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Still chasing the dream: DACA recipients react to recent developments

Duke students went to Washington, D.C., in November 2019 to join a rally in support of DACA.
Duke students went to Washington, D.C., in November 2019 to join a rally in support of DACA.

Amid new policies, actions and court decisions, life has been uncertain for many undocumented students for the past few years.

Members of the Duke community spoke to The Chronicle about their experiences and what previous policy changes could mean for the future of DACA activism.

‘People forget that we’re human, too’

Senior Salvador Chavero Arellano was born in Mexico, but his sisters were born in the United States. He came to the United States in 2000, when he was one-and-a-half years old. He didn’t learn of his undocumented status until he was around eight, when he begged his parents to let him travel to Mexico with his sisters.

“After some time, they actually sat me down and explained very briefly—the best way you possibly could to an eight- or nine-year-old—what it means to be without papers,” he said.

The concept didn’t hit Chavero until he was around 13, when former President Barack Obama created the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which offers renewable two-year periods of relief from deportation and work permits to undocumented individuals who came to the United States as children. 

Chavero would be able to apply when he turned 15.

“I was really excited because I thought, ‘Wow, my future could actually be different,’” he told The Chronicle.

For a while, Chavero wasn’t sure he would even attend college and “never thought” he would be at Duke. This was until he received the Golden Door Scholarship his senior year of high school, which helps undocumented students afford a college education.

He intended to study at Wake Forest University, one of the scholarship’s top partner schools, and even forgot that he applied to Duke.

“The day the application was due, my mom was like, ‘Did you apply to that school in Durham that people say is really good?’ The application asked me if I wanted to apply for Trinity or Pratt, and I just clicked Trinity because it was the first option,” he said.

However, he fell in love with Duke during Latino Student Recruitment Weekend.

“I knew it was going to be a way that I would be able to put myself out there in the world,” he explained. “Given my status, I had so many barriers. All of that combined and finishing as valedictorian in my high school was a huge motivator.”

Chavero said that his efforts in high school to become valedictorian and make a name for himself were not for a medal—in fact, he doesn’t even know where his medal is.

“The only reason I wanted it was because I knew it would make me very competitive for those maybe one to two percent of scholarships available to people like me,” he said.

In 2017, North Carolina Senator Thom Tillis proposed the SUCCEED Act, which would award green card status for undocumented students based on merit. Chavero called the act the “green card Hunger Games,” noting that having to compete against each other only added to the stress of trying to get legalized.

“People will always say, ‘Oh, they shouldn’t send you back to Mexico because you’re so smart and you do so much for this country,’” Chavero explained. “And while yes, that’s great, thank you, there are also people that do so well or are such good people and work so hard but aren’t a part of this narrative that everyone wants the perfect undocumented person to be.”

Rebecca Ewing, lecturing fellow of romantic studies, said that advocacy should focus on all undocumented individuals in America, not just those in academia.

“If you're only advocating for reform or legalization of status for students who are undocumented, you're ignoring all the sacrifices and challenges that their parents face who brought them here,” Ewing said. ”I think we need to move beyond just celebrating students. They deserve their celebration, but I think it's also important to just validate people generally who are living in this country and contributing, regardless of how they got here.”

She also noted that families with mixed statuses, with some members being citizens and others holding DACA status, can experience tensions, especially because “certain people that have status are afforded more rights than others.” 

Ana Ramirez, Trinity ‘20, was born in Ecuador and came to the United States in 2001. She lives in South Florida with two sisters, one of whom has DACA status and the other of whom has citizenship. For most of her life, Ramirez’ parents didn’t tell her of her undocumented status in order to protect her and “not put that burden on [her].” However, when applying for colleges and her license, it came to light.

She feels that “reducing [undocumented students] to their accomplishments” is an incredibly dehumanizing experience.

“Even in these past couple of years with rescinding DACA and everything like that, there’s been the same discourse: We shouldn’t get rid of DACA because, ‘Oh, but look at all these students at these amazing colleges, they’re such great workers,’” Ramirez explained. “It is really dehumanizing just to make somebody what their efforts can be versus, well, their humanity.”

“People forget that we're human, too,” said Chavero.

Define American

Chavero arrived in Durham to begin his freshman year at Duke in August 2017. Two weeks later, on Sept. 5, the Trump administration rescinded DACA.

“It was probably one of the worst feelings I’ve ever had because I had such a sense of security and it was just stripped away,” Chavero said.

Duke quickly reached out to Chavero and other undocumented students and expressed its commitment to protecting them, and the University advocated for the protection of DACA. President Vincent Price issued a statement in support of the program and Duke signed amicus briefs in court. 

Chavero was part of the first class at Duke where undocumented students were considered domestic rather than international students. 

“It was a huge push from people that I met at Duke and my predecessors who have done so much work to really make the University treat us like we’re domestic and help us out,” he said.

Ramirez said that following the Trump administration’s attempt to revoke DACA in 2017, she felt an immediate need to create “some sort of support” for undocumented students at Duke.

She and Axel Herrera-Ramos, Trinity ‘20, co-founded Duke’s chapter of Define American that same year.

The organization aims to start conversations about what it really means to be an American citizen, according to Ewing. She served as the first faculty advisor for Duke’s chapter and has worked on several immigration cases as an attorney.

