As the Administration moves toward ending the Obama-era program that provides 800,000 young undocumented immigrants life without fear of deportation, DREAMers across the country are taking action.
By Chantelle Bacigalupo
Illustration by Grace Molteni
Author’s note: Names have been changed for the protection of those willing to share their stories.
Editor’s note: These interviews took place before September 5—the day President Trump announced he would end DACA.
After texting me a list of all her most important contacts, Ana María handed me her iPad and her cellphone to keep safe in my backpack—just in case. As we made our way down the security line, both of us wearing our Emerson College sweatshirts where we’ll soon graduate from, I glanced back at her. Although Ana María and I both grew up in the United States, we share deep roots to South America—for her it’s Colombia; for me it’s Bolivia. We like to say we express ourselves best in Spanglish. Our favorite songs are heavily sprinkled with old-school Reggaeton, a type of Latin American music with strong bass. As Ana María followed me into the El Paso International Airport security line to face both U.S. Border Patrol and TSA agents, our shared Latina identity was irrelevant. I was born in Dallas, Texas. Ana María was born in Medellin, Colombia. I’m a U.S. citizen. She is undocumented.
Before Nov. 8, Ana Maria’s biggest worry was paying rent and maintaining her college GPA.
“I feel like [my family] had gotten comfortable in our lifestyle. We didn’t think twice about opening the door. My parents have been here for 20 years now,” says Ana María. But with the Trump administration’s immigration rhetoric, the feelings of uncertainty similar to those during their first few years in the U.S. have returned. On Sept. 5, President Trump announced that he would put an end to the Obama-era program that allows undocumented youth to live in the United States without fear of deportation. The official decision, which affects nearly 800,000 undocumented immigrants, is now in the hands of Congress.
“I remember places. I’ve actually taken pieces of paper and drawn what I remember,” says Ana María, referring to her first five years of life in Medellin. She can still travel back in time to when she’d twirl her tight black curls in the rocking chair by the door that led to the jardín. Today Ana María is 22, and her black curls are usually moussed and precisely pinned back—she’s detail-oriented. Her agenda is neatly color-coded and speckled with colorful Post-It notes. She tells me she’s had to be this way.
Ana María’s parents came to find work in east Boston, a working-class, immigrant neighborhood that borders Boston’s Logan Airport, without their child in 1998. When they finally saved enough money for Ana María’s visa application, Ana María was five years old. It was Jan. 21, 2000. She landed at JFK International Airport on a snowy day. “There was a long tunnel. I remember seeing my dad, and he kneeled down, opened his arms, and I ran to him,” she says.
With her mom working nights at a club, she spent her school-less days accompanying her dad on his morning food deliveries. “I didn’t get to see my mom much, and my dad was the one taking care of me. He bathed me, did my hair. He learned how to braid hair. It was awful; they were all like, twisted,” she laughs.
I met with Ana María’s parents in the home they moved to when Ana María was in middle school: a cozy two-bedroom apartment deep in Brighton—a historically working class neighborhood on Boston’s west side. They greeted me the way my family greets me: a kiss on the cheek and a heaping plate of food. On this occasion they served me a traditional dish called Sancocho, which is a stew of chicken, beef, pork or all three at once if you’re feeling fancy. Colombians like to throw banana into the savory mix.
As her parents and I settled on the couch so I could ask them a few questions, Ana María’s father Julio pulled out a handkerchief from his back pocket and placed it on his lap. I was only halfway into my first question when he brought his handkerchief to his eyes. “I came to this country 19 years ago with the vision of providing a new future for my family,” he says in Spanish.
When I asked them if they ever considered moving back because of economic pressures and worries, they both nodded matter-of-factly. When Ana María was in middle school, they had bought tickets for the family to return to Colombia. Their bags had already been sent off. But friends and family reminded them that the “land of opportunity” offered a better future for Ana María. When she was accepted into high school, they decided to stay.
THE IMPACT OF DACA
Ana María claims she always knew she was undocumented. Telemundo and Univision filled their home as background sound with the latest immigration news. She says she doesn’t remember ever having a conversation with her parents about the topic. It was just understood. Even though she knew, or thought she knew, she kept her status to herself.
“I felt ashamed. I saw the word ‘undocumented,’ the word ‘immigrant,’ as dirty. In high school it was sinking in that I really [needed] to do good. I really [needed] to get good grades because if I [didn’t] then I wouldn’t get a full scholarship to college or a university, and then I’m stuck,” she says.
Her hard work paid off. She was offered a scholarship, but financial aid could not cover the remaining cost due to her status. Then Former President Obama issued an executive order—Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). Youth affected by this order are referred to as DREAMers. It allows DREAMers like Ana María, young adults in “good standing” who were brought to the U.S. as children, to come out of the shadows and work in the U.S.
