As an honors student at a prestigious East Coast University, Marisela Vasquez* felt forced to lie about why she did not study abroad. “That was the hardest conversation to have junior year–I would say that with my two majors and a minor [if I studied abroad] I would have to do a fifth year,” said Vasquez, who is now twenty-nine and works at a prominent Midwestern university. She secretly longed to study abroad like the majority of her peers, likely in Central America, where she could have used her native Spanish and knowledge from courses in psychology and public health.
Ironically, the reason Vasquez could not study in another country had to do with her previous foreign travel. When she was only three, Vasquez came to the U.S. illegally, brought by her parents along with her two siblings, from San Luis Potosí, Mexico. She remained undocumented until she was a year into her master’s degree, when she qualified for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. Last week, the Trump administration moved to terminate the program within six months unless Congress acts.
By most measures, Vasquez has made all the right life decisions, but she did not have the chance to choose her birthplace. She never let the circumstances of her childhood set limits on her ambitions, even when U.S. immigration policy gave her little reason for hope. For her, DACA represented more than a new legal tool; it was the key to planning a life completely of her own choosing. Now that the program is expected to end with no alternative remedy in sight, Vasquez finds herself in a familiar position – relying on her own hard work and initiative, while U.S. politicians who claim to value those qualities dither and delay work on a real solution for 800,000 young Americans.
After the 2016 election, Vasquez feared doom for the Obama-led program. Last month’s presidential pardon of Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio confirmed her suspicions, and Vasquez felt that her only hope was the President’s apparent capriciousness.
“Monday night I was still praying,” she said. “Trump can surprise us frequently, and I wanted to feel surprised that he would do the right thing.”
The morning of the announcement, Vasquez arranged to go into work later than usual (and stay later). “If I was going to get bad news, I’d rather be at home,” she said. In her modest apartment, she watched Attorney General Jeff Sessions on CNN and gulped coffee as she tried to process his remarks. As many have pointed out, his xenophobic speech contained specious assertions about the dangers of illegal immigrants and their overall effects on the country.
In Vasquez’s mind, an “array of traumatizing new possibilities” arose as she listened, but afterwards, she went to work. For the rest of the day, she teared up periodically, but still managed to concentrate on her duties at her workplace, a research institute focused on assisting lower-income Americans.
During a break, Vasquez distracted herself by checking on some details for her upcoming wedding. She and her fiancé deliberately limit their talk about immigration status. “We are being very intentional about not letting this political move rob us of the joy in our lives,” she said.
Also on the day of the announcement, Vasquez managed to email mentors to request letters of recommendation for her applications to Ph.D programs that will begin in 2018-2019. “I said that whatever happens with DACA, my goal is to present a competitive Ph.D application and continue working with the same communities,” she said.
Five years ago, Vasquez stood in line with thousands of other hopeful, undocumented young people at Chicago’s Navy Pier. On August 15, 2012, the first day the government accepted DACA applications, the Illinois Agency for Immigrant and Refugee Rights held the massive sign-up event, which ultimately drew an estimated 13,000 applicants. Vasquez and one of her sisters arrived at 4 a.m., but more than 1,000 people already stood in line ahead of them. For the rest of the day until 10 p.m., they waited in line to consult with a pro-bono attorney. She had never been around so many other undocumented individuals—at least, not knowingly. Surveying the scene, Vasquez noticed with surprise that not all the applicants had originally come from Latin America, but also Asia, Southeast Asia, and the Middle East. Vasquez felt “comforted” by the unexpected solidarity.
Entering the massive grand ballroom at Navy Pier, she saw the attorneys and other volunteers busily processing applications. “Imagine that room full of small stations,” Vasquez said. “It was a beautiful sight.” Congressional proponents of the program including Illinois Senator Dick Durbin and Representative Luis Gutierrez moved among the lines, reassuring the anxious applicants.
While many applicants were tense about even making it to the attorneys, a camaraderie quickly developed and turned the scene into an ersatz Ellis Island. Line members shared food, conversed in a variety of languages, and commiserated. They listened with care as others phoned around frantically requesting copies of their transcripts from their high schools, or letters from their places of worship to prove they had been members for years. In addition to bringing $465 to pay for governmental processing of the applications, one of the most important items needed that day was a formal ID–state, consulate, or even high school-issued. In a heartbreaking moment, officials turned away an applicant just in front of Vasquez because she only had an I.D. from Six Flags Great America.
Vasquez’s sister ultimately had a disappointing experience as well, but not because she lacked an I.D. When confronted with the DACA requirements for education and employment, she realized she did not qualify—her previous education simply had not been strong enough, according to Vasquez, and she did not follow through on the application. As a result, Vasquez tempered her own enthusiasm six months later when the government granted her DACA status.
Until the sign-up event at Navy Pier, her immigration situation had separated Vasquez from others in most arenas of her life. When she was growing up, her parents cautioned her constantly to behave beyond reproach in public and never to mention the family’s situation. Among her cousins and close neighbors, she often felt excluded as many were citizens and others had Green Cards. Some peers taunted her, saying, “No tienes papeles.” At college years later, Vasquez drew criticism from a shocking source: another undocumented student who disapproved of her discretion.
“He would say, ‘You need to educate all these privileged kids about what it means to be undocumented,’ but he had a lot less to lose than I did,” Vasquez recalled. “His parents were about to retire back to Guatemala, but mine were still working in the U.S. and had younger kids to support.”
Since graduating college, Vasquez had worked as a nanny to help finance her graduate courses, which were costly, since she did not qualify for any form of financial aid. When she first returned home from college, Vasquez had been so discouraged at her inability to qualify for most jobs that she refused to let her parents hang up her framed diploma.
“It was a reminder that my success might have ended there,” she explained.
This week, the President is meeting with Democratic lawmakers to collaborate, purportedly, on strategies to assist DACA beneficiaries, but a quick, encouraging deal seems unlikely. Not only would legislation have to pass through the Republican-dominated Congress, it would rankle the members of an administration with an extreme nationalist agenda that includes reducing the annual number of refugees accepted into the U.S.
“I feel like Trump is playing politics right now in terms of DACA,” Vasquez said. “He immediately clarified that he didn’t come to an agreement, which is annoying for those of us waiting impatiently.”
But on that DACA sign-up day in 2012, Vasquez felt dazzled by the abundance of hopeful activity and goodwill. In the elegant domed ballroom that dated back to 1916, Vasquez and the other young people took in a panoramic view of Lake Michigan and Chicago’s nighttime skyline.
“It was an emotional time for a lot of people in that room,” she recalled. “Some were even crying.”
Eighteen hours after she arrived at Navy Pier, Vasquez made it to the front of the line. She allowed herself to imagine a future full of possibility.
Note: One of the only clear directives for DACA beneficiaries involves renewal of the three-year work permits set to expire in the next six months. According to the website of the Department of Homeland Security, members have only until October 5 to file for renewal if expiration occurs from September 5, 2017 to March 5, 2018.
Regardless of potential future deals, the administration has successfully accomplished one thing: Daily uncertainty and fear have returned to the lives of Vasquez and her many “DACAmented” peers.
*To protect the privacy of the individuals in the piece, some names and identifying characteristics have been altered.