On Sept. 5, the Trump administration announced it would phase out the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, beginning in March. An Obama-era executive order, DACA benefits some 800,000 young immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children — a group sometimes called the “Dreamers” — by shielding them from the threat of deportation and permitting them to work legally in the U.S. Some 5,000 Dreamers live, work and go to school in Arkansas. If Congress and the president act between now and March to replace DACA with legislation called the DREAM Act, the Dreamers will be spared major disruptions. If DACA lapses with no replacement, they’ll be pushed into the shadows of society, losing the ability to work legally and becoming vulnerable to deportation. The political situation is fluid, however, with President Trump saying he wants Congress to replace DACA and indicating his willingness to work with Democrats to accomplish that goal.
Last week, at a forum on DACA sponsored by the Arkansas United Community Coalition, Lourdes Delgado listened to a panel of attorneys talk about the wind-down of the program and wondered if she’d have a job in eight months. Delgado graduated from Little Rock’s Parkview High School in May 2016 at age 17. At the time, she was working as an assistant manager at Johnny Rockets, a chain restaurant, then quit to take an assistant manager position at Dress Barn. She also picked up a side job at the Marriott Hotel and a temporary position at another company in Little Rock.
This summer, two months into the temp gig, that company decided to hire her full time, impressed with her skills and bilingual abilities. Delgado is now 18 and has a salaried job in human resources, her preferred field. (She’s given it some thought: “I was actually originally going to do nursing, and then I decided that if somebody passed away that would be the end of my career,” she said with a laugh.)
“I did start college, and then after I got the position that I got — well, I was going for HR anyway, so I thought ‘Wow!’ … When they offered me the employment, they offered me the salary amount, I thought, ‘How? I can’t even believe it.’ … So, I’m going to work there for a certain amount of time, and then I go back to school and show them my grades, and they do a tuition reimbursement,” she said.
At least, that was her plan until last week. Then came the Trump administration’s announcement it was rescinding DACA.
Now, she is set to lose her work permit in May, placing her among the unlucky first cohort of young immigrants set to have their lives upended if the DACA program evaporates without a legislative solution. President Trump has said he wants Congress to protect the Dreamers by replacing DACA, but that will be easier said than done.
Recipients of DACA must renew every two years. Under the phase-out planned by the Trump administration, the government will simply stop issuing renewals after March 5. Those whose DACA expires between now and March still have a few weeks (until Oct. 5) to renew one more time. (Vox has a more detailed explanation of the timeline.) But Delgado’s DACA card is good until May, meaning there’s nothing she can do but watch her cutoff date approach, eight months from now.
“I’m truly in limbo. I can’t renew,” she said.
Delgado is afraid. “Being in H.R., I know that they check that,” she said. “They’ve already called me and said ‘Hey, what’s going to happen? We do support [DACA], but we still need this document.’” She’s worked three jobs and saved enough money to move out of her parents’ place and buy a car at age 18. “And also, I started getting a secure loan to get my credit, because I wanted to be a homeowner at some point. You know what I mean? So thats why I was working so much — because I wanted to have the money to be able to pay for all these things, and still survive.” Now, that’s all in jeopardy unless Republican leaders agree to allow a vote on a bill to protect young people like Delgado.
Delgado came to the U.S. when she was six and has little memory of her country of origin. “I have been here the majority of my life. I consider myself from here,” she said. Though she wants badly to visit her family remaining in Guatemala, the thought of being deported is terrifying after spending her life in Arkansas. “We’ve had family members there getting killed. There’s so much violence, and it’s only getting worse and worse.”
In Guatemala City, Delgado said, her father was a lawyer and her mother worked first as a police officer and later a college professor. Delgado said her parents decided to overstay their visas to the U.S. because they were seeking opportunities for her and her older sister, who is now 21. “My mom always tells me ‘We came here so you could do better.’ They are both working in factories [in Arkansas], doing packaging and stuff like that … They went to college, they did all this stuff, and they left all that, they didn’t even think about it twice, to come here — for us, so that we could have a better education.” She remembers the day her mother made the decision. “My father was [already] here, and it was a very hard decision for her. She had her college students. I remember she had just finished her last class. I didn’t want to come. I didn’t want to leave my cousins. She sat down with me and said ‘What if we don’t come back?’”
