Heldáy de la Cruz has no memory of Mexico.
The Hermiston High School graduate, 26, was two years old when he left the country of his birth. He hasn’t been back since. His friends are American. So is his college degree, and the company where he works as a graphic designer.
None of that matters in the eyes of the law now that the Trump administration has announced the end of the Deferred Action on Childhood Arrivals program that has allowed young, undocumented “Dreamers” like de la Cruz to work legally in the United States. Unless Congress acts, he will be vulnerable to deportation once his most recent work permit expires.
“It would be a total readjustment of my life,” he said.
There is no path to citizenship for Dreamers, and only some of the 787,000 registered for DACA have a way to obtain a green card, if they were brought into the United States by certain methods and have a parent, spouse or child who is a citizen and can sponsor them. Others are out of luck unless the law changes.
Although de la Cruz’s parents brought their toddler son to Hermiston without going through legal immigration channels, his childhood was a fairly average one once he arrived in Eastern Oregon.
“I was all pretty normal — it felt normal, anyway — up until I was 14 and started thinking about getting my driver’s permit at 15,” he said. “I realized that was not a possibility for me.”
Soon he started missing out on other rites of passage that his friends were experiencing. He couldn’t apply for a summer job at McDonald’s, or get financial aid to help cover tuition at a university. His good grades drew a sizable scholarship offer from one school, but it wasn’t enough to make up for the loss of federal financial aid, and in end he turned it down in order to get a transfer degree from Blue Mountain Community College.
He considered moving to Mexico, because it was hard to imagine a graphic design company ignoring his undocumented status to hire him. But then his mom was diagnosed with cancer, and he didn’t want to leave her.
When then-President Barack Obama announced the DACA program 2012, de la Cruz was scared that giving the government his information would backfire. His parents convinced him to apply.
“It’s changed my life drastically,” he said, “especially work-wise, because I’ve been able to have a job in the field I want to work in.”
DACA covers undocumented immigrants who arrived in the country before 2007 and before their 16th birthday, were under the age of 31 in 2012, did not have a criminal record and are either currently in school or a high school graduate. Young people who apply for DACA and pay a $495 fee every two years are issued a permit that allows them to legally work, drive, pay taxes and attend college, but does not allow them to get benefits like food stamps, Pell Grants or subsidized health insurance.
On Tuesday President Donald Trump announced his administration will begin phasing out DACA by no longer renewing the program’s two-year work permits. Trump said Congress could come up with legislation to replace the program, but many Dreamers are skeptical the votes will be there, considering similar legislation has failed in years past.
De la Cruz, who lives in Portland but still makes frequent trips to Hermiston to visit his parents, said he just renewed his application, but he knows Dreamers whose work permits expire within a few weeks.
“I was incredibly lucky to be able to get my application in on time and buy myself two more years, but there are people who are homeowners, people who have children, people who have loved ones here who are too sick to travel and now they are having to make plans to leave the country,” he said.
He said he has been frustrated that his plight has been met with everything from outright racism to ignorant assumptions that he can choose to become a citizen if he just hires the right attorney. He also gets frustrated by well-meaning allies who say “Everything will be OK” even though they don’t actually know that. He said it’s better for allies to ask what they can do to help, just like his friends who will accompany him to the federal courthouse when his DACA renewal is done being processed.
“I don’t want to go alone, because I have this fear that I won’t come back,” he said.
When Yessica Roman was a little kid, she dreamed of joining the Air Force. Now, she is studying to become a nurse.
Neither career will be possible in the United States when her DACA work permit expires in early 2019. She was already turned away by a National Guard recruiter when he found out her immigration status.
“There are so many people willing to fight for this country, but can’t,” she said. “This is our home.”
Roman was brought to the U.S. by her parents when she was five, when someone offered her dad an opportunity to work construction for them in Los Angeles. The family never returned to Mexico, and she graduated from Hermiston High School in 2015.
Registering for DACA in 2012 has allowed her to work, go to college at BMCC, purchase a car and drive.