The executive action was announced during Ana María’s junior year of high school. Out of pure luck, as Ana María says, Emerson College offered her a full ride.
“I have a social security number. I do my taxes, I have the opportunity of getting a driver’s license,” she says. The benefits of DACA create opportunities to pursue higher education and following that, higher paying jobs. Because of this, many DACA recipients become financially supportive of their families. In fact, DACA beneficiaries are estimated to contribute $460.3 billion to the U.S. GDP over the next decade—an economic growth that will be lost due to Trump’s recent decision.
Ana María is about to begin her senior year studying communications at Emerson College. “It is one of the biggest accomplishments we have had while in this country,” says Julio of Ana María’s nearing college degree.
Ana María says she hopes to someday start a nonprofit, most likely one focused on the topic of immigration. She realized this dream after attending Emerson College’s Alternative Spring Break: El Paso—a community service immersion program that engages with the El Paso community and helps students gain a deeper understanding of the immigration system. 2017 marked Ana María’s third year attending, but this year was different. Being at a border town posed risks.
“DACA somehow normalizes me. It normalizes my status, and I don’t know what will happen if it gets taken away,” she says, fearing the impact of the Trump administration.
WHAT DACA GIVES THE GOVERNMENT
Ana María is not alone in her frustration. Sarah Schendel, an immigration attorney at the Irish International Immigration Center in Boston, often fields questions from anxious DREAMers. “It’s really hard to have to tell clients that we don’t know what’s going to happen,” she says.
“I think that most of us are pretty pessimistic by nature because of our work, and we are still pretty shocked by how badly the administration is treating immigrants,” she says.
“I’m grateful for DACA because it definitely helps a lot people,” says Schendel. “But it’s hard not to feel jaded because… it’s putting people at risk because all their information is in the hands of the government.”
Because Ana María registered for DACA status, the U.S. government knows where she lives. They know the names of her family members in the U.S., their addresses and their statuses. With evidence that the Trump administration does not consider an immigrant’s humanity, hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants fear what will become of their information.
DREAMERS TAKE ACTION
“Get in the back of line” or “come here the right way” are some examples of rhetoric used by some Trump supporters and conservative advocacy groups in reference to immigrants. Beyond rhetoric, according to the U.S. Visa Bulletin, if you are Mexican and the sibling of a United States citizen applying for Legal Permanent Resident status, it would still take up to 20 years for your application to be processed due to the way the immigration system is set up. There are institutional and cultural barriers to immigrants, both visible and invisible.
“I think what people need to ask is: Why are all these problems occurring in Latin American countries?” Ana María says. “What role does the U.S. play in causing poverty, causing more violence, more war, that these countries’ people decide the best choice is to leave? They don’t have food. They don’t have work. People came to this country for a reason. There is history behind it that Americans don’t think about.”
Still, students like Ana María and allies of the DREAMers continue to tirelessly do the activist work that concluded in DACA. The Understanding National Immigration Through Education (UNITE) group at Emerson, where Ana María serves as president, created an 11-point petition asking the college’s president Lee Pelton to implement specific policy changes regarding Emerson’s status as a sanctuary campus. One such policy change asks the college to guarantee “specific scholarships for students who were previously DACA recipients if/when DACA is terminated,” and Emerson will therefore remain a DREAM school.
A town hall meeting in late March organized by Pelton to address the petition left many students with no answers.
A UNITE partner organization in Boston called Student Immigrant Movement (SIM) is the largest youth-led group in Massachusetts. SIM helps undocumented students find resources to obtain higher education and provides workshops for educators on how to create safe spaces for said students.
I met with Gloria, SIM organizer from Brazil and undocumented student at Northeastern University in Boston, a couple months after the inauguration. She says everything changed after Trump was elected. SIM created a campaign called “‘Defend and Defy.” The campaign’s focus is to “get to every youth in Massachusetts that is undocumented before Immigration Custom Enforcement does.”
“We decided that we [needed] to switch gears away from education because at the end of the day, people are being taken away,” says Gloria. “I know that sounds scary to put it in that matter, but it is urgent, and we wanted to put our urgency behind our messaging and everything that we are doing.”
The campaign organized what it calls “self-defense committees (SDCs)”—little networks of four to six people based on location. The purpose of these SDCs is to keep tabs on each other.
SIM uses encrypted messaging systems when communicating with each other via technology. “In the age of technology—I know it’s great, but it can actually be dangerous,” says Gloria. “The idea is to become smarter about the use of technology. It’s really important, and people will underestimate how much can be exposed just from your phone or your computer.”
But being safe doesn’t mean being passive. Cosecha, a nonviolent grassroots movement fighting for the protection, dignity and respect of the 11 million undocumented people in the United States, spearheaded a “Day Without Immigrants” on May 1, 2017.
