Living with uncertainty

As national deadline looms to legislate a solution, three undocumented young people tell their stories

Imagine growing up in the shadows in Silicon Valley. Your parents work long hours and are terrified of the police, but you go to school and daydream with your classmates about the future: getting a driver's license, going to college, and eventually landing the dream job.

Then imagine having all those opportunities shut to you because your parents, who weren't born in the U.S., brought you here from a homeland you can't remember. This was the fate of undocumented young people in the U.S., until June 2012, when the Obama administration launched the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, policy.

The policy allowed a subset of undocumented residents in the U.S. – young people brought to the country illegally before they were 16, who were under 31 in June 2012, and had lived in the U.S. since 2007 – to avoid deportation, participate in Social Security and receive work permits on a two-year, renewable basis.

Then, on Sept. 5 this year, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that DACA would be rescinded. Renewal applications received before Oct. 5 will be honored, but unless Congress acts soon to pass more permanent immigrant protections, the roughly 800,000 young people in the U.S. who had received protection under DACA may become eligible for deportation when permits begin to expire starting March 6. The Trump administration may grant an extension, according to some national news publications.

There are many undocumented young people who live in the Peninsula and South Bay. In San Mateo and Santa Clara counties, about 14 percent of the half-million young people between 18 and 32 are undocumented, according to a study on immigrant and undocumented youth conducted by the UCLA Labor Center.

The Almanac talked to three people who had received legal protections from DACA and now face uncertainty about how their status in the U.S. will be affected.


Yasmin Gomez, a poised and polished 19-year-old, is the daughter of undocumented immigrants, the mother of a 2-year-old daughter, the first in her family to go to college, and a sophomore at Menlo College in Atherton.

She was brought to San Jose from Mexico when she was 8 months old, and though her parents were open with her about not having the right papers to be in the U.S., she said, it wasn't until she was older that she understood the implications of what that would mean for her future.

Growing up, she noticed a few differences between her childhood and those of her peers. She didn't understand why her parents didn't like it when she shared with friends that she wasn't born in the U.S. She didn't understand why her friends could travel internationally, but she couldn't.

She also noticed that her parents worked. A lot.

"As soon as my parents got to this country, they've been working. They never really had a break, never really had a vacation," she said.

They encouraged her to pursue her studies. When she began to apply for college, she said, "I remember my mom saying 'Just do it. You deserve (this) because you worked for it.'"

As a first-generation college student, she had to learn all about the SATs, and what it takes to get to college on her own.

Many college scholarships are for citizens only, which made her search for college funding more challenging.

After she was accepted at Menlo College, she said, she had to overcome several fears. One was that people would "lower their expectations because I had a daughter so young." Another concern was that she might struggle to relate to other students. "They don't have that big of a responsibility yet."

But, she noted, "I couldn't let that stop me from coming to school and trying to better my future." Sharing her story with others has helped her understand what she's accomplished and pushed her to stay the course. "It creates a sense (that) I can't let those people down," she said. "It makes me want to keep going."


Nancy Orocio, 24, was 11 months old when her parents moved to the U.S. from Mexico, and she grew up in Redwood City.

As the oldest of three kids, she felt pressure to excel and set an example for her two younger siblings, who were born in the U.S. and are citizens.

When asked if that influenced the dynamics of her childhood, she said that she didn't ever feel jealous of her siblings – though now, she sometimes wishes she could travel outside the U.S., as her sister has had the chance to do.

Instead, her parents encouraged her to set a good example for her siblings, in spite of her situation, and set education as a high priority for her.

When she was 5 or 6 years old, she remembered asking why she couldn't go to Mexico when a cousin made the trip. "You don't have papers," her mom told her. She didn't understand it, and why she couldn't get, or apply for, those papers, until she started working in the field of immigration law.

For high school, she attended Sacred Heart School in Atherton. But she didn't realize how stressful and challenging it would be to apply to college until she started the process. As a longtime participant with the Boys & Girls Clubs of the Peninsula, she received ongoing mentorship, but she said she and her high school had to learn together to navigate the challenges of paying for college without federal aid. She ultimately won a full scholarship to Santa Clara University.