“We have a number of people living in this country who have lived here the large majority of their lives and consider themselves citizens in their communities, even if they're not legal citizens, and I think their community members would consider them citizens as well,” Ewing said. “But because they don't have a legal document that says that they're American, they are sort of kept out of a lot of opportunities.”

Ramirez said that Define American has put their “heart and soul” into advocating for immigrant students and members of the community. 

Duke hosted the annual Define American Chapters Summit in 2018, an event that Ewing recalled as being particularly exciting for her and many students, despite the fact that she was unable to attend.

Saved by the Supreme Court?

For the next few years, Chavero and Ramirez joined in activist efforts to defend DACA students across the country. Last November, they attended a rally in Washington, D.C., with several friends, and Chavero himself has lobbied in Capitol Hill for the past three summers. 

Ramirez described the rally as “a way to not only show our support to each other, but also to show our support to the immigrant community of Duke and Durham.”

She added that activism can feel “helpless” sometimes, feeling like she “can’t do anything that can change everything tomorrow.”

But “everything is with time,” she said. 

She and other Dreamers saw some of their efforts pay off in June, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of DACA. The court, led by Chief Justice John Roberts, blocked the Trump administration’s 2017 effort to dismantle the program , noting that the administration has failed to provide “a reasoned explanation for its action.”

Chavero acknowledged the ruling as a “win, but not the end victory.” Though the court rejected the way that Trump tried to end the program, the administration still has the power to try again and indicated that they will.

Undocumented students who needed to renew their two-year deferred action now had the opportunity to do so. Chavero, who is set to graduate next May, would now be able to finish his college career, with his most recent renewal covering him through 2022.

Another step backwards

The celebrations didn’t last long.

Chad Wolf, acting secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, wrote in a July 28 memo that DHS would not review any new DACA applications. Any of the current 640,000 DACA recipients who wish to renew their protections can only do so for a 12-month period instead of for two years.

Chavero said that getting a renewal application approved can take several months—he waited more than half a year for his first renewal. While his permit is still valid until January 2022, he’ll have to go back around August of next year to get his one-year renewal approved by January. 

The Trump administration has launched a “comprehensive review” of DACA, rather than immediately moving again to end it. Wolf wrote in the memo that DACA “presents serious policy concerns that may warrant its full rescission.”

Chaveo said that the Trump administration’s actions have left him feeling confused, though he is not surprised by the decision.

“We have a president who initially said he doesn’t want us here and he wants to get rid of DACA. Then, during the Supreme Court case, he said ‘I’m going to win,’ and then when he lost, he said, ‘Okay, now we’re going to get rid of it.’ Then he says ‘No, we’re actually going to help them out––I’m going to provide a pathway to citizenship, we’re going to do everything for them.’ And now they're doing this,” he said. 

He believes that Trump’s actions were “purely political,” noting that the upcoming November election might be forcing Trump to please his voters.

“I think he’s trying to do something that would motivate his base because [getting rid of DACA] was one of his promises on day one, and he hasn’t been able to do that,” Chavero said. “He hasn’t been able to build a wall. He hasn’t been able to do a lot of the things that he said he was going to do.”

The future of activism

Chavero and his friends have lived in a “state of limbo” for three years, and he noted that their lives continue to remain in the hands of the courts. In order to achieve an end victory, he thinks they need to continue to push for permanent changes, such as allowing new applications from individuals who have never had DACA status and advance parole, which allows DACA recipients to travel outside of the country.

But speaking up is sometimes difficult, he said, for DACA recipients. 

“Undocumented students want our voices to be heard, but sometimes we don’t want our faces to be seen,” Chavero explained.

He said he hopes Duke will continue to let incoming first-years know about the resources they offer, as many may be afraid to reach out due to fears of having their statuses revealed. Chavero took the initiative himself to ask Duke for assistance paying legal and application fees, and the University was able to do so.

Ramirez echoed Chavero’s sentiments, saying that the “number one thing [Duke] can do is listen to the students.” She worked with Define American to create a training program for Duke faculty, where they would learn how to interact with undocumented students.

“I think it's really important for administration to be very much vocal about their support for students, because there's a handful of students who disclose their status and people go and go out and advocate, but they don’t have to,” Ramirez explained. “There's also other students who, you know, prefer to stay out of the limelight. And I think for them as well, it's just so important to hear that the University does support them and does want to help them in any way that they can and in every way that they can.”

Ewing also said that she admires the strength of the Define American students with which she worked.

“I'm just always impressed by students' resilience and ability to overcome obstacles and hardships,” she said. “It's really difficult to be undocumented, and it's even more difficult to study when undocumented because you don't know after you get your degree if you'll be able to work or not, and sort of where you're going to be, which is really disorienting.”

Chavero saw his paternal grandmother for the first time in 2015, when he visited Mexico under advance parole. He fears not being able to reenter the United States if he visits again, but he also feels that if he doesn’t go, he’ll regret it for the rest of his life.

He also feels that many Americans take the ability to travel abroad for granted, adding that many people are shocked when they learn DACA recipients can’t leave the country.

“It’s kind of ironic that we’re locked in within America’s borders,” he said. “We’re so enclosed in this country that’s supposedly so free.”

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