Delgado said she remembers first hearing about DACA — which was created by President Obama in 2012 — on the news. “At first I thought, ‘No, no, you’re lying. That can’t be real. It’s too good to be true.’ I thought, ‘There’s no way that everybody came to an agreement to do this for us.’ Because there’s so much hatred going on — ‘We want to deport these people!’ — so why would you want to help the kids of these immigrants? My sister heard of it, my mom heard of it, and they went on to a lawyer, tried to see, like, is this a scam? But no, it wasn’t. He helped us out; he worked through a ministry and explained all the steps we had to do.”
The news that DACA will end has hit her hard. “Oh, man,” she said. “I heard of it on Saturday night; I saw some webpage, but I thought ‘No, it’s not official, I still have hope. Maybe he’s not as bad as we really think.’ Benefit of the doubt. Sunday, my sister was like ‘Hey, you know they really are going to do this?’ and I was like ‘No, no, no, I’m going to wait until Tuesday.’
“Tuesday came around and then I just thought, ‘Wow.’ You start playing all these movies in your head, imagining what is going to happen. My sister is 21. She’s got a little baby. Her and her husband are both DACA — so if they get deported, the baby’s going to be left alone. You just think about this stuff.” The Trump administration has said Dreamers as a group won’t be a priority for deportations, for whatever that is worth. That doesn’t mean it’s not a real possibility that individuals may be removed from the country.
The Arkansas Times asked Delgado what she’d say to those who feel undocumented immigrants like her shouldn’t be in the U.S.
“I would tell them to put themselves in my shoes,” she replied. “What if you’re born and raised in Arkansas but for whatever reason they’re making you go to this other country you don’t know anything about? You don’t know it! … You’d feel like a stranger. You don’t know anything about how life goes over there. How to survive. I don’t even know how to explain it.”
“I just think — if I go back [to Guatemala], well, first of all, how am I going to go to college? How am I going to get a job? I don’t know anything about this place, other than what I remember [as a child]. As an adult, I don’t know anything. I don’t know their laws. It would be like taking baby steps all over again.”
She’s also frustrated by the lack of knowledge many Americans seem to have about the basics of their immigration system. Many don’t comprehend that there exists no real path for undocumented immigrants to become legal while living in the U.S. “Yesterday, I had a friend that said ‘Why can’t you just go and get your residency? What’s holding you back?’ It’s not that easy. But you know what? I don’t blame them for asking us that type of question, because they were never informed of these things. This person is supporting us, but doesn’t know anything about it. You have to follow certain guidelines, like having a spouse. I don’t want to get married just to get my papers, you know what I mean? And I know a lot of people who are thinking of doing that. ‘Let me just get married.’ … And not to mention you can get in big trouble for doing that.
“We need to inform people that it’s not that easy. If it was that darn easy, I would’ve been done it!” She laughed, with a heavy note of frustration. “You know what I mean? Like, I would’ve gotten my freakin’ residency — DACA wouldn’t have even been an option for me!”
“We’re paying taxes and all that stuff. We’re helping the economy. … If you really don’t care about the people and don’t care about the human side of it, at least look at the economics and how much money you’re going to lose,” she added. “My sister, she’s in school right now. She’s going to Pulaski Tech. She’s thinking about going to UAMS. She is such a great, great inspiration … She got pregnant, and a lot of people would just give up, but she was like ‘No. I want my education. This is what I want to be.’ She kept on going until she was nine months, still going to school. She’s that person, you know what I mean? She’s a hard worker.”
“I really want people to understand,” Delgado said. “I know that they hear all these stories, and they’re tired of hearing this stuff … Like, ‘It’s just the basic immigrant story, here we go again. It’s like repetition.’ What can I do — how can I transfer my energy to them to make them feel just a little bit of what I feel? No, no, no, seriously, what if it was you in this situation? I’m trying to find a resource to let them know … They may think it’s important, but I want them to KNOW and FEEL how important it really is!”