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2 ‘Dreamers’ in Chicago wait for word on program’s future — and their own

Sergio del Cid of Oak Lawn is among thousands in Illinois with a direct stake in the fate of the federal "Dreamers" program. | Yam G-Yun / Sun-Times

Sergio del Cid remembers filling his luggage with toy cars days before he left Guatemala forever. He was 9.

In Guatemala, his family lived in a nice neighborhood in the capital. But being wealthy also made them targets — Sergio’s father, who had owned two ice companies, was receiving threatening phone calls demanding money.

So the family boarded a plane to Chicago — with one-way tickets.

“We’re moving to the United States,” his parents told him and his older sister. “We have to pack everything that we can possibly take. Everything else stays behind.”

Now, del Cid is among 42,000 people in living in Illinois who are covered under the federal Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, known as DACA. The program, created by then-President Barack Obama in 2012, allows 750,000 immigrants brought to the United States as children — a group often called “Dreamers” — to apply for work permits.

“In the back of my head, I already knew” they were coming to Chicago illegally, said del Cid, 22, who now lives in Oak Lawn.

President Donald Trump wants to end DACA.

Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and others have worked on a bipartisan compromise to help Dreamers stay, but a contentious meeting at the White House on Jan. 11 has put that effort in doubt.

According to del Cid, DACA made it possible that he can work, attend college and drive legally.

Things were different when his family arrived, none of them who could speak English. “I would come home crying every single day telling my mom, ‘I don’t know what happened today” at school, he said.

In Spanish, he’d keep asking classmates what people were saying and what was going on — “and it was like that for a good year and a half,” del Cid said.

His father — who’d owned his own business — took a minimum-wage job at a grocery store.

“It was very upsetting,” the son said. “We would cry every day.”

His parents, driving without licenses, were careful to make sure they didn’t get pulled over. So was del Cid when he finally got his first car.

“You have to drive carefully,” they’d tell him. “You don’t have a license, and they can send you back.”

But the hardest hit came as del Cid was thinking about college. He had outstanding grades, was captain of the volleyball team and active in the student council at Hubbard High School.

Then, his college counselor broke the news: He wasn’t a U.S. citizen, so he didn’t qualify for scholarships.

“I worked my entire four years to have the perfect resume,” he said. “I did everything I could have done … so I could get a full ride or get all these scholarships for college.”

Devastated, del Cid remembers what his counselor said next: “We all have different ways to get to be successful. You are one of those people that just has to go around. But you can still do it.”

So he did. Before transferring to the University of Illinois at Chicago, where he is a junior studying political science and criminology, del Cid attended community college to save on tuition.

Smiling with pride, he said he paid everything out-of-pocket, putting in more than 40 hours a week as an assistant restaurant manager while still carrying a full class load.

“Knowing I was undocumented gave me the sense that I had to be at my best no matter what,” del Cid said. “Even though I’m disadvantaged, I can still succeed.”

His DACA status expires next October. His immigration status is uncertain — unless Congress and Trump do something.

But del Cid is determined to graduate next year and remain in this country.

“I appreciate the time that they have let me be legal in this country because I have been doing great things,” he said. “Even though they took it away, I do hope that there’s a way [Congress] brings something else that is going to help a lot of people that are in my same scenario.”

He could be forced to return to Guatemala even though, he said, “I feel American in every aspect but in one, and that’s holding a green card.”

Carlos Roa, 30, of Rogers Park, gained protected status under DACA and then moved to Chicago and finished his architecture degree at the Illinois Institute of Technology. | Yam G-Jun / Sun-Times

‘A waiting game at this point’

Carlos Roa doesn’t remember anything about his family’s move from Caracas, Venezuela, to the United States.

He was just 2 when his parents moved the family to New York in 1989 to take care of his ill grandfather, who legally lived in the U.S. after arriving in the 1940s.

Following his grandfather’s death, Roa’s parents decided to remain in this country and moved to Miami.

For 24 years, he was an undocumented immigrant before being granted protection under the federal Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, known as DACA, in 2012, preventing undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children from being deported and granting them permission to work legally.

Roa — now 30 and an assistant project manager living in Rogers Park — remembers the difficulties of growing up without a valid immigration status and many conversations in which his parents discussed their failed attempts to become legal residents despite spending thousands of dollars on lawyers.

He was in second or third grade when he realized they were undocumented. He remembers his mother being afraid of being pulled over when driving him to school.

“Even if my parents tried to hide it, my sisters and I were aware of the situation,” Roa said. “The fact that we were poor was in front of us, the fact that we were undocumented was in front of us. It’s something that I’ve been very much aware throughout my life.”

Roa’s father worked all types of industrial and sales jobs to make ends meet. Things got even more complicated when his mom was diagnosed with cancer, with the money now required for her treatment.

It was when he graduated high school that “you really hit the roadblocks,” Roa said.

He didn’t drive because of the constant worry of getting pulled over. Even taking the train in Miami was a risk. Roa says it was common for immigration authorities to hop on trains and ask for people’s papers.

“It always felt like I was walking on thin ice,” he said. “It has complicated my life for the past 15 years extensively.”

Money for college was a constant issue. Roa worked as an independent contractor to legally get paid and afford school. But when he was 20, he lost an important construction job and found himself with no place to live. That’s when he become an activist on immigration policy.

On Jan. 1, 2010, Roa began a march with people from immigrant rights organizations from Miami to Washington, D.C. They walked 15 to 18 miles a day during four months, meeting with politicians along the way to demand some solution for undocumented youth. The march drew national attention and won them two meetings with Obama administration officials.

“We basically told them, ‘Yes, the president does have the authority to pass an executive order that could protect undocumented immigrants,’ ” Roa said.

In 2012, Obama used his executive authority to create DACA, also known as the “Dreamers” program.

The following year, Roa was one of 750,000 immigrants who obtained protected status under DACA. He says that he was then able to move to Chicago and finish his architecture degree at the Illinois Institute of Technology.

“It has allowed me to live a normal life as an adult,” Roa said. “I still feel as if I’ve been hindered professionally because of my [previous] undocumented status. But I feel in a good position where I’m at. It’s because of DACA that I’ve been able to do the things that I’ve done.”

Though he was able to renew his DACA status before Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced in September that President Donald Trump wanted to end the program, and his papers don’t expire until August 2019, Roa says he feels uncertain about his future in this country.

“I have some time, but nonetheless nothing is done [by Congress], and who knows what will happen?” Roa said. “It’s really a waiting game at this point.”

If forced to leave, Roa says he would move anywhere where he could practice his profession or consider going to graduate school to legally remain in the country.

“If it’s not here, it’s somewhere else,” Roa said. “This isn’t the only country in the world. There will be other countries that would be willing to accept people like myself and probably would open the doors to undocumented youth in the event that DACA is completely eliminated and there’s no legislative solution.”