Courtesy of Armando Garcia
Santa Rosa Junior College alumni Jesus Guzman, lead organizer at the Graton Day Labor Center, has spent his whole life in the United States. He speaks English, works full time and goes to school at Sonoma State University.
Yet he worries about getting deported to a country he has not been to since he was a 1-year-old. His fear of parting from his home, his friends and family prompted him to spend the time and money to apply for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA).
Guzman applied in 2012 when the program first became available. Although he turned his renewal application in several months before the deadline, he now has a gap in DACA coverage. “It expired today. I’m basically back to being illegal,” Guzman said.
Guzman has yet to hear back about his renewal status and could now be deported. He is lucky he didn’t loose his job now that his employment authorization expired, but he knows that others aren’t as fortunate.
“A friend of mine just got fired because her DACA expired,” he said. “Renewals aren’t getting done on time. A lot of people are being forced to put their lives on hold.”
Immigration is a complex issue that affects many aspects of American society. While the U.S. is often referred to as a melting pot of cultures, some immigration laws are not allowing young Latinos to become citizens.
President Obama’s deferred action program allowed immigrants brought to the United Sates as minors to apply for temporary relief from deportation, a work permit and eligibility for a driver’s license. The application costs $465, plus standard cost of a driver’s license, state I.D. and social security card
Each time students apply they are put through an extensive background check. This includes having their fingerprints and other biometrics taken. These permits are revocable at any time due to DUI’s and trouble with the law. Students must pay the same fees every time they renew and the program is not a pathway to citizenship or U.S. residency. Now, two years later it’s time for students to renew these permits.
Guzman has given up calling to check on his application. This time around, he’s only been checking it online. “I went through the biometrics a few weeks ago, but they haven’t updated the status,” he said.
The first time he applied, his application was delayed nine months. He called to check on it more times than he can remember but found that calling didn’t help speed up the process. “I called the congressmen’s office and senators’ offices and they reached out on my behalf and heard the same thing,” Guzman said.
He thought about applying for an AB 60 driver’s license, which allows any California resident to receive a driver’s license regardless of immigration status. “It’s better than not having one and driving around with an expired one,” he said. “They have a couple phrases that look different but they aren’t for federal purposes.”
Unlike a normal California or AB 60 driver’s license that only has to be renewed every five or 10 years, DACA applicants must renew every two years. “Ours expire when DACA expires,” he said.
Guzman said he knew what he was getting into when he first applied for DACA, that it wasn’t a permanent solution. The program did what it was intended to. “We were kind of limited to what we could do with DACA but without DACA, it could send us really far back,” he said. “Knowing that it’s not there is damaging.”
Applying for DACA requires applicants to provide proof of a continuous presence in the U.S. SRJC radiology major Areli Medina applied for her DACA two years ago. It meant showing proof of her whole life in the form of paper.
“I had to have records of everything, paystubs, bank records, taxes, school records and medical records,” she said. “It took me a while to get all the documents together. I would take things to the lawyer and he would tell me I was missing things.”
Medina grew up wanting to pursue a professional career but felt she couldn’t due to her immigration status. Her family came to the U.S. with the intent to better themselves and arrived to the U.S. when she was 6. “The purpose for us was to chase the American Dream, but it’s hard when you have all these limits and you can’t go beyond that,” she said. “ I always dreamed of getting my citizenship, but for now this is a good foot in the door.”
When Medina was younger she made mistakes and paid for them by going to juvenile hall. “Everyone that goes to high school has their rebel phase. That’s how I got in trouble hanging out with the wrong crowd,” she said. “I had to write an explanation about what had happened, and after that I had to wait to hear that I wasn’t a threat.”
Although those days are long behind her, the 25-year-old worried her record would affect her DACA application, though it should have been expunged when she turned 18. Not willing to risk getting denied, Medina spent $500 to get help from a lawyer, making the total cost of her application more than $1,000.