When she was 19, the DACA policy took effect, just in time to open some important doors for her, she said. She received her work permit just before landing an internship at LinkedIn, and she was able to get a driver's license. She said it was special to go to the DMV for the first time, because, growing up, she had been told that it was a scary agency you don't go to "unless you have a Social (Security number)."

With DACA, she said, "I felt like this world of opportunity opened. When Trump was elected, it put all of those opportunities into question."

She now works as an immigration and legal services counselor with Catholic Charities in San Jose, a job that comes with its own challenges. It's been a crash course in immigration law, and has had some frustrating limitations.

"When I have to sit in front of a family, or an individual, and tell them – 'I'm sorry, there's nothing available right now. You have to know your constitutional rights and hope that something changes; that Congress will change immigration laws' – it really sucks," she said.

She started at Catholic Charities as a DACA coordinator, helping young people like herself apply for and renew DACA permits. She told peers her story, and reassured them that it was OK to put their trust in the system. When President Trump announced that DACA would end, she said, she remembered feeling responsible for the people she'd encouraged to apply, who now, like her, face new vulnerability from providing the federal government with personal information.

"Holy moly, I just helped all these kids apply (for DACA) for the first time," she said she remembered thinking at the time of the announcement. "I had my own fears and anxieties playing out. It has been an emotional roller coaster I can't put into words."


Sarahi Espinoza Salamanca, a resident of East Palo Alto and the youngest of 11 children, was born in Michoacan, Mexico, but grew up in Redwood City. Her family moved back and forth between there and Los Angeles, where she attended high school.

Ms. Salamanca's family was split up in her teen years as the result of bad information. Her mom was told by a false "notario," or notary, that she could get a green card to be in the U.S. legally if she returned to Mexico. She went back, and the family is still struggling to find a way for her to return. (The rural area of Mexico she was born in did not create the proper records to enable her to get a Mexican passport, according to Ms. Salamanca.)

Ms. Salamanca wanted to be the first in her family to go to college. But when she went to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form, there was a box that required a Social Security number, which she didn't have.

Her application was denied.

Not sure what to do, and thinking she was alone, since she didn't know of anyone else who had experienced similar problems, she returned to the Bay Area.

From a woman at church, she learned about opportunities for undocumented students like her to keep going to school at community college. A 2001 California law, Assembly Bill 540, allows longtime California residents who are undocumented and are seeking public higher education to be eligible for in-state tuition. Before then, undocumented students had to pay international tuition rates.

In 2008, she enrolled at Foothill College. The following year, her father was diagnosed with cancer, and her grades began to suffer.

She dropped out to work full-time and, at 18, became the main breadwinner for her family. She nannied, washed, ironed, and worked "whatever job I could get," she said. She worked long, grueling hours, and, without a car, had to walk, take the bus, or scooter herself to her various jobs. In 2011, her father died.

Feeling sad and alone, she wanted to go to Mexico to be with her mom, but her mom insisted she stay in the U.S.

"I had thought about suicide. I felt I had no future in this country, and even less of a future in Mexico," she said.

After a spiritual experience brought her back from the brink of suicide, she said, she decided to stay in the U.S. "So I stayed. And (my mom) was right. Things did get better," she said.

DACA became available in June 2012, but she waited until October of that year to apply. "I was afraid to expose myself to the government; to say, 'This is where I live and I am undocumented,'" she said.

That year, she also created a blog to consolidate information about scholarships for which undocumented students would be eligible.

In 2013, she went back to school and applied to a "hackathon" for Dreamers through, an organization of tech leaders who support immigration and criminal justice reform in the U.S. She was selected for the hackathon to develop the DREAMer's Roadmap, an app that helps undocumented students find and track scholarships.

She pursued other opportunities to develop and expand the app, including participating in the Voto Latino Innovators Challenge. Piecing together what she called the "ugliest demo" for her app, she applied, and was ultimately flown to Washington, D.C., to receive training and participate in the challenge. In March 2015, she won first place in the competition and was awarded $500,000 for the project.

Today, she works on the app full-time from a co-working space in Palo Alto through the Stanford Latino Entrepreneurship Initiative. Because it is a nonprofit app, she said, she's had some difficulty funding it. She lives in East Palo Alto with her husband and child and continues to speak publicly about her story and in support of young undocumented people. She was named to the 2016 Forbes 30 under 30 list and is a 2014 White House "Champion of Change."

