anthony would be cared for in the United States if Escalante had to leave. The three of them now live in a spare room in his parent’s home. He tries to be frugal, but will occasionally find ways to improvise. Not long ago he used money he received from a tax refund to pay for his son’s baptism.

He recently renewed his work permit for another two years, but he worries that the rules might change again. He says he is inspired by his parents — and motivated by the politics of the times.

During the first several years of his life in the United States, he and his parents lived in a two-bedroom apartment with six other people in Salinas. His father worked in the strawberry fields. “They came here to find a better life,” he says. “When we came here we really had nothing.”

His father eventually found a better-paying construction job on the Monterey Peninsula, and it’s how Escalante ended up attending Marina High, where he played soccer and football. “My son was born when I was in the 11th grade, and since then it’s been work, school and baby. I try to make the most of everything.”

He admits he is fearful about the future, especially now that the rules seem to be changing. “I have to be more careful about what I do and how I present myself as a person,” he says. “Any wrong move and it seems like they will take you out.”

Escalante says some of his friends are discouraged and have talked about dropping out of school. He, too, has  become active in the Dreamers in Action Association at MPC.

Yuliana Vasquez, a counselor at Monterey Peninsula College, says the threats to dissolve DACA have had an adverse effect on students. She says some students dropped out of classes in the initial weeks after the news broke. Similarly, at Hartnell Community College, Bronwyn Moreno, director of student affairs, reports that Dreamer students are also worried, dropping classes for financial reasons or because they are confused or worried about their eligibility due to uncertainty with DACA.

“I kind of use Trump as motivation,” Escalante says. “I know I have to push myself more and prove myself to people. It kind of inspired me to do better in life and strive for things.”

Garcia, on the other hand, decided to quit school after this semester, at least for now. She says the uncertainty of her status in the United States and the needs of her family have forced her to concentrate on her job while she still has a work permit. And she’s  purposely not making plans in the event that she’s forced to leave the country.

“I don’t want to think that way,” she says. “I don’t want to think negative. As a mom, as a parent, I don’t want to cross the line where you have to make plans like that.”

Have something to say about this story? Send us a letter.

SUPPORT NONPROFIT JOURNALISM  

Amy Wu

About Amy Wu

Amy Wu is a veteran and award-winning investigative journalist with more than 24 years of experience, and has worked at Time Magazine, The Salinas Californian / USA Today Network and written for The New York Times, Huffington Post and Wall Street Journal. She writes about agriculture and the environment and splits her time between New York and California.