“There was this lady who was in charge of the whole operation..and she said, ‘no we’re separating you and your brother by age range and you’re going with me.'”
Flor Caceres insists she was one of the “lucky ones,” hopping from family to family to enter the United States from Guatemala at the age of four. The biggest barrier she remembers crossing was a body of water. Unlike her brother and parents, this meant she was spared from “crossing the desert.”
“Many people die,” said Caceres, now a senior at Yorktown High School. “One has to know exactly what he or she is getting into, because it could either result in death or rape or kidnapping.”
When they entered the U.S., Caceres and her brother were reunited with their parents, who had left Guatemala 4.5 years earlier.
Giancarla Rojas can relate. She crossed into the U.S. from Bolivia at age 12 with her younger sister, by meeting border patrol agents.
“I knew they were my parents…but at the same time I was confused,” Rojas explained, tearing up as she remembered how she was separated from her family for years. “So that night, I talked to my dad. I was like, ‘can I talk to you over the phone?’ But he was there, so I talked to him over the phone. I was like, ‘Dad, is that you? Am I really seeing you?’ Only that way I could say, ‘yeah, he is really here.’ Because they just looked so different, and seven years was long.”
Others, like Lizzette Arias, only learned how they entered the country later in life.
“My apartment caught on fire. My dad inhaled a lot of smoke, and the ambulance came and they wanted him to get on,” Arias explained. “So I go and try to convince him, and he tells me then, ‘we’re undocumented. I can’t go.'”
Each journey is unique, but they all have one thing in common – the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals Program, also known as “DACA.”
In 2012, President Obama put DACA in place. The program provides temporary legal status and benefits, including work permits and social security numbers for undocumented millennials brought to the U.S. as minors who meet certain criteria.
The action raised some eyebrows.
“He usurped the congressional authority, really, to do that,” said Bob Dane, executive director of American Federation for Immigration Reform.
At the same time, it provided others with much-needed relief.
“It’s very lonely having to keep such a big part of your life secret, even from your best friends,” Arias said.
“If someone knocked [on] the door, I immediately thought it was ICE,” Rojas added.
Both Arias and Rojas were told in high school that undocumented students couldn’t go to college.
“That was a breaking point for me,” Rojas explained. “The whole reason my parents came here was to give my sister and I a better life. So I told myself, ‘if students like me don’t go to college, I’ll make sure I be the first one.'”
Both beat the odds, and are now in professions helping to pave the way for the next generation of undocumented students like Flor Caceres, who will be attending Lafayette College on a full-ride scholarship.
“I’m living proof of a brighter future in the U.S,” she said.
However, the future is still uncertain. Last year, the Trump administration announced it was going to phase out DACA, wanting to have it replaced by a new program created by Congress. But two federal courts said that the move was unconstitutional, and temporarily issued a stay.
“You make a mistake once, you’re not going to make a mistake twice,” said Simon Sandoval-Moshenberg, legal director of the Immigrant Advocacy Program at the Legal Aid Justice Center. “It’s quite clear that just as Obama created DACA with the stroke of a pen, so too Trump can terminate DACA with the stroke of a pen.”
There seems to be little bipartisan support for a replacement in sight.
“We keep coming at it, but we keep falling short,” said Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA) at a recent roundtable with Latino leaders in Alexandria. “We kind of said to President Trump, ‘will you take yes for an answer,’ but as you know, he then changed the demands.”
“At this point, it’s really dependent on the Democrats, because the Republicans, the last few times over several months, have come to the table with very generous concessions,” responded Dane.
Congress has already shut down the government over the debate. So, why is it a problem in the first place? Why do some take issue with DACA?
“There are a lot of so-called ‘kids’ who really weren’t kids…16 to 18 years of age, who were coming into the United States illegally,” Dane explained.
The American Federation for Immigration Reform, also known as “FAIR,” argues that some DACA recipients come from wealthy regions like Scandinavia, while others come from countries like Pakistan and Yemen “despite heightened terror concerns.”
“A 21st century immigration system, something that is modern that reflects the dangers inherent throughout the globe, affords us as Americans the opportunity to define who is coming in under what terms, why and how long,” Dane said. “And that’s what’s notably absent in our immigration system right now. Once you create a single amnesty, it creates future flows of illegal aliens who are expecting their amnesties.”
Dreamers and former dreamers like Arias, Rojas and Caceres said that aside from DACA only acting as a temporary fix and not providing a pathway to citizenship, the real problem with it is that it doesn’t help their parents, too.
“We’re all born with bones, blood in our veins,” Caceres said. “We all deserve the right to be here.”
Arias, Rojas and Caceres are all affiliated with the DREAM Project, which empowers students whose immigration status is a barrier to education by working with them to access and succeed in college through scholarships, mentoring, family engagement and advocacy.
COURTESY: Flor Caceres contributed footage for this piece.