"I wish I would have had (the app)," she said, noting that she doesn't yet know if or when she'll return to college. "Life took some other pathway and eventually I became successful."


Being a DACA recipient comes with both valuable freedoms and complicated emotional tolls, as these women described.

Because they happened to have been born outside of the U.S. and brought to the country as children, DACA recipients have more privileges than their parents, but fewer than any younger siblings they might have who were born in this country. The sense of obligation to their parents, who can't access the same privileges, though they have lived and worked in the U.S. for many years, was something all three women spoke about.

"It's very easy to talk about Dreamers and uphold them as exemplary," Ms. Orocio said. (Young undocumented people are often called "Dreamers," after the proposed DREAM Act, which has never passed.) What's made stories like hers possible are the stories of people like her parents, she said.

"We can't blame our parents," she said. "They're the dreamers. They're the ones who dreamt of a better future for us, made sure we were fed, sheltered."

Receiving DACA protection, for Ms. Orocio, comes with "a combination of feeling responsible and also feeling guilty," she said. The sense of responsibility, she said, comes from feelings that she should make the most of her protected legal status while she has it, and to help people who don't have access to those protections. The guilt comes from a sense of the arbitrariness of who can access those protections. Her friends who were brought to the U.S. after age 16 or missed the age cutoff don't qualify for those protections.

Ms. Orocio said one misconception is that people living in other countries can get into a line to immigrate legally to the U.S. That's not the case. In some places, there can be a 20-year wait, she said. For families living in danger in their home countries, the opportunity to raise their kids in a safe environment in the U.S. would already be past, were they to work through the "system" in place.

Another misconception, Ms. Gomez said, is evident when people say things like "Mexicans are taking away our jobs." Her response, she said, is: "How? I'm working for it just as hard as anybody else is. I didn't just appear and say I want that thing you have and took it away. It doesn't work that way."

So how are these young people coping with the enormous uncertainty that lies before them? For now, by learning, working and laughing when they can.

Ms. Orocio plans to one day become an immigration attorney. If she loses her work permit, those plans will have to be accelerated, she said, and she may have to open her own business if she can't get a permit to work for another company.

"I'm going to go back to school. That has only continued to open doors, and whether or not I'm able to continue working, education is something that can't be taken away," she said.

Ms. Espinoza said she plans to continue to work on her app, DREAMer's Roadmap, noting, "If I could change the life of one person, and help them go to college, that's success for me."

For Ms. Gomez, the support of family and humor have helped her get through what she calls "crazy times." Her family has taken to joking about President Trump because, "It's all we can do right now," she said. "If we stay in that fear, it's only going to make things worse for us. We know the reality. … We're not doing anything bad. We're working."


Undocumented youth: what statistics tell us

There are an estimated 75,000 undocumented young people between the ages of 18 and 32 in San Mateo and Santa Clara counties, or about 14 percent of all young people in the area, according to a study by the UCLA Labor Center.

The study found that:

• Undocumented youth are almost four times more likely than other youth to not complete high school.

• Nearly one-third of undocumented youth, compared with nearly two-thirds of other youth, have some college education.

•Undocumented students who do access higher education are almost twice as likely as U.S.-born and documented youth to earn an advanced degree.

• More than one-third of undocumented youth do not speak English well or at all, a rate three times higher than documented immigrant youth.

• Undocumented youth have median wages about 28 percent lower than U.S.-born and documented youth.

• Of undocumented youth in Santa Clara and San Mateo counties, 61 percent are Latino, 34 percent are Asian, 3 percent are white and 1 percent are black. By country, 53 percent are from Mexico, followed by India, the Philippines, China, El Salvador, Vietnam, Guatemala, Korea, Honduras and Brazil.

Data came from the Center for Migrant Studies Democratizing Data program and the U.S. Census Bureau's American Community Survey.

Access the study online here.


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3 people like this
Posted by beatrice fioretti
a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Dec 27, 2017 at 5:40 pm

My parents came to this country in search of a better life------did they find it----yes. This is the same story as my in-laws from Italy, mine from Spain. I am totally in favor of allowing Daca to move forward to allow these wonderful young people to remain in this country and live the life that my parents were able to give me.
B Fioretti

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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