Immigrant Children Raised in the U.S. live with Threat of Deportation

Political whims cast a constant dark cloud after years of living here

Cinthya Montserrath Benavides moved from Mexico to Jackson when she was 7. She's now 24 and loves the Wyoming landscapes, although Benavides says she misses many things from her Mexican childhood. If she returned to Mexico even just to visit her grandparents, Benavides would not be allowed to return to the United States because she remains an undocumented immigrant under her DACA status. (Courtesy photo)

By Madeline Thulin

The Wyoming Truth

Alejandra Jacobo moved from Mexico to Wyoming in 2005 when she was 9 years old. Today she’s 25 and the mother of three children, two of whom attend the same Jackson school system in which she was raised.

There’s one major difference, though.

Jacobo is still not an American citizen after living here for 16 years. Her three children are.

Ages 6 years, 5 years and 5 months, the children became naturalized citizens because they were born in the United States. Jacobo remains a U.S. resident only because of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) law, a temporary legal status that could force her to be deported at any time based on which way the political winds blow in Washington, D.C.

The registered nurse at St. John’s Health in Jackson is not alone in living with this threat hanging over her head. She’s among 510 Wyoming residents who are covered under the DACA law. They must each pay $495 every two years to keep their DACA status current, and even that provides no guarantee.

Then-President Barack Obama initiated the DACA law in 2012. It was designed to keep immigrant children who had been here for several years safe from being deported. But DACA has become a political quandary that occupants of the White House, Congress and the U.S. Supreme Court have been unable to solve over the past 20 years. In those two decades, Congress has considered no less than 11 bills that would provide a path to permanent citizenship for DACA immigrants, but each has failed to achieve approval.

Then-President Donald Trump unsuccessfully tried to end the DACA program in 2017, but the U.S. Supreme Court overruled him. President Joe Biden signed an executive order during his first days in office in January to reaffirm DACA as the law of the land, but as recently as July a federal judge in Texas ruled that DACA is unconstitutional. That decision is being appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court once again.

“(DACA) makes me scared because then who knows what is going to happen (to me)? It would be really sad to divide the family,” said Jacobo who moved to Wyoming from Leon, Guanajuato, in Mexico. “I have kids. I want to raise them here (in the United States), not in Mexico.”

A Daunting Application Process

Jacobo received DACA status in 2013. She said that “before DACA, I couldn’t drive my car to the high school because I needed a driver’s license.” 

Applying wasn’t easy, she said.To qualify then and today, an immigrant must meet the following qualifications:

·  Have been under the age of 31 as of June 15, 2012

·  Entered the U.S. by his or her 16th birthday

· Continually reside in the U.S. since June 15, 2007

·  Be physically present in the U.S. on June 15, 2012, and at the time of the request for consideration under DACA

·  Had no lawful status on June 15, 2012

· Currently be in school, have graduated or obtained a certificate of completion from a high school, or have obtained a GED, or be an honorably discharged veteran of the U.S. Coast Guard or armed forces, and

· Have not been convicted of a felony, significant misdemeanor, or three or more misdemeanors, and do not otherwise pose a threat to national security or public safety.

Estela Torres, an immigrant support specialist for the One22 Resource Center in Jackson, knows how difficult the process is to obtain DACA status and that it is only offered to a certain age group of immigrants.

DACA applicants fill out the I-821D form online, pay $495 and then wait 90 days to get approved. Applicants get a receipt so they can track their application online. Then, they need to have their fingerprints taken, which takes about five minutes. For those in Jackson, though, the closest location to document the fingerprints is a five-hour drive to Salt Lake City, Utah. If the applicant decides to use a lawyer for the application, the cost increases from $495 to as much as $1,500 to $2,000. If there is a mistake on the application, the application will either be rejected, or a “Request for Evidence” will be initiated.

DACA did not exist when Torres moved from Chicago to Jackson in 1981. She already was a U.S. citizen but remembers that she “felt like the only (Latina) in the area” and that it was an unwelcoming time for a “Mexican from Chicago.”

Torres said the community of Jackson and Latinos living in Jackson have a different relationship today. Integration into the community is much more possible, she said, because there’s more acceptance of cultural differences. DACA has helped, she adds, but huge hurdles remain.

During the recent Trump administration, Torres said, “people lived in fear of ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement). Before that, ICE did come occasionally and pretty much arrested people without prior records, so that was a really tough time.”

But, Torres adds, “I was really glad (the DACA) program started… (for) people that came here as children through no fault of their own. (It) provides relief for children and the next generation.”

Letting Go to Chase the American Dream

Irving Aguilar knows that all too well. He arrived in Wyoming in 2001 at age 8 and has been here ever since, living as a DACA immigrant. 

Irving Aguilar moved from Mexico to Jackson in 2001 at age 8. He’s now 30 and works three jobs, but he remains an undocumented citizen in the United States. Aguilar hopes to remain here because he has assimilated into the culture. (Wyoming Truth photo by Madeline Thulin)

He left behind a life of poverty in Toluca, Mexico, where his single mother worked constantly to pay the bills but was always running behind on payments. Aguilar said he was left “basically alone all of the time while Mom worked” and was essentially raised by his grandmother.