In February Cosecha held their second-ever National Assembly, where they organized individual communities for May 1. I followed a group of 12 people as they slushed through the snow to the Cambridge, Mass. Harvard MBTA station in preparation for their art action. In Cosecha, activism takes many forms. This group’s plan was to perform a poem they wrote together as they travelled through five different MBTA stops. The rumble of the approaching train surged, and as soon as everyone was in place in one of the front carts, the performance began.
“I pledge allegiance to NO nation, only to workers. I pledge allegiance to the immigrant, to the undocumented. I pledge allegiance to the worker’s hands, callused and bleeding, the worker made machine, producer made product. I pledge allegiance to the chant, to the vocalizing of struggle,” they chanted.
Many eyes were on the activists. Many refused to be deterred by their presence and stared down into their laps. The activists continued.
“I pledge allegiance to the heart rate after a knock at the door, to the trembling of hands, to ‘no la abras,’ to ‘I don’t have to,’ to ‘I wasn’t dealt a bad hand.’ I was born a good life under a bad law with my good name and my good skin and my good hands made for far more than this.”
I spotted a woman sitting just across from where Cosecha were performing. She was clutching the Cosecha flier that was just handed to her. As she wiped away her tears, our eyes met, and she gave me a meek smile.
One participant, Ixchetl, a self-proclaimed communist and undocumented Ivy League graduate, was a driving force in the poetry group. Originally from Philadelphia, Ixchetl came to the Cosecha Assembly to fight on behalf of his family who crossed the border from Mexico after the economic impact of the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement. His voice filled the train car.
“Cosecha is an organization that is bringing immigrants together. We believe that our strength is in our labor. We want to threaten the bosses that if the bosses don’t want to respect our dignity, then we are going to strike. When we stop working their wealth stops building.”
After a handful of performances, we arrived to Park Street MBTA station where the plan was to regroup with the rest of the art actions on the platform. The woman, still clutching the flyer, shyly walked up to the poetry group and said “gracias.” A number of other people exiting the subway car gave nods of agreement. Down the platform you could hear the other Cosecha art action groups singing, and soon all 60 people were gathered at the Park Street MBTA station singing together, “Somos la Cosecha, no one is illegal!”
Ana María, UNITE, Gloria, SIM, Ixchetl and Cosecha all participated in this National Assembly. The strike was the largest immigrant-led strike in recent history—a powerful statement, but one that brings risks for the participants.
“I think [DREAMers] know that they are at even more risk. But I don’t think that will slow them down,” says Schendel.
When I interviewed Schendel before Trump announced his decision to repeal DACA on Sept. 5, she offered an insight into why the administration had yet to make a move: “I think this administration knows that [they are] an incredibly vocal, powerful, intelligent, media-savvy committed group of activists, and if they take away DACA suddenly, those people will be in the streets, and their friends and families will be in the streets.”
Schendel’s prediction seems to be playing out. Trump’s recent announcement on Sept. 5 concluded in DREAMers and allies mobilizing across the country—from the White House to Trump Tower in New York during the protest. #SinDACASinMiedo, meaning “No DACA No Fear,” has found its way across social media platforms. It seems that DREAMers aren’t backing down.
THERE’S ACTION, THEN THERE’S FAITH
Just a week before this year’s El Paso trip, I was sitting in an empty Emerson classroom when my phone buzzed. “Where are you? I need to talk to you”—a text from Ana María.
Apparently Emerson faculty had sat her down with a lawyer to discuss the risk of participating. “I thought about [the risk] a lot this weekend,” she says to me with a slight smile. “I want to go. And honestly I know I’m going. I don’t know your beliefs or whatever, but girl, right there,” she says with one hand on her heart and the other pointing up to the sky.
Faith plays a heavy role in the lives of Ana María and her family. Her mother usually calms her worries by “placing [struggles] in God’s hands.”
Back in the airport security line in El Paso, Ana María was up next. We got our IDs checked a couple podiums apart from each other. I anxiously glanced over at her. As they signed our boarding passes and we merged back together in the security line, I looked at her in relief. She whispered “cállate”—shut up.
We zipped our winter boots back on and walked from security to our gate. We were en route back to Boston after spending six weeks in El Paso. Ana María flipped her black curls back and said to me with her usual sass, “Honey can breathe now!”
Chantelle Bacigalupo is a Bolivian-American storyteller who grew up on Tex-Mex food, Spanglish and late nights dancing to Marc Anthony’s music. Her most recent project, “Blood Roots,” a podcast set to launch in October, explores the endless journey of digging up our collective human roots. Join the conversation at bloodroots.org.
Grace Molteni is a Midwest born and raised designer, illustrator, and self-proclaimed bibliophile, currently calling Chicago home. She believes strongly in a “beer first, always, and only” rule, and is forever seeking the perfect dumpling. For more musings, work, or just to say hey check her out on Instagram.