In the waning days of Barack Obama's presidency, sixteen-year-old Reyna Gutierrez learned that she had finally been granted something she had worked toward for months: DACA, the Obama-era program that grants temporary work permits and a deportation reprieve to undocumented immigrants who arrived as minors.
Throughout the months-long application process, Gutierrez's mom talked excitedly about the program. The two had come to the U.S. from Veracruz, Mexico, when Gutierrez was four-and-a-half years old. Growing up, her mom always spoke to her realistically about the obstacles she would face. Now, more than a decade after the duo's arrival, Gutierrez had the opportunity to work, be shielded from deportation, and be eligible for college scholarships that were once unavailable to undocumented students.
But there was a catch. A few days after Gutierrez was granted DACA, Donald Trump stepped into the presidency. Trump, an immigration hard-liner, had pledged to do away with DACA on the campaign trail, and the days leading up to his inauguration were filled with anxiety for countless undocumented immigrants. And so what was a celebratory moment for Gutierrez and her mom was also a nervous one.
"My mom was so worried, and that was constantly on my mind," she remembers. "She was like ‘now we have a new president, what is he going to do? Is he going to stop it?’ It was a rollercoaster of emotions."
Now they know the answer. On Tuesday morning, the Trump administration announced that it would do away with the program that provided temporary deportation relief and work permits to nearly eight hundred thousand undocumented immigrants. After flip-flopping over the fate of DACA for months, promising earlier this year to treat the program with "great heart," Trump ordered an end to the policy and called on Congress to come up with a replacement before it expires in March 2018. In a statement, Elaine Duke, the acting Homeland Security secretary, said Trump opted to "wind down the program down in an orderly fashion that protects beneficiaries in the near-term while working with Congress to pass legislation.”
What happens next is unclear. The government will no longer accept new DACA applications, but recipients will be able to renew their two-year permits for about one more month. If Congress doesn't act to come up with a plan within the next several months, however—which doesn't seem entirely likely, given Congress’s inability to move forward on immigration reform under Obama—former DACA recipients could face deportation as soon as March 2018.
That means that people like the sixteen-year-old Gutierrez, whose DACA permit will expire in early 2019, are once again thrown into uncertainty.
Gutierrez, who attends high school in Raleigh, likens the loss of DACA to a door being slammed shut in her face. Without the program, Gutierrez felt like she had a weight on her shoulders. She saw DACA, which gave her a sense of relief and safety, as a way to help her family—to give back to her parents for all the sacrifices they made for her.
"With DACA, I feel like I have a superpower that’s going to help me go through all of this and motivate me," she says. "And it’s going to help me show my parents that all they’ve done for me, they’ve done it for a reason, and I’m going to pay them back."
And then there are the stories Gutierrez sees in the news, about “families being torn apart.” She wonders how her family's life would change if got deported.
“My brother is an American citizen, what would his life be like?" she wonders. "If [DACA] is taken away from us, it's like the little doors we’ve opened will all shut in our faces and we’ll all be in this one room where our families could be torn apart.”
Gutierrez is far from the only Triangle student trying to make sense of this new reality.
Eighteen-year-old Viviana Mateo, also a high school student in Raleigh, came to the Triangle when she was two with her mother from Michoacán, Mexico. Mateo's mom had her at a young age and needed to work when they arrived in the U.S., so they moved in with family members who were already living in the area. Mateo's cousins taught her English and potty-trained her when her mother was at work. From a young age, Mateo saw education as a way to provide for her family. In the eighth grade, she was accepted into a highly competitive five-year early college program that pays for two years of community college. When she learned that she had been accepted, she cried.
About a year later, Mateo got DACA protection. She thought it could help her accomplish her goals of going to college, majoring in biology, and eventually becoming a neurosurgeon. But she soon learned of a hurdle she’d have to face that many of her peers wouldn't. Per state law, as an undocumented student in North Carolina, Mateo would have to pay out-of-state tuition to attend North Carolina public universities—a prohibitively expensive requirement. She quickly had to recalibrate her goals about higher education.