Now that the Trump administration has announced its intentions to do away with DACA, however, she and her siblings worry about the consequences of providing the government with their names, addresses and an admission that their parents didn’t bring them here through legal immigration channels.
“I don’t want people to come to my house and say, ‘Hey you’re coming with us,’” she said.
Roman barely remembers Mexico. If her family got deported, she worries her teenage brother would be unable to avoid joining a gang, and her grandmother in Mexico has said she fears the family would be a target for violence if they returned.
“People think that because you’ve lived in the United States you’re super rich, and so they kidnap you,” Roman said.
The family is not “super rich.” Roman said it frustrates her to hear that undocumented immigrants must be living on welfare, when that’s not legally possible with a specially marked DACA Social Security card. She can’t even get health insurance subsidies through the Affordable Care Act or sign up for the Oregon Health Plan despite making only $8,000 per year. When she had an unexplained seizure at work last year she ended up with a $13,000 medical bill, only part of which ended up being covered by a charitable donation.
She couldn’t get federal financial aid or find private scholarships that allowed undocumented applications, so instead of pursuing a nursing degree full-time at a university she is balancing classes at BMCC with a full-time job at an area food-processing plant.
She hopes Congress is willing let people like her stay, but she fears it won’t happen.
“It’s really discouraging so many people are against it,” she said. “They don’t see the good, they only see us leeching off the United States.”
Reactions from others
After the announcement that young undocumented immigrants will no longer be protected from deportation by DACA, many schools hastened to assure students that they would still be welcome to come and learn.
Hermiston School District communications officer Maria Duron said the district does not ask for immigration status and therefore does not know how many of its students are enrolled in DACA. However, in a letter to parents and staff, superintendent Tricia Mooney affirmed that the district stands against all forms of discrimination and “every student has an equal opportunity to be served in our public system and supported to reach their potential.”
“Our thoughts and prayers go out to the Dreamer students and families that might be affected by today’s federal decision,” the letter stated. “We will monitor the well-being of our students while they are under our care and will provide support if necessary to make sure that all our students are able to maintain focus on their learning.”
She thanked parents for discussing hard topics with their children at home and encouraged them to tell their students to report any bullying, harassment or discrimination they witness.
Cam Preus, president of Blue Mountain Community College, said citizenship or permanent residency isn’t a requirement for attending a community college, and some non-federal programs like Oregon Promise are available to undocumented students as well.
“We take students as they come to us,” she said.
Preus said these students know no other country, and if they are trying to better themselves through education they deserve the opportunity to do so.
Eastern Oregon University has already been supporting its Dreamers through the Multicultural Center and the United Undocumented Students club.
Multicultural Center director Bennie Moses-Mesubed said the center provides services such as peer mentoring, personal guidance, referrals, information about scholarships, inclusivity trainings and guest speakers. The club for undocumented students and their allies often draws 30 to 50 people to their larger events, she said.
For those who want to support Dreamers but don’t know how, she said being a good ally means being vocal in supporting human rights, acting with intentions that are genuine and not self-serving, being aware of privileges and biases, using language that promotes inclusivity, seeking understanding of different cultures and not reducing Dreamers’ identity to just their immigration status.
“Being undocumented isn’t the only thing that makes people who they are,” she said.
Jose Garcia, chair of the Hispanic Advisory Committee in Hermiston, said that the repeal of DACA is a scary time for members of the Latino community. He said he knows a mother who is working on a master’s degree who is now living in fear of what the loss of her DACA work permit will do.
“The community is freaked out about this,” he said. “Everywhere you go, people are talking about it.”
Garcia backed Trump during the election based on the president’s promises about improving the economy. He said the decision on DACA is worrisome, but he feels optimistic that Trump’s decision to throw immigration reform “in the pressure cooker” could result in a more permanent solution from Congress.
He said the administration should allow hard-working Latinos to stay, while focusing on going after criminals instead.
“Aim to take out felons, not families,” he said.
Contact Jade McDowell at email@example.com or 541-564-4536.