Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals gave its recipients hope when it was established by President Barack Obama in 2012 — a hope they are clinging to now that President Donald Trump has rescinded the policy.
DACA was put into place by the Obama administration in June 2012 as a way to allow children of immigrants who either came to the U.S. or stayed illegally to receive protection from deportation and to be eligible for a work permit for two years.
For many of the 800,000 that were accepted into the program by 2017, it became a path to sharing in the American dream or simply to provide for their families.
Earlier this month, however, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the Trump administration is ending the policy, albeit with a six-month suspension.
Since that announcement, Trump has met with Democratic leaders in Congress to work on legislation that would protect the “Dreamers” — as the young immigrants often are called in reference to the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors bill considered — but never passed, several times by Congress.
It is that bipartisan collaboration that two Fort Hays State University students are pinning their hopes on to finish their educations and pursue careers in the only country they have called home.
They are among 42 undocumented students attending FHSU this year on campus or virtually, said Taylor Kriley, director of diversity and inclusive excellence at FHSU, a position in the Office of Student Affairs overseen by Teresa Clounch, assistant vice president of student affairs and compliance.
FHSU and the Kansas Board of Regents do not require undocumented students to report if they are enrolled in DACA, Clounch said.
‘I felt powerless’
Angel Barreras was born in Tuxpan, Mexico. When he was 5, his family moved to East Los Angeles and lived with an aunt. After a year or so, his father got word of a job in Dodge City, so the family moved there for approximately a year. They moved to Leoti in 2003.
“We had some family members living in Leoti. That’s where I went to school and lived most of my life,” he said.
Katherine Hernandez-Barahona turned 7 just two days before she moved to Liberal with her mother and older sister from Sonsonate, El Salvador, also in 2003.
Her father worked in imports and exports and would travel for up to two years for work. He obtained a permit granting him temporarily protected status to work in the U.S. Because of his work, he was able to send money home, giving Hernandez-Barahona and her family a more comfortable life than most, including attending private school.
“After a couple of years, the environment in El Salvador got worse. There’s a lot of gangs around there. It’s not the best place to raise children,” she said.
Coming from a heavily populated city to Liberal was a culture shock, she said, but it was softened by the town’s large Hispanic population — almost 51 percent as of the 2010 U.S. Census.
“Even getting used to the language difference between myself and someone from Mexico was definitely a change,” she said.
“I got there in first grade to realize that the English classes that I had taken in the school I went to in El Salvador were of no use whatsoever. For the first year or two that I was in ESL classes, I kind of felt powerless,” she said.
But there were many people to help her adjust, including teachers and paras in the schools who spoke Spanish, she said.
For Barreras, it wasn’t until he was in high school when he fully realized he was an undocumented immigrant and what that would mean. Barreras started his senior year of high school in 2011, prior to Obama’s enactment of DACA.
“All my friends had the talks of going to college, what they’re going to do after graduating high school. I didn’t really have any opportunity to do that,” he said.
Without documentation, he couldn’t get a job or even a drivers license as many teenagers do.
“It made me feel bad, honestly,” he said, watching his friends prepare for college and then move away.
“It felt really weird not being able to be part of the norm,” he said.
Even though DACA began soon after his graduation in 2012, he wasn’t able to apply immediately. Instead, he worked mostly odd jobs for area farmers.
“I dealt with depression for awhile,” he said. “I was stuck in at a dead-end job, not knowing what my future has to offer.”
That was the situation Hernandez-Barahona saw her older sister in. Hernandez-Barahona started high school two years before DACA as her sister was starting community college with the dream of becoming a nurse.
“We have pictures of my sister at 7 years old in a nursing outfit for Halloween. That’s what she wanted to be her entire life,” Hernandez-Barahona said.
But as an undocumented student, she couldn’t apply to nursing school and had to pass on scholarships whose applications required a Social Security number.
“It was discouraging for me as a high school student to see that,” she said.
She said she had the feeling she would end up the same way, but her mother didn’t want her or her sister to give up.
