A Dream Deferred
Thousands of undocumented youths in the Bay Area enjoyed temporary protection to live and work here under a federal program called DACA. As the White House phases out the program, these young people wait anxiously to see if the country they grew up in will let them stay.
C. Nayely Jauregui remembers the day her identity came into question.
She was nine. Her fourth-grade class was doing an activity in small groups, and a classmate in her circle asked her a seemingly simple question.
“Where were you born?”
Jauregui suddenly realized: She didn’t know.
After school, she consulted her mom. “ ‘I was born here, right?’ ” she recalls asking. “ ‘All my friends were born in Martinez. That means I was born in Martinez, too, right?’ ”
No, her mother told her. “‘You were born in Mexico.’”
When Jauregui was two, her parents moved from Jalisco, Mexico, to Pittsburg, California.
“It’s crazy knowing you’ve been here your whole life and you didn’t even know you’re not really from here,” says Jauregui, now 22. “I didn’t know what boundaries came with not being born here. I didn’t know what struggles I was going to face later on in life.”
She found temporary relief from some of those struggles through an Obama-era program called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, also known as DACA. Since 2012, the program has allowed Jauregui and other undocumented young people to work and live in the United States without fear of deportation.
Now, as President Trump phases out the program, about 690,000 undocumented youths face uncertain futures, wondering if they’ll be sent away to countries they barely know—or in Jauregui’s case, can’t even remember.
Of those 690,000 young people, nearly 30 percent live in California. Like Jauregui, they work and attend school. They contribute to the community and pay taxes. They start families and build homes. And they watch and wait as DACA—along with their hopes and dreams—inches closer to an end.
Finding Short-Term Relief
As she got older, Jauregui learned exactly what it meant to be undocumented in the United States.
Her family struggled to find a home they could rent without credit. Job hunting was impossible without an ID or work permit, so a family friend got Jauregui a job that paid under the table. College seemed out of the question.
“Not being from here, knowing that I didn’t have the right documentation, pushed me down a couple steps, and I wasn’t motivated to continue my education,” says Jauregui. “[I thought], Oh, I’m just Mexican. I’ll probably just go do different side jobs that my parents do; maybe that’s how I’ll get by.”
But in June 2012, the summer before Jauregui’s senior year of high school, President Obama issued an executive order creating DACA and eased the legal barriers that young undocumented immigrants faced every day.
DACA granted a two-year work permit and protection from deportation for eligible teens and twentysomethings who entered the United States as children, attended high school or college, and had committed no felonies or major misdemeanors. By paying $495 and filling out an application that requested everything from a birth certificate to report cards, young immigrants could bypass countless hurdles instantly, albeit temporarily.
Many jumped at the opportunity. Roughly 800,000 young adults have been approved for DACA status since its inception. The majority—nearly 80 percent—were born in Mexico; the rest arrived from all corners of the world.
Jauregui became one of these so-called Dreamers in September 2016. With DACA, she found a job working security in downtown Walnut Creek and became a full-time student at Diablo Valley College in Pleasant Hill, where she serves as president of the school’s Women of Color Association.
“Having DACA gave me a lot of confidence within myself that no matter what my background is, I can still do these things,” she says.
But insecurity returned in September 2017, when President Trump signed an order rescinding DACA, giving Congress until March 2018 to draft and pass a replacement.
DACA recipients whose benefits expire in March had the option to extend their work permits and legal protection for two more years back in October. Everyone with expiration dates after the March deadline must wait and watch, hoping Congress comes up with a solution before the clock runs out.
Living in Fear
Monico Lares-Jacobo was only three when he moved to Walnut Creek from Jalisco, Mexico, with his mother, father, and sister. He attended local elementary schools and played starting right guard for the Las Lomas High football team, helping win a championship game on the same field where he’d watched the Oakland Raiders play on TV.
Lares-Jacobo was working his way through Academy of Art University in San Francisco when President Obama announced DACA. The aspiring illustrator took as heavy a course load as he could afford, commuting to school from Martinez twice a week. The hefty workload and perpetual hiding weighed on him.
