Children of undocumented parents struggle with uncertainty
CAUGHT IN THE MIDDLE
Saturday, March 11, 2017 10:02 AM
Four Corners is a place where a person can stand in one spot and be in either Utah, Arizona, New Mexico or Colorado just by walking a few steps in the right direction.
Eric said he feels fear every day, even if his parents are just leaving the house to drive to the grocery store. Something as simple as a traffic stop, for them, could lead to deportation. And it is that fear that causes the most pain.
Straddling borders can be fun when you are a tourist.
But for children who come to the U.S. with their undocumented parents, there is nothing fun about feeling caught between the country you were born in and the country you’ve called home since you were a toddler or a young child.
“It’s an identity crisis,” said Veronica, 22, one of five young people from Mexico and Central America who agreed to be interviewed by The Madison Courier. Their names have been changed to protect the identity of their families.
“I feel like I don’t belong there (Mexico). At the same time, with the whole (President) Trump thing, I don’t feel like I belong here, either.”
Having lived here since she was 3, Veronica says this is home. The same is true for her brother, who is more than a year older – but not for their younger brother, who was born here and is, therefore, a U.S. Citizen.
Her native spoken language is Spanish, but English is what Veronica knows how to read and write, she said.
Her parents came to the U.S. nearly 20 years ago, so they could provide for the family. “There was a job here for them,” she said.
That job was farm labor, and her father has worked that job since they came to Jefferson County. He is paid in cash by the farm owner who employs him, and he works every day — weekends and holidays included.
“Even if he’s sick, he’s there. No call-ins,” Veronica said.
“But who wins out with that,” asked Shirley Kloepfer, who arranged the interview. She is director of La Casa Amiga — a place to help Spanish-speaking newcomers gain access to the services they need.
“He’s worked (that job) for over 20 years with no benefits, he’s paid in cash, and (it’s) a job you gotta be there all the time. The person benefitting is the person who hires, not the immigrant.”
While Veronica can stay here legally because of a 2012 executive order by President Obama called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, she is not a citizen.
DACA is available to people who are between the ages of 15 and 30. They must be enrolled in school, have graduated or obtained an equivalency diploma from high school, or be an honorably discharged veteran of the U.S. military. They cannot have been convicted of a felony, a significant misdemeanor, or three or more other misdemeanors and must not pose a threat to national security or public safety, according to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services’ website.
Though helpful in many ways, DACA is not a path to citizenship. And it is costly. To apply the first time, a DACA candidate must pay $2,000 in fees; they must renew their status every two years, which costs $500 each time. Add the $600 attorney fee to have the paperwork prepared, they end up paying $1,100 every two years to maintain their status.
And, each time, they must prove they have not left the country and they must be fingerprinted.
If their DACA status expires before their renewal is processed, which can take months, they lose it permanently.
“It doesn’t matter if the application is being processed, and it doesn’t matter if it was approved the first time,” said Anna, who was 8 when she came to Jefferson County with an aunt.
They came to reunite with Anna’s mother, who had arrived more than a year earlier after leaving Anna’s alcoholic father.
The only work where they lived was a ceramics factory, and Anna and her brother both had to work there, even though they were children.
So, her mother crossed the border and came to the United States. She sent for her children after “she found a job and was working, and had a more stable situation,” Anna said.
For her single mother, coming here illegally was choice born of necessity. Many Central American countries are “very corrupt and dangerous. There’s not a lot of opportunity, and it’s not very safe, for young girls especially,” Anna said. “It was a way to keep me safe and give me opportunity.”
A high school graduate, Anna wanted to go to college to be a pediatrician. Because of the uncertainty of her status, under the new administration, she opted for a two-year medical assistant degree from Ivy Tech Madison.
Veronica is not as fortunate. “I wanted to go to college. I was going to go to Ivy Tech,” she said. Even though she can apply for financial aid, “classes there were going to be too expensive. Even though I’ve lived here all my life, I still have to pay out-of-state tuition.”
For Eric, a 16-year-old high school student, DACA isn’t even a possibility.
In 2005, when he was 4 years old, he walked across the border into the U.S. from Mexico with his mother, who at the time was eight months pregnant.
“My dad had been here already,” Eric said. “They were young when they had me and they decided to come here” for the opportunity to work and support their family. “Here, they work wherever they can because they don’t have their papers.”
When he was in elementary school, he went back to Mexico with his mother for two years to tend to a sick relative.
It was a decision with unexpected consequences. To be eligible for DACA status, an applicant must have lived in the U.S. since 2007. There are no exceptions.
Without DACA, Eric cannot get a Social Security number, which means he cannot apply for a driver’s license and he cannot apply for financial aid to go to college.
“It’s kinda hard, with no financial aid,” he said. “Right now, I still don’t know what I want to be, but I want to go to college. I want to be a doctor or something like that.”
And without a Social Security number, Eric also cannot apply for a job in local factories or any place where employees are not paid in cash only.
That is frustrating for Kloepfer, who said she has been contacted many times by businesses looking for people to hire. “They have to be legal.” Even when Eric graduates, without a Social Security number, he can’t get a good paying job.
For Grace, 30, DACA is a comfort that allows her to stay here with her spouse and their four children.
She remembers crossing the border very well; during the trip, she celebrated her 15th birthday. The family hired “coyotes,” who specialize in bringing undocumented immigrants across the border into the United States. At that time, she said, coyotes charged $3,000 per person for the trip – a total of $12,000 for the family of four.
Today that amount is $6,000 to $7,000 per person, Kloepfer said. The cost can be even higher for people who come here from Central and South America, she said.
Grace helps support her family by baking in her home. If she were a citizen, Kloepfer said Grace would be able to actually start her own business. “And boy, would she do well.”
“I’d earn a lot of money and give money to the country,” by paying income and business taxes, Grace said.
Because of her DACA status, Grace said she was unable to return and be with her family, not even to attend the funerals for her grandparents and her father.
“They can’t leave,” Kloepfer said.
But, imperfect as it is, DACA “was all that Obama could do without Congress,” she explained.
Originally introduced to the Senate in 2001, the DREAM Act was reintroduced four times under the Obama administration, but failed to pass each time.
DREAM would have given undocumented immigrants who arrived as children a path toward legal status if they attend college or serve in the military.
DACA “is something, but it’s not a road to citizenship,” Kloepfer said.
Lucy, 14, is a freshman in high school who is looking forward to May, when she turns 15 and can apply for DACA. She wants to be a nurse. “I really love science and I like to help people, to be nice to people.”
But she admits that she lives in constant fear that her parents will be deported.
Eric agreed, adding that he feels that fear “every day,” even if his parents are just leaving the house to drive to the grocery store. Something as simple as a traffic stop, for them, could lead to deportation.
And it is that fear that causes the most pain when they are the target of bullying and hate.
Lucy said she hasn’t experienced hate often, but she became emotional when she related the one time that hurt her the most. “I was told, ‘When are your parents going to go back, because Donald is going to take them back.’ Or, ‘When are you going to go back to your own place?’”
Incidents like those make Kloepfer angry.
“Her own place is here,” Kloepfer said, adding that Lucy was a toddler when her parents brought her to Jefferson County. “It’s not the way you want your country to be. This is not the country I went to the Peace Corps for, giving up two years, and pledging allegiance to. I feel ashamed of it, very much ashamed of it.”