‘America is all we know’: As Congress waffles on finding a DACA solution, undocumented youth grow fearful

March 22, 2018 /

By Alejandra Alberto

Maria Mancilla was 3-years-old when she came to the United States.

She can’t remember anything about her birthplace, Apatzingan, Mexico — not the sweltering, year-round heat that earned the valley it’s located in the nickname “Tierra Caliente,” or the cartel violence that plagues residents in the Michoacan state.

But if Congress chooses to rescind the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program it’s where Mancilla could end up returning.

It’s a home she has never known.

“To those who wish to repeal DACA, think about what it would be like to live your whole life in one country, and then be sent back to another country that you know nothing about. Think about how scary it is to be taken away from your family, your daily routines, and your own home,” Mancilla, a 20-year-old DACA recipient from Kern County said. “You would hurt a lot of people, you would hurt a lot of families. Just have some compassion.”

Six years ago, President Barack Obama gave hope to more than 800,000 young undocumented immigrants when, by executive order, he created the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.

It provided a safe haven to those brought to the country illegally as children, granting them the rights to live, study and work in the United States.

But President Donald Trump, determined to make good on a campaign promise, said he would end the program March 5 if Congress didn’t develop a legislative fix — something a federal judge ruled was illegal because it was based on a “flawed legal premise that the agency lacked authority to implement DACA.”

Those talks in Congress haven’t produced a solution for DACA, either.

Legislators were expected to address DACA ahead of a Friday funding deadline to avoid a government shutdown, however initial reports indicate that a massive $1.3 trillion spending package released Wednesday does not include mention of the program.

Meanwhile, thousands of people have been left on edge — including 15,000 DACA recipients in Kern County, whose futures are murky during a time of extreme uncertainty for immigrants in California.

They are known as “Dreamers” — a moniker they adopted after the failed DREAM Act legislation of 2001, which would have granted citizenship to thousands of immigrants brought to the United States as children.

Many lived blindly unaware of their citizenship statuses until they were old enough to drive, but couldn’t get a license because they lacked social security numbers and U.S. birth certificates.

For Emmanuel Henriquez, a Bakersfield College sophomore, it was even earlier. He found out in middle school that he was born in Jalisco, Mexico.

His parents explained to him again and again the difficulties he would face because he was born in another country, and how much harder he would have to work because of it.

That hard work started as a child, when he woke early each day to help his parents pick fruits and vegetables in the fields. Things haven’t changed much since then. He can’t secure financial aid for college as easily as U.S. citizens might, so the hard work continues. He’s taken up two jobs while balancing classes.

“There’s days that I don’t get sleep trying to get everything done, but it’s harder when you don’t have the financial help to go to college like others do,” Henriquez said. He pushes forward, however, “to show the world that my parents’ sacrifices were worth it.”

And despite the now infamous rhetoric of President Trump, all Mexicans are not “rapists and drug dealers,” Henriquez said. “We are all here to work hard and better ourselves.”

He’s the first in his family to attend college and hopes to someday graduate with a degree and open his own small business — something made possible by DACA.

That program gave Henriquez hope, he said.

“[Before DACA], I always feared leaving my house and not being able to come back to see my family, or even worse, have them taken away from me,” Henriquez said. “It was a feeling I wouldn’t want to wish on anyone.”

That’s why he said he’s hoping for a solution that provides a pathway to citizenship for recipients. Still, he knows that nothing is certain.

“Whether we are wanted or not in America, at the end of the day, America is all we know,” Henriquez said.

Likewise, Mancilla is pulling for a legislative fix that would keep her in the only country she has ever called home. Nationality has more to do than where you were born, she said.

“I am just like everybody else. I speak English just the same. I know the culture. I was raised here,” Mancilla said. “I was just born in a different country.”