Faces of Resilience Software engineer creates a site to give voice to DACA recipients' fears and hopes

Faces of DACA’s Christopher Rendon, L, Daniel Diaz, center, and Corina De La Torre, R | Vernon McKnight

By Claudia Meléndez Salinas

A world of possibilities opened for Daniel Diaz after former President Barack Obama approved a program that gave temporary legalization to young people who were brought to the United States illegally as children.

“DACA opened a lot of doors, it was a great relief for me,” said Diaz, a Salinas-based software engineer. “When I found out I was undocumented in high school, I wasn’t really sure what my future would look like. I wasn’t going to be able to work legally. Getting an education would be out-of-pocket.”

DACA gave Diaz and nearly 800,000 young people like him an opportunity to come out of the shadows, pursue an education and find well-paying jobs. All that was threatened when Donald Trump made good on his promise to end DACA, a decision he announced on Sept. 5.

Dreamers like Diaz usually fall into despair when they hear news that adversely affects their future, according to his project’s own research. But they usually rally and keep going. That’s what Diaz did when he created FacesofDACA.us, a website that is narrative, research, and call to action all at once.

“What started out as a local endeavor has started gaining some national traction,” he said. “We’ve begun collecting stories from Dreamers located in Washington, Oklahoma, and Texas and obtained visibility from organizations as far as Wisconsin.”

With the help of some of his best friends, Diaz put together Faces of DACA to give voice to Dreamers like him who were able to get temporary legal status through Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. So far, the site has compiled the stories of 21 DACA recipients, and its creators have plans to roll out more in the next few weeks. On Feb. 6, they’ll host a fireside chat with some of them at the Western Stage in Hartnell College.

“I’ve always felt this frustration of Congress making decisions that affected my life and my future without really knowing what I look like or hearing my story,” Diaz said. “I set myself out with two initial goals in mind: Collect stories of other Dreamers and use my skills as a software engineer to help amplify their voices.”

Diaz’s next goal was to reach out to other DACA recipients and begin constructing a local support network.

“We want to give the audience a real-life taste of what the team has collected,” Diaz said. “We want to present this to the community and we hope to get their support.”

The Faces of DACA team has collected stories like that of Aylin, who is now studying kinesiology at Cal State University Monterey Bay and was brought to the United States when she was a baby. And Jonathan, whose parents made huge sacrifices to send him to York School in Monterey. And Octavio, who created a family business with his brother when he was in high school. All of the interviews were conducted by Diaz, a graduate of an accelerated computer science program at Hartnell College and Cal State University Monterey Bay.

Diaz was brought to the United States 13 years ago, when he was 10. He didn’t know he was undocumented until he was in high school.

“In my senior year, when (DACA) was announced by Obama, I saw endless possibilities,” he said. “I buckled down and made sure I took advantage. I got accepted to (the computer program) and for three years my only focus was to do well in class, to network and obtain an internship in Silicon Valley that turned out to be at Uber. I’m thankful for my time there where I was able to work my career as a software engineer.”

Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals was signed by Barack Obama in 2012 and has since given benefits to an estimated 800,000 young immigrants. Included in several of his anti-immigrant promises, Donald Trump vowed to end the program if elected to the presidency. He made good on his promise in September, when he announced DACA would end in March — with a caveat. Congress had until March 5 to put together a permanent fix, but so far, discussions remain in limbo as lawmakers try to include that fix in the country’s spending bill.

Many young immigrants feel they’re being used as pawns in the Congressional chess game.

The high-stakes brinkmanship has Dreamers in general, and DACA recipients in particular, on edge. (Dreamers are all young people who came to the U.S. illegally, while DACA recipients are Dreamers who have applied for and are approved for DACA protections.) Still, they are a resilient group, and the research conducted by the Faces of DACA team confirms it: almost two out of every three respondents (14 of 21) are holding on to hope and optimism despite the obstacles they face.

Mia Castillo, a psychology student at the University of California, Santa Cruz, helped Diaz with the research component of Faces of DACA. She and another researcher designed the questions, and elicited the responses based on Diaz’s interviews. The high rate of resiliency is encouraging, she said.

“What we found out was that 83.3 percent of the interviewed expressed an initial negative reaction to the news of DACA being rescinded,” she said. “However, what’s so beautiful about that is the resilience that is obvious. It’s 62.5 percent who expressed positive perseverance despite it all. So initially they were very depressed — for obvious reasons — but afterwards, after healing from it and in a way realizing ‘this is my situation’ they felt more perseverance, more energy to keep fighting and to keep going on about their education, working on their careers and supporting their families. They were dead-set on not letting this stop them.”

Even though she’s not a Dreamer, Castillo decided to become involved in the project because growing up she had a lot of friends living in the United States illegally.

“We thought we knew this is a tough situation, but until we got access to these interviews I didn’t really know the full scope of it and how much it truly affected their lives and the constant fear they had since day one,” she said.

Chris Rendon, editor of the project, hopes the site will help dispel some misconceptions about DACA recipients. “DACA is not a social welfare program. You cannot receive money and pay for your college from it,” he said. “It gets you a (driver’s) license, a social security number and the right to work. DACA has no path for citizenship, no Green Card. It’s a very complicated situation, but people think it’s simple and has a simple solution.”

Diaz considers himself one of the resilient ones, even as he faces the congressional chess game with his life.

“It’s taxing to hear a different take day in and day out. One day it might seem like we’re headed in the right direction and the next day, it might seem like my days in this country are numbered,” he said. “My personal hope is for a long-term solution revolving around a path for citizenship. For many of the participants that I interviewed, many of them have similar hopes: to be American in their heart and on paper. Furthermore, I hope that the resolution will also formulate a solution not only for DACA recipients, but also for other Dreamers that aren’t under DACA and have continued to do well in their studies and contribute to our communities and economy.”

Faces of DACA fireside celebration and chat
5:30 to 7:30 p.m.
Feb. 6, 2018
Western Stage at Hartnell College
411 Central Ave., Salinas
For info, email we.r.daca@gmail.com

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Claudia Meléndez Salinas

About Claudia Meléndez Salinas

Claudia Meléndez Salinas is an author, journalist, open water swimmer, and cat lover.