“You’re just constantly paranoid. I’m working my ass off. I don’t do anything [that could risk exposure],” says the 29-year-old. “I’m doing this because it’s what this country tells me they want from somebody like me, so I’m trying to prove to them that I’m worthy of every opportunity. Yet this could all be taken away from me just like that.”
Growing up, Lares-Jacobo learned to keep a low profile. He always watched his mirrors when driving. He never traveled on a plane or outside California to avoid questions about his Mexican Consular ID card, one of the few forms of identification available to people lacking legal status.
But when Lares-Jacobo was approved for DACA in 2013, his anxiety began to ease.
Samantha Cavanaugh, Lares-Jacobo’s wife and an American-born citizen, saw the shift. “It didn’t fix everything,” she says, “but for him to feel comfortable applying for a job, for him to feel comfortable being in a car—it was a small step toward [feeling that], ‘Yes, I am a person and a human that deserves to be here.’ ”
Chasing a Dream
When Alexandra was a toddler, her family made the risky trip from Chihuahua, Mexico, to the United States for a simple reason: to give her a better life and greater opportunities. (Alexandra did not want her last name printed due to privacy concerns.) DACA provided a pathway to fulfill her and her parents’ dreams.
With DACA certification, Alexandra, a junior at Concord High, could eventually take computer programming courses at Diablo Valley College and apply to New York University. Even so, Alexandra has to work a bit harder than her peers to level the playing field.
“Since I don’t have the same benefits as those who were born here, I have to push myself more to catch up with them,” she says.
The soft-spoken teenager worries that she’ll never have a chance to realize her ambitions to pursue a career in computer programming when her protections run out in early 2019, a few months before she graduates high school.
“People come here for what is known as the American Dream, and that’s what I’m here to do,” she says. “They say that we’re here illegally. I get that. But I’m here with a dream, and I want to study and get a good job. I want to go to college.”
Looking for Options
Prospects for a government solution are bleak. Undermined by partisan bickering and divisive rhetoric, talks of immigration reform have floundered for decades.
As President Trump tasked Congress with the tall order of eliminating the program, he added a list of demands for any potential DACA replacement. The criteria called for border wall funding and beefed-up security to guard it, penalties for sanctuary cities, and crackdowns on legal immigration.
San Francisco–based immigration lawyer Maxine Bayley says the aggressive threats create a “pervasive community-wide fear” she’s never seen in her 13 years of practicing law.
“These are the best and the brightest. For this population to be targeted has caused so much anxiety in other populations of immigrants—[even] legal immigrants,” says Bayley, whose firm Duane Morris has taken on DACA cases pro bono since the program launched in 2012. “They see what’s happening to these kids, and they think, I’m next.”
Bayley volunteered at a DACA renewal clinic on a recent weekend, and she says the Dreamers she met were searching for a plan B.
Most undocumented immigrants have two choices: Marry a U.S. citizen, or find an employer willing to sponsor them. Neither offers guaranteed residency—let alone citizenship—and both paths are long and expensive.
Lares-Jacobo and Cavanaugh dated for 10 years before tying the knot in December 2016. Lares-Jacobo applied for conditional residency, a temporary legal status before becoming eligible for permanent residency and, years down the line, citizenship. So far, the couple has spent nearly $10,000 in application and lawyer fees.
“I wake up; I go to work; I come back; I want to do my drawings,” says Lares-Jacobo, who does part-time freelance illustration. “I just want to work toward being able to draw full-time. All this other stuff is just in my way—for what? I grew up here. I’m from here.”
Risk Versus Reward
Jauregui and Alexandra face long roads ahead. While they wait for Congress to make its move, they feel a continuous fear that the information on their DACA applications—full names, addresses, and other identifying information that undocumented immigrants typically conceal—could be used by immigration officials to track them down and deport them.
Many Dreamers also worry about exposing their loved ones, including parents and other relatives who may be undocumented. But many families believe the risk is worth it.
