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US 'dreamers' not giving up despite uncertainty

Michael Knigge
September 2, 2017

As Donald Trump mulls ending the DACA program protecting young undocumented immigrants from deportation, Angelica Villalobos, a DACA beneficiary from Oklahoma, vows to keep up the fight. She worries only about one thing.

Immigrant rights poster in Washington, DC
'We are here and we are staying,' proclaims this immigrant rights poster in the United We Dream officeImage: DW/M. Knigge

The uncertain fate looming over an Obama-era program called DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) - due to Donald Trump's campaign promise to discontinue the program - has riled up his base, but found high-profile detractors within his own party.

On Friday, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan went on record urging the administration to keep the policy in place for immigrants who arrived in the United States as children and effectively know no other home. Prominent GOP Senator Orrin Hatch concurred, stating that "we also need a workable, permanent solution for individuals who entered our country unlawfully as children through no fault of their own and who have built their lives here."

For those children who have built their lives in the US, the threat of DACA ending is a terrifying prospect. DW spoke with activist Angelica Villalobos, for whom Tuesday's planned announcement about DACA's future hits home.

Read: US judge upholds 'sanctuary cities'

'I dont want to go to Mexico'

There was a single moment in our conversation about the program that shields her from deportation to Mexico when Angelica Villalobos, a 32-year-old mother of four from Oklahoma City, got emotional.   

That moment came when she spoke about how the fate of DACA will affect her children.    

"When Trump was elected president, the very next day my 10-year old came to me and she was crying and she said 'I don't want to go to Mexico,'" Villalobos recalled. "She has never been to Mexico." She reassured her daughter that "we are not going anywhere and we are not going to leave."

In an interview at the Washington headquarters of United We Dream, which calls itself the country's largest immigrant youth-led organization, Villalobos told DW that she knows how to deal with her situation, but is more worried about her children even though she has explained her status to them openly. Still, she said, she tries to not alarm them any more than they already are about the future of their family in the only country they've ever known - a future that ultimately is not in their hands.

Angelica Villalobos Aktivistin
Activist Angelica Villalobos: 'America is my home'Image: DW/M. Knigge

Twenty-one years in Oklahoma    

That is because while her children, who were all born in the United States, are US citizens and thus can't be sent to Mexico, that isn't true for Villalobos herself. She was born in Mexico and came to the US without documents with her mother and four siblings when she was 11.

She hasn't been back to her country of birth since, has no immediate family there anymore and knows little about life in Mexico today. What she does remember, though, is how difficult the journey across the Rio Grande was for her family.                  

"We had to cross the river over the border and I remember we did a lot of walking," she said. "We also got robbed on this side of the border right after we crossed over. It took us about a week until we got into Oklahoma."

The family settled in Oklahoma City, the state's capital and largest city, and Villalobos went first through middle school, then high school and later college there. She did not know that she was an undocumented immigrant until the day she turned 18 and told her father that she wanted to get a drivers license.    

No citizenship, no options

"I was doing all the things a regular kid is doing and when my dad told me 'you are not a legal permanent resident and can't get a license,' I didn't even know what that was," said Villalobos.

USA Präsident Barack Obama - Statement nach Entscheidung des Supreme Courts
Obama first implemented DACA in 2012Image: Reuters/C. Barria

Though she made that bombshell discovery at 18, it took a medical issue involving her daughter four years later to drive home what the lack of a legal residence status really meant. Her daughter was diagnosed with a medical condition and given a controlled prescription which required an official identification, like a driver's license, to be filled. She did not have one. "I really started to see that being undocumented was very different than being born in the US," said Villalobos.

As she began researching her situation she found out that without legal residence status her options to pursue her goals in life where very limited, she said. As an undocumented immigrant she could not even make the switch from working in a fast food restaurant to apply for a higher-paying office job. "Then I realized: I am stuck working in a fast food restaurant for many years," said Villalobos.

Hope for the future

So Villalobos did not think twice when then-President Barack Obama decided to institute DACA five years ago to remedy the situation for young undocumented immigrants. DACA was designed as a two-year renewable program that shielded eligible young undocumented immigrants from deportation and provide them with a work permit. The move came after Congress quashed his repeated efforts to pass the so-called Dream Act that would have provided a path to permanent residency for undocumented children. 

"When DACA was announced in 2012, I was ready for it," she said. "So we filled a petition to apply for DACA." The benefits of signing up for were clear and immediate for Villalobos. 

"As soon as I got DACA the first thing I did was get a driver's license and I got a better-paying job," she said. "I used to work in a fast food place making $7 an hour and right now I work as an office manager of a tire shop making $15 an hour."

Becoming an activist

But DACA did not only improve Villalobos' economic situation, it pushed her to become an advocate for her community and for immigrant rights. She volunteers as a translator for the local school district in Oklahoma City and for her local YMCA.

Donald Trump in Washington
Trump has long been critical of Obama-era immigration policiesImage: Getty Images/AFP/J. Watson

And, in what could turn out to be a bitter twist should President Trump decide to axe DACA, Villalobos even took a training class on immigration law and became accredited with the Department of Justice as a representative to assist the immigrant community.    

"I help people who seek immigration benefits and see if they are eligible for those," she said. "I worked so hard for that, I want to make sure I take advantage of that. If I didn't have DACA I wouldn't be able to do that."

Honored by her home community

For her service to the immigrant community, Villalobos received an Oklahoma Human Rights Award last year. 

The legal knowledge she has gained through her work on immigration law and the support she has from her community, Villalobos believes, has prepared her well for whatever may happen with DACA - which, she said, she always knew was only intended as a temporary fix until a better and permanent solution was found.    

"Even if I get DACA taken away I am going to continue fighting," she said. "I am not just going to let them put me in deportation proceedings just like that without giving me the opportunity to fight to stay."

When asked about the possibility of a potential breakup of her family if she might be sent back to her native Mexico should DACA end, Villalobos first mentioned the legal due process and the civil rights that must be afforded to all those affected, but then she got personal.       

"I have always been proud of my heritage and I teach my kids my culture," she said. "I have never denied that. But it doesn't mean love. America is my home. I don't see myself going back to a country I haven't been to in 21 years. This is my home. I grew up in Oklahoma City."