Despite the pooling of resources between his mother and grandmother, the struggle to survive in Toluca was too difficult, he said; there was simply no way to live a stable, fulfilling life and no good opportunities existed. His mother wanted to obtain the necessities of life: food, clothing, shelter and to play a greater role in raising her son, but these goals were impossible to meet in Mexico, he said. Aguilar’s mother came to a difficult realization: for her family to live comfortably, and to give her son the best life with opportunities, a quality education and financial security, she would have to make an enormous sacrifice. So, they came to Wyoming in search of the American Dream.

“It was nice to see new cars, paved streets and beautiful places to live,” Aguilar said. He and his mother arrived in Jackson with one of the original waves of Latino immigrants.

His mother chose Jackson, Aguilar said, because it was known for its beautiful natural environment, nestled between Grand Teton and Yellowstone national parks. They also knew that Jackson received most of its funding through tourism, which allowed undocumented workers to find work quickly.

Aguilar, now 30, works three jobs: as a bartender at Calico Restaurant, as a DJ for weddings and as a floater for Complete Clean and Restoration. He achieved his DACA status in 2018 but said, “it was definitely hard to come (to the United States) and to adjust, and once you’re here you have to readjust and once you have DACA it is always adjusting.”

Aguilar said many immigrants stay in the United States long enough to save money and then return to their native countries to build a new life. But for him, Aguilar said, “once you adjust to the U.S. it is easy to just stay.”

But that adjustment isn’t easy and takes years.

“It wasn’t our choice to come here; it was our parents,” Aguilar said.

As a child growing up here, Aguilar remained impoverished in Jackson, but he said this poverty felt worse than in Mexico.

“In Mexico, everyone else is poor,” Aguilar said. When he slept on the couch or shared a room with his mother in Mexico, he was like all the other children he knew. But in the United States, Aguilar said, his wealthier classmates had their own bed and their own room. The difference in living situations and culture was compounded because he only knew Spanish, and English was the main language spoken in Jackson. Aguilar quickly learned that to live in this new American world, he needed to assimilate and integrate.

Aguilar said he learned to speak, read and write in English through music, movies, cartoons and through assimilation when he hung out with his classmates. His mother needed Aguilar in their daily life. “My mom was dependent on me to… figure out English,” he said.

Aguilar’s mother dealt with her own residency struggles in addition to learning a new culture. When she tried to obtain a permanent resident card, the process forced her to spend less time with her son.

“She had to leave the United States twice a year for three months to pursue legal status, which took her about 10 years to obtain,” Aguilar said. “Ironically, I saw her less (than when we lived in Mexico) because she had to return to Mexico for such a long time.”

Dealing With Loss and Fear

One of the challenges for all DACA recipients is they cannot leave the United States. If they do, they lose the ability to return. That means they cannot visit loved ones and friends in Mexico or their native country. 

Cinthya Montserrath Benavides. (Courtesy photo)

Cinthya Montserrath Benavides, a 24-year-old pet care specialist at VCA Spring Creek Animal Hospital in Jackson, moved with her mother from Tlaxcala, Mexico, when she was 7.

She said she misses many things from her Mexican childhood, including the food, the school with its bailares—f estivals with choreographed dances—as well as her grandparents and her extended family. Benavides is unable to visit those relatives because of DACA.

Benavides said she is disillusioned when it comes to the American Dream. Years ago, she thought it existed in her grandparents’ and parents’ time when the United States was more accepting of foreigners. She said she believes it is now better for younger generations to stay in Mexico or wherever they live outside the United States.

But she does not regret her decision to stay here.

“It was a great move for me to come here,” Benavides said. “It was just hard to adjust to a place you don’t know as a child.”

Despite DACA not providing a path to permanent citizenship, she is grateful to at least have some protection under DACA.

“I think it is a great opportunity for people like me that were brought here as children,” Benavides said. “It gives us more opportunity to get an education, a job and not worry about our legal status…. But I do have the fear of DACA being removed eventually.”

Aguilar said, “We (DACA recipients) keep getting tossed back and forth. Nobody really knows what to do with us.”

And that includes federal judges and legislators. On July 16, U.S. District Judge Andrew Hanen in Houston ruled DACA to be unconstitutional. All new applications for DACA status in the U.S. remain on hold as the Biden Administration said  it will appeal the decision of the lower court.

This does not impact the 616,030 individuals nationwide in positions like Aguilar, Benavides and Jacobo who already have DACA status, but it freezes the application of the 81,000 individuals nationwide who are applying for DACA for the first time.

The ruling scares Jacobo. “I have friends who were in process, and they want to continue this education,” she said. “And they were planning on getting their DACA to do that, but because it stopped, they don’t know what’s going to happen. They lose their motivation, too. Because they have nothing to back them up.”

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