Medina thought the security DACA would provide was worth the price. “I felt like I could have done it on my own, but I was afraid of my background,” she said. “You don’t know if you’re putting yourself at risk; it was my only protection.”
The main reason Medina decided to apply was so she could drive legally. With her busy work and school schedule she needed to be able to get around. She knew she was a good driver because she passed the driving courses her high school offered, but couldn’t take the test due to her legal status. She couldn’t risk getting caught driving without a license because she already had her car impounded twice.
She is thankful for what DACA has offered, but wishes there were more options available for students like her.
After Medina’s father died, her mother was left as the head of household and couldn’t afford to help pay for school expenses. “She told me that if I wanted to go to school I had to work for it,” she said. “It was hard hearing that from my mom, but I knew that in the long run it would pay off.”
Medina currently works 30 hours a week to pay her way though school because she doesn’t qualify for financial aid due to immigration status. At the moment Medina’s priority is finishing school to make the best of the opportunities available to her. She plans to start volunteering at a hospital soon to gain experience for her radiology major.
Medina doesn’t have to reapply for another year but hopes for immigration reform soon.
“I don’t know how long this is going to keep going until there’s some change,” she said. “I’m hoping that they’ll do something because it’s just kind of pointless if they’re just going to keep renewing it and renewing it and have no result in the end.”
Renewing a program isn’t the only worry DACA applicants have; some are worried that the whole program might disappear.
SRJC alumni Armando Garcia arrived in the U.S. with an indefinite visa when he was 9 months old. He and his family were visiting on a business trip, but stayed in the country longer than expected after his father became ill. “We came here legally with the idea that we were going to be here legally,” said Garcia, now 24.
Garcia’s father was diagnosed with cancer only three months after they arrived. His father had to be hospitalized to have a tumor and his kidney removed. “We ended up having to go through the process of his treatment,” he said. “That in itself made us stay in the United States more than we initially wanted to just because it was a long recover time.”
In early 2000, the program which Garcia’s family used to come to the U.S. was removed. People with indefinite visas were given an expiration date of 10 years from the issue date. “For us, in 2001 that’s when we became undocumented,” he said. “By that time I was 11 years old, my brother was 14 and my mother was a single mother. She was all on her own and it was easier for us to stay here.”
Though Garcia had a visa, he said his family had always been deportable. One of his earliest memories is of hiding in a closet at the age of 5 after immigration arrived at his family’s apartment to look for his father. His neighbors, who had citizenship, spent a half hour packing all of his family’s belongings while his family hid from immigration. “My family was very scared. They heard from our neighbors that they had knocked down our door,” he said.
After applying for DACA, Garcia was given some peace of mind knowing he could not be deported during his two-year permit but is unable to qualify for financial aid.
Garcia never let his immigration status slow him down. He worked his way through the SRJC and Cal Poly journalism school. Now he’s been accepted to Columbia’s graduate school of journalism and must find a way to finance it himself.
Garcia isn’t worried about getting his renewal denied because he has complied with all of the requirements needed and hasn’t gotten in any trouble with the law but he is worried the DACA program will be removed. “I fear it going away in the future,” he said. “Once you take away someone’s rights, or this privilege because it is a privilege. It’s not a right and it’s something that we should be grateful for. Once it gets taken away people get angry.”
Garcia realizes that he’s in the system. The government knows where he works, where he goes to school, and where he lives. “It’s a problem if DACA goes away because what happens to all the people who had that protection before now? They’re out in the open,” he said. “Hopefully it doesn’t go away, but that all depends on who becomes president and you can’t even vote for it.”
Garcia recognizes that his fate is in the hands of others. Though he’s grateful for what DACA has given him, he thinks it made him into an actor. “It makes us actors because we’re acting Americans in every sense of the word,” he said. “We’re paying out taxes. We’re working side by side with other Americans.”
What upsets Garcia the most is that he doesn’t have the same basic rights Americans have. “At the end of the day we don’t have that very special privilege which does make us Americans, which is our right to persue happiness, our right to vote and have some say in what becomes of us,” he said.