When President Donald Trump suggested last month that he had no imminent plans to go after “Dreamers,” hundreds of thousands of young immigrants were relieved.
The temporary reprieve allowed participants in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program — including about 45,000 in Illinois — to continue to work and study in the United States legally. Begun five years ago through an executive order of then-President Barack Obama, DACA has been embraced by the majority of undocumented youth born abroad but brought to the U.S. as children.
Yet many others who enjoy DACA status have family members — often their parents — who are undocumented and afraid, knowing they could still be swept up in immigration crackdowns the president has promised.
For Mayra, a 21-year-old junior at Loyola University who asked that her last name not be used, the uncertainty has prompted discussions with her parents about what they would do if one or more of them got deported to Mexico. Despite living and working in Chicago for two decades, neither of her parents has legal status here, and they worry about losing their jobs or being picked up at the workplace. Mayra wonders how she would finish her education if that happened.
“Pretty much I’m just in limbo again,” she says.
Illinois has about 70,000 young immigrants who meet the requirements for DACA, the vast majority from Mexico. Two-thirds of them have applied to and been accepted by the program as of September. That gives Illinois the fourth-highest number of DACA participants among all states, according to data from the Migration Policy Institute.
On average, for each young person eligible for DACA, there are two undocumented immigrants in the same household, researchers at the Washington, D.C., think tank say. At the same time, many of the younger siblings in these homes were born in the United States, making them U.S. citizens.
That raises the prospect of Dreamers — and their younger siblings who are American citizens — having to choose whether to leave the country with parents who are deported or stay here without them.
“It’s very typical to have households with undocumented parents, DACA youths and younger children who are born here and are citizens,” says Randy Capps, director of research for U.S. programs at the Migration Policy Institute.
With DACA status under Obama, Capps says, many young undocumented immigrants came out of the shadows. They felt more comfortable speaking out, even becoming activists.
Now, though, there’s more risk because any contact with police or delay in applying for renewal could lead to losing their DACA status.
Here’s how the families of three Dreamers are dealing with the pressures of having different legal statuses under the same roofs.
Mayra, 21, college student
Like many of her classmates, Mayra began her junior year of college thinking about career plans after graduation.
Since registering for DACA soon after it was launched in 2012, she had been able to get a driver’s license, work legally and enroll at Loyola. She’s majoring in Spanish and wants to be an interpreter.
But when Trump won election in November, Mayra wondered whether she would get to finish school, or if his promise to ramp up deportations could uproot or split her family.
“Fresh from the election, I think we were all pretty emotional: ‘What does this mean?’ ” Mayra says. “But now we’ve passed the first stage of being emotional: ‘OK, what are our plans? In the worst-case scenario, what can we do back in Mexico if we have to go?’ ”
She says she’s coming up with “a plan B and a plan C.”
Mayra was just 5 years old when her father brought her to Chicago from their home state of Mexico, near Mexico City. They entered legally with a tourist visa but stayed, and her parents went to work.
Their plan was to “do a little bit and then go back,” says her mother Veronica, who was 19 at the time. But when Mayra reached school age, Veronica asked, “Where do we want her to study? Here or there? Wherever she starts, that’s where she should finish.” They decided schools were better here. So they stayed.
Veronica had been studying in Mexico to be a nurse. She continued her education in Chicago, earning a GED and certification to be a nurse’s assistant. She and Mayra’s father took classes to learn English and computer skills.
“We didn’t waste time here sitting on the couch and watching TV,” Veronica says. But “when I went to apply for jobs, I didn’t have the documents you need to be hired.”
So, instead of nursing, she has worked as a seamstress in a factory for more than 15 years.
When the Obama administration launched DACA, Mayra and her parents decided she should sign up, though they had concerns about giving the government their personal information.
“It seemed like the whole city of Chicago was at Navy Pier” to enroll, Mayra recalls. “Being an immigrant, you have to take a lot of risks.”
Mayra graduated from Westinghouse College Prep and went on to Loyola, where she felt welcomed despite her immigration status.
People are often surprised to learn she’s not a citizen, she says, telling her she speaks perfect English. Then, they wonder why she hasn’t become one yet.
“It’s not that easy,” she says. “I can’t just go to the immigration office and say, ‘I want it.’ ”
Her mother would like to get permanent residency in the United States so she can visit her parents. She’d also like to make the most of her nurse’s assistant credentials.
Yet she’s aware she could be deported even as Mayra benefits from DACA and stays.
“They have the power to remove us,” she says, “whether it’s Obama or Trump or whoever is president.”
Veronica, who is separated from Mayra’s father, says she and her daughter have decided they’ll stick together. They’ve discussed how Mayra might finish school in Mexico, if necessary. The daughter is already researching how, after graduation, she could get a job in a country where she’s spent only a few months.
Mayra remains hopeful they’ll be able to stay — and that the United States will come up with a new plan to help immigrants who are contributing to the country.
“There are 11.4 million undocumented immigrants,” she says. “We’re not just statistics. We don’t all have the same experiences of how we got here, and our experiences in this country have been very different.”
Esmeralda Gomeztagle, 17, high school senior
In February, as millions of undocumented immigrants worried about how Trump might carry out his threats of mass deportations, Esmeralda Gomeztagle updated her DACA registration with the federal government.
“There’s always the possibility that DACA could be taken away, and my info would be used against me,” says the 17-year-old high school senior. “But it’s worth the risk.”
She made the decision with her parents, who could face an even bigger risk since they’re undocumented. Esmeralda’s two younger sisters are American-born citizens.
“We have to have a plan in case something happens to us,” Esmeralda says.
