Words and photographs by Angie Gray
Like many “Dreamers,” these young local immigrants saw a promising and prosperous future in the United States. Now, their fate hangs in the balance.
Andrea Trejo only saw her mother cry once. It was a spring night in 2004 when Andrea said goodbye to “Mama Salo” and set out with her two young daughters, Michelle, 6, and Josy, 4, to cross the border from Mexico into the United States in search of a better life. Andrea’s family lived in poverty and struggled to make enough money to send both girls to school, but the girls’ father was working in the U.S. and arranged for them to join him. He hired a coyote (a term for a person paid by migrants to illegally guide or assist people across the border) to drive his family, but a shooting that resulted in high security that day made it too dangerous for the coyote to take Andrea. Instead, she traveled on foot while her daughters went with the coyote to Arizona. Together, they then traveled to Philadelphia .
Like other undocumented children brought to the U.S., Michelle and Josy grew up in a state of limbo, floating outside the boundaries of citizenship while still living a normal American childhood. In 2012, in an effort to address the nearly 800,000 kids and teens in the same situation, the —known as the DREAM Act—tried but ultimately failed to grant legal status to these young immigrants, soon dubbed “Dreamers.”
Now, with the 2020 election decided, their futures remain uncertain. The Trump administration recently made it more difficult for Dreamers to apply for and retain Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) status, a reprieve from deportation threats that does not offer a path to citizenship. No new applications are being processed, and renewal is now required annually instead of every two years, making it logistically and financially challenging to keep current.
Here are some of their stories.
Growing up undocumented
Undocumented or not, growing up in the United States is a shared cultural experience. There’s school, friends, sports, holidays and birthday parties. But even if kids aren’t aware of their immigration status, at some point they might realize their family has a secret. Michelle and Josy, now 23 and 21 and living in Wilmington, remember feeling intense separation anxiety as children. Each day their mom left for work, they wondered if she’d return. Like many other immigrant families, they had an “action plan,” should they be separated or deported. The sisters were instructed to go to a family friend who promised to adopt them.
Juan Leon-Ruiz, 27, of New Castle, has similar memories. With two younger siblings born in the U.S., he had the added fear of being forced to leave them behind if he and his parents were deported. The family didn’t share their status with anyone. Turning 16 was pivotal—not because he got his driver’s license along with his friends, but because he couldn’t. It was the first time his status prevented him from doing something important, and also the first time he had to share his secret.
Sandy Estrada, 24, of Bear, says her parents made it clear to their children that education was the key to success. Every year she and her siblings received straight A’s, they were rewarded with a summer trip to Disney World. Sandy smiles as she recalls these family vacations, but as an adult, she now understands the sacrifices her parents made.
“They would work 16 hours a day … but it was all to keep us motivated,” she says. School obligations didn’t end with getting good grades. Her parents didn’t always attend school functions or parent-teacher conferences due to working long hours, language barriers and fear of being reported.
Geeta Kotak, a licensed clinical social worker in private practice in Newark, works with young immigrants. She says experiencing dual culture—too Mexican to be American but too American to be Mexican—can also be difficult for a young person to navigate. “How do they combine the person they are at home with the person they are at school or with friends? Cultivating a secure identity is particularly challenging while straddling two worlds.”
A promising future
Juan’s mother was watching the news in June 2012 when she heard former President Barack Obama announce the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy. She turned to Juan and cried, “This is your chance. This is your chance to make your dreams come true and make it all worth it.”
Juan’s father wasn’t so sure. DACA offers temporary legal status to undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. as children. It grants a reprieve from deportation and offers work authorization, a driver’s license, Social Security number and other benefits, provided applicants meet certain qualifications. It costs $495 to apply. Juan’s father was afraid that providing family information would put them all at risk, but his wife reminded him of the reasons they brought Juan here when he was a toddler; they wanted Juan to have the same opportunities as his younger siblings who were born in the U.S.
After Juan’s DACA was approved, he says his anxiety about his future subsided and he felt he had a path forward. He was able to apply for a scholarship from the Latin American Community Center to cover the application fee, and he received a scholarship from Staples for Latino students to study dental assistance at a business school in Dover.