“My mom is very big on the fact that this country does provide opportunities, there is a better life here,” she said. “Even if we can’t get the degree that we want or have the career that we want, the opportunities in this country are astronomically so much better than so many other places. This is a great place to be.”
So her sister went to community college and earned an associate’s degree, and Hernandez-Barahona joined clubs and played sports to help prepare for college in her freshman and sophomore years.
DACA changed everything
Then DACA came and changed everything for them, she said. They were able to apply in the first round of applications and were accepted.
Her sister did go on to nursing school and now works as an RN, and Hernandez-Barahona graduated second in her high school class and received a scholarship to FHSU.
“If I hadn’t tried those first two years that I was an undocumented (high school) student, my outcome would be different. I might not be going to Hays, I might not be on the scholarship I’m on now,” she said.
DACA changed Barreras’ life, too, he said. He no longer worked dead-end, odd jobs, and soon decided to take the ACT test. His application to FHSU was accepted, and he received the Access to Academic Opportunity Grant, an award for students new to the campus.
Both Barreras and Hernandez-Barahona said their parents also help with their school expenses, and they realize that offers them privileges other DACA enrollees don’t have.
“My parents are able to work, and they can provide for themselves,” Barreras said. “But there’s some families who only the DACA recipients are able to work and provide for their families.”
For Hernandez-Barahona, DACA also allowed her and her sister the ability to return to El Salvador to visit her ailing grandmother in February. Under DACA’s advance parole, travel abroad is allowed for educational, employment or humanitarian reasons. It’s something that must be applied for, however, and it’s not an easy process.
“That advance parole application was another $500 each,” she said. “If they feel like it’s not urgent enough for you to leave the country, it’s often denied and that $500 is lost.
“It was a six-month waiting period for us to get those applications back.”
Hernandez-Barahona and Barreras are juniors at FHSU. Barreras is studying psychology, but hasn’t decided his exact career path yet. He works part-time at Tiger Book Shop, 509 W. Seventh.
Hernandez-Barahona majors in radiologic technology and minors in Spanish. She has given presentations and training on campus, including to faculty and staff, about DACA, and this year works as the community relations director for Student Government Association.
And for both, their enrollment in DACA expires just months before they should graduate.
‘Maybe it’s the push they need’
Trump’s decision to rescind DACA is frustrating, they both said.
“At first I was really upset,” Barreras said. “I just couldn’t comprehend why he would do that to so many children who came here without a say. Their parents brought them here to better their lives.”
But seeing all the support for DACA recipients in the weeks since Sessions’ announcement has given both of them hope.
“It made me feel a lot better about the situation just knowing that there’s people out there working for us. They’re not just going to leave us out in the cold,” Barreras said.
Hernandez-Barahona said she has mixed feelings, though.
“Congress has been sitting on this for more than a decade,” she said. “When’s the last time they came together for immigration reform?
“Then another part of me says, ‘Maybe this is the push. Maybe this is one of those blessings in disguise, the push that they need,’ ” she said.
Barreras said he has not given much thought to what would happened if he is not able to renew his enrollment or if a new plan doesn’t come to fruition.
“If they do decide to not bring it back, I’ve just wasted three years of my life going to school,” Barreras said.
Hernandez-Barahona said she is talking with her parents about plans, but for now, they have decided to see what happens.
She also said she has no hard feelings toward Trump for ending DACA.
“I’m not placing blame on him. He’s doing as he sees best. I can’t completely agree that’s what I see is best,” she said. “We are trying to take this in the most positive light we can.”
Hernandez-Barahona and Barreras both said they hope people see DACA recipients positively, too.
“We’re good people. We’re here to better ourselves. We’re here to make a better life for not only us but our families,” Barreras said.
“DACA students acknowledge we have been given an opportunity, and we do acknowledge it was given by this country,” Hernandez-Barahona said.
“We are thankful for this country. We do consider ourselves to be Americans. We do experience that love and patriotism for this country.”