In 1999, her father Javier followed a brother from Puebla, Mexico, to Fort Wayne, Indiana. To get over the border, he saved up $3,000 to pay a coyote, or smuggler, to help him walk through the Arizona desert.
“When you come all the way over here, you think of a better life,” the father says. “You can’t go back.”
Esmeralda’s mother Luz was 17 when she spent $4,700 to make the desert crossing a year later.
“We went two days without anything to eat and with very little water,” says Luz, a native of Toluca.
Esmeralda stayed with her grandmother until her mom sent for her when she was 7.
“She saved up enough money to get a person to bring me over, but, since I was a child, she didn’t want me to walk through the desert,” Esmeralda says. “I actually passed through Customs in a car. I was using somebody else’s passport, and it was dark at night, so they couldn’t see me that well.”
Esmeralda enrolled in DACA three years ago, eager to get a Social Security number and the papers that made her feel “legal.” She runs track for her high school team, interns for an immigration lawyer and is preparing to study business next fall at the Indiana Institute of Technology in Fort Wayne.
After years of working construction, Javier started his own business in Fort Wayne in 2014. Luz works in a restaurant and attends Ivy Tech, a community college, where she’s studying construction management so she can help with Javier’s business. She’s also taking English classes, though she already speaks it well.
The couple’s two youngest daughters, ages 14 and 9, have lived in Fort Wayne their entire lives.
“It’s complicated,” with different immigration statuses in one family, Luz says. “But we don’t really talk about it because we don’t want to stress anyone out.”
The possibility of deportation has hung over the family as long as Esmeralda can remember. “My parents would be worried anytime we’d could get pulled over. Even when we drove next to a police car, my parents would get anxious.”
Javier and Luz have tried to prepare for the possibility they could be deported. Since Esmeralda turns 18 this spring, they’ve decided she would take care of her sisters until Javier and Luz get settled in Mexico again. Javier has set up a joint bank account with Esmeralda that could tide the girls over for months.
“It would set us back, but I feel my family would be able to get through it together,” Esmeralda says.
She feels the same way about the broader immigrant community.
“Hispanics are willing to do whatever they need to do to get their family’s food on the table, but there’s a lot of misconceptions about why immigrants are here,” she says. “As long as we stand together, we’ll get through it. It’s not the first time immigrants have been discriminated against.”
Daniela Recillas, 35, real estate agent
Every summer, when her parents and younger brother travel to Mexico to see relatives, Daniela Recillas remains in Chicago.
“I can’t leave,” she says.
It’s a reminder of how the U.S. immigration laws have left her in a sometimes-isolated place within her own family. While her father and younger brother are U.S. citizens and her mother is a permanent legal resident, Recillas’ only legal status is through the DACA program.
“I feel that I’m in the middle,” says Recillas, 35, who’s lived in Chicago since 1991, when she was 9. “I’m Mexican, but I feel like, if I were to go to Mexico, I wouldn’t know how to deal with it.”
Recillas’ father Tony came to the United States in 1986. He had a good job as the head of a workers’ union at Colegio de Mexico, a university in Mexico City. But when the Mexican government devalued the peso, leading to an economic crisis, even a middle-class paycheck wasn’t worth much.
A friend had a family member working in Racine, Wisconsin. Tony asked him for help finding a job there. “He said, ‘Yes, but the work is not like over here.’ ”
Tony went from having his own secretary to washing dishes in a restaurant — but making more money. Overstaying his tourist visa, Tony eventually moved to Chicago, where he says he worked at a couple of restaurants and bars, putting in long hours to make about $200 a week.
After a few years as a kitchen manager and chef at Jane’s, a restaurant in Bucktown, he was offered the chance to buy in as part-owner. “This place permitted me to take care of my family,” he says.
Tony’s wife joined him in Chicago in 1989. Recillas and her older brother, who’d been living with grandparents, moved here two years after that.
“It was terrible,” she says. “I came from one culture to another.”
Recillas didn’t speak English. She and her brother had to repeat a grade. At Amundsen High School, she was bullied. Her parents worked 15 hours a day, her dad at the restaurant, her mother as a nanny.
Recillas’ younger brother was born in Chicago in 1993. About 10 years ago, Tony applied for permanent residency status — a green card — for the other family members. By the time it was accepted, Recillas’ older brother had moved back to Mexico and then to Canada, where he became a citizen.
But Recillas was shut out. She got a Social Security number but was excluded from her father’s green-card application because she was over 18. That left her the only member of her family without legal status.
The possibility of being deported — even if it seemed remote — weighed on her.
“I was in a physically abusive relationship for about two years, and my partner knew about my status,” she says. “I was afraid to leave. He would remind me of my situation.”
When Obama created DACA, Recillas says she had no misgivings about providing her personal information to the government.
Three years ago, she became a licensed real estate agent. She takes pride in helping immigrant families, many of them undocumented and anxious. A client recently backed out of a home sale after Trump issued executive orders making a priority of deporting a wide range of undocumented immigrants.
Recillas says her immigration status has made her own life difficult.
“It’s definitely set me back in dating. I don’t want anyone thinking I want to get married to get legal status.”
She’s not sure what she’d do if Trump undoes DACA program and she had to face deportation.
“It would be very difficult,” she says. “I haven’t been back there since I was 9.”
Her father tries not to worry: “She has DACA, and I hope it’s good enough until something else comes along that’s better.”
Says Recillas: “I have to live my life. I can’t live under a rock.”
More in ‘The Third Border’ series:
- Could Trump seek undocumented immigrants’ driver’s license here? March 5, 2017
- Doctors gave fake medical opinions to help win citizenship, Feb. 26, 2017
- Deportation takes toll on family left behind in Chicago, Feb. 19, 2017
- In Immigration Court, few criminals, far more minor offenders, Feb. 12, 2017