Sandy received her DACA status just before her college search began. It had been two years since the program was introduced, but no one in the University of Delaware admissions or financial aid offices could answer her questions about tuition or scholarship applications. She was passed from office to office, ultimately discovering that although she had lived in Delaware since she was 2 years old, she did not qualify for in-state tuition. She also found out the scholarships require U.S. citizenship, and having DACA didn’t qualify. Paying out-of-state tuition wasn’t an option, and she worried that her valedictorian title was only worth a trip to Disney World. But Sandy’s perseverance paid off, and UD finally offered her a full scholarship. She graduated with a B.S. in biochemistry and is now employed as a lab technician.
Michelle and Josy found out about DACA when they were young teens, but as minors applying to college, they were required to have both parents sign off. This was problematic because their father was no longer in the country (or in their lives), so they had to wait until they were 18. Both were exceptional students. Michelle was accepted to four universities and dreamed of becoming a pediatric nurse, but she couldn’t afford tuition even with partial scholarships. Her quest to find someone knowledgeable enough about DACA to help her apply for financial aid or additional scholarships was not as successful as Sandy’s. In the end, Michelle put her college dreams on hold.
Her sister Josy is one of the thousands of Dreamers caught in the transition between the Obama and Trump administrations. Just as she was applying, President Donald Trump ordered an end to DACA, and Josy’s application stalled. It took more than a year for her to become approved, but by then, she had lost motivation and now wonders whether college is still in her future.
Living with uncertainty
As a young professional, Sandy was feeling stable and in control. She enjoyed her job, was in a happy relationship and was saving money. In the excitement of life, she says she inadvertently forgot to submit her DACA paperwork in time and her status lapsed. In a flash, she saw her future come crashing down. She lost her license. She feared her job would be next.
Juan shares this experience. Unable to afford the renewal fee, his status also lapsed. He lost his license and car insurance, and desperately wanted to keep the job he loved. Both worked for small companies and their employers were understanding, holding their positions for them until their paperwork was in order and status renewed.
Rick Hogan, an immigration lawyer with offices in Wilmington and Philadelphia, says it’s common for young Dreamers to become disillusioned and feel “jerked around and frustrated” by the system. DACA is a temporary change in status, not an actual step towards citizenship, he explains. “It’s a recognition by the Obama administration that there’s not enough resources or need to go after all these kids … so we’re putting them on a shelf and they can work without fear of being deported, but they aren’t any closer to becoming a citizen.”
Michelle and her sister have delayed college and planning; they worry incessantly about the uncertainty of DACA’s future, as well as their own. What if they were to enroll in school and have DACA taken away—would they be able to finish? Josy remembers crying to her mom in a parking lot after being denied financial aid and feeling like her dreams of college and making her mother proud had evaporated. Even so, their mother Andrea still encourages them to keep their DACA statuses current and to try, at any cost, to attend college.
Hope for the future
Michelle remembers as a young child having to translate medical terms her mom didn’t understand during doctor visits—an experience that has inspired her to one day become a pediatric nurse to help Spanish-speaking families.
Josy is passionate about conservation and loves fashion. She dreams of studying environmental science to make a difference in the fashion industry.
Sandy wants to attend medical school and start a family of her own.
Juan, a hobby artist, loves his job as a dental assistant but dreams of studying art professionally. He also wants to marry his girlfriend of eight years and yearns to travel to Greece.
All would love to be able to visit their native Mexico, where they can explore their culture and taste their grandmothers’ home cooking and then safely return to the country they call home.
They believe DACA is only successful if it’s a level playing field for all its recipients. It’s obvious, they say, that it works best for people who continually ask questions and are lucky enough to find someone with the answers. None has ever done anything illegal, but all have been asked if they’re “illegal.” They hope one day it will be commonly understood that no human is illegal.
But for now, they wait, and they dream.
And as Sandy’s mother has always told her, “Si vas a soñar, tienes que soñar con los ojos bien abiertos.”
If you’re going to dream, you must dream with your eyes wide open.