"One of my counselors was like, Honestly, at this point, college isn’t looking at a realistic goal." she says soberly. "And in that moment I was like, 'Are you kidding me? Are you telling me that I have the potential to be a doctor, but I can’t do it because I wasn’t born here? Are you saying that because I was born in another country and stayed there for a year, that’s going to define the rest of my life?'"
Now a senior in high school, Mateo feels like the blows keep coming. First, the news about tuition. Then, in April, the North Carolina Senate passed SB 145, which would prevent universities in the state from being sanctuary campuses. And now, the announcement about DACA.
It's like one thing after another, she says.
"DACA has given me the chance to go to school," she says. "It gave me hope. It gave me hope that maybe I can work to pay for college, even if it has to be out-of-state tuition. I can work and I will figure something out. I have to figure something out. Now it's like, if they take it away, I can’t go to school, I can’t work. What is supposed to become of me?"
Mateo sees the way people who can't apply for DACA are pushed into the shadows and forced to live in a state of constant psychological stress. She wonders what on earth it would be like to go back to Mexico, a country she left sixteen years ago. She could tell you far more about America's history, she adds, than Mexico's. Mateo's fears eclipsed when Trump stepped into the White House after spending his presidential campaign vowing to crack down on immigration. Mateo's mom even made a comment about getting her married. It didn't really seem like a joke.
And then there is the haunting reality that, because of DACA, the federal government has information about the more than 1.5 million immigrants who applied for the program: their names, their addresses, even their fingerprints. There is the unavoidable irony that the program that caused so many people temporary relief compelled them to be part of a list that is now available to the government should it decide to crack down.
Yet fear has a way of animating people in different ways. For Mateo, the fear that follows her around is also what motivates her to go public with her story.
"I know people in my situation, are scared, and that’s why they won’t speak up,” she says. “But because I’m scared, I’m going to speak up for them. Because in my community, a lot of people feel like they don’t have a voice. If you’re really scared, it’s OK. I am, too, but I will be that voice for you. I’ll be the voice for all of us, and I will tell them, This is how we feel, and this is how it’s going to affect us, and you can’t do that to us."
At the end of our interview, Mateo is asked if she’s comfortable using her full name.
"Oh, yes," she responds. "Say my full name. Please tell them who I am."'
Sam, on the other hand, prefers not to use her last name. She’s a twenty-five-year-old mother in Durham. Just last week, she appeared for her biometrics appointment in Raleigh to renew her DACA permit for the second time.
“Everything was very, very easy,” she recalls. “Other times that I’ve gone, I had to pass through all this security, metal detectors. This time that I went to renew, it was just like an office, and it just felt a little suspicious.”
For Sam, losing DACA means losing stability for the entire family. She and her partner have a toddler together, who was born here. Her partner, age thirty, came from Honduras and was afforded temporary protected status, a visa given to just thirteen countries of origin based on what is deemed a temporary condition, like ongoing armed conflict or a natural disaster. His permit expires though within the next few months.
While he works full-time for a living wage, Sam stays at home and cares for their son. But her partner recently underwent knee surgery and is earning half his salary while recovering. In the meantime, Sam has been picking up temporary work, like Uber.
“We’re very tight on money right now,” she says. “And I’m worried because, now that I need to get a better job, they’re going to eliminate DACA.”
When her partner’s temporary visa expires, he’ll become completely undocumented. The couple was in the process of saving money to pay for his DACA application, which Sam estimates would cost up to $750, including the application fee and a lawyer’s help. Now, they’re talking about what it would be like to stay—in which case Sam could use DACA for two more years to earn money, or to move Honduras, where her partner’s friends have been murdered.
“I’m worried that I might not be able to get a job where I can provide for my family,” she says. “I’m upset about Trump’s administration getting rid of it. It’s unfair and it’s stupid. I know that we could definitely survive without our documents, but employers who do hire undocumented people sometimes offer really shitty pay.”
Sam acknowledges that her DACA permit has afforded her “the privilege to have a driver’s license” when much of her community does not.
“I’m worried about our parents,” she says. “They don’t have anything. So many people in our community do this every day, they live with worry. But they are always prepared, taking new routes so they won’t get stopped by the police. I want to tell myself that we’re going to be OK because so many people in our community are doing OK, but at the same time, I worry that my boyfriend and I could be deported.”