“This is why we came to this country, for a better opportunity,” Alexandra’s mother explains in Spanish. “I have no fear. I won’t hide. I’m going to carry on, and [Alexandra] also has to carry on with her life, fighting for what we really want in order to progress.”
Striving for a Better Life
When her DACA protection expires next year, Jauregui plans to be in her first semester studying criminology at UC Irvine. Although she doesn’t know how she’ll find a job without a work permit, Jauregui wants to become a juvenile parole officer and perhaps eventually return to school to study immigration law.
Dogged as she is, Jauregui must constantly deflect accusations and insults that are hurled at Dreamers in the debate about DACA.
“You don’t understand what it took for these ‘damn illegals’ to get here just to get a better life that you were naturally given,” she says. “I wish people would look at it differently and open their eyes to what it is we put ourselves through just to have the lives that they were given.”
5 Myths About Undocumented Immigrants
Myth: They snuck across the border
Reality: While many endure dangerous journeys to enter the United States, most immigrants arrive comfortably, with visas and temporary work permits (which have only been approved after an extensive screening process). When a visa expires, its holder becomes undocumented. From 2007 to 2014, more of the country’s undocumented had expired visas than had arrived illegally. In 2014, 890,000 people had expired visas in California—more than any other state.
Myth: They’re criminals
Reality: Tragedies like the death of Pleasanton native Kathryn Steinle, killed in San Francisco in 2015 by an undocumented immigrant—who was acquitted of murder in November—are often cite d as proof that undocumented immigrants are criminals. However, according to the conservative think tank Cato Institute, undocumented immigrants are less likely to commit crimes than are U.S.–born citizens. Additionally, the Migration Policy Institute estimates that less than 3 percent of the 11 million unauthorized immigrants have been convicted of felonies.
Myth: They’re all from Mexico
Reality: About 6.2 million undocumented immigrants hail from Mexico, and more than a million are from other Latin American countries. After that, the biggest groups of undocumented immigrants come from China (268,000), India (267,000), and Korea (198,000).
Myth: They don’t pay taxes
Reality: Besides sales and property taxes, many undocumented immigrants pay state and federal taxes using an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number issued by the IRS. The Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy estimates California received more than $3.1 billion in taxes in 2014 from more than three million undocumented immigrants living in the state.
Myth: They take American jobs
Reality: The nonprofit Brookings Institution reports that Americans are rarely interested in the labor-intensive jobs that many undocumented workers do. And deporting all unauthorized workers would also mean losing about a quarter of the nation’s entrepreneurs and investors.
Local Lawmakers Weigh In
"Each day in the life of these young people is a very long time, and we’ve got to stop playing politics with their lives.”
SENATOR KAMALA HARRIS
"The decision to end DACA not only defies public opinion, but it is also a heartless act that would exile these young people, who put their trust in our government, to countries they do not remember.”
CONGRESSMAN MARK DESAULNIER (CA-11)
"The East Bay is the most rich and diverse region in the country because of our strong and vibrant immigrant community. Instead of tearing families apart, we should be working toward comprehensive immigration reform to keep families together.”
CONGRESSWOMAN BARBARA LEE (CA-13)
"Dreamers are not statistics, or an economic benefit, or a political bargaining chip. They are human beings who have studied and worked for the betterment of themselves, their communities, and our nation.”
CONGRESSMAN ERIC SWALWELL (CA-15)
"My hope is that those who were brought to this country as young children, and who know this country as their country, can remain and continue to contribute and be part of the American Dream.”
ASSEMBLYWOMAN CATHARINE BAKER (16TH DISTRICT)
"President Trump’s threat to end the DACA program breaks a promise this country made to nearly 800,000 young people who are working toward the American Dream in the ultimate nation of immigrants. He is playing a political game that threatens the livelihoods of Dreamers and needlessly endangers their families—simply because they trusted their government.”
OAKLAND MAYOR LIBBY SCHAAF