A fierce debate is taking place across the country right now: What to do about immigrants who came here illegally as children. Up until recently, they qualified for a program called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, which protects them from deportation. But the Trump administration rescinded that Obama-era rule and Congress is debating what will take its place.
We talked to three people affected by that debate right here in the Mountain West.
Colorado Springs, Colorado
Monica Perez was sure that by this time, she’d be in the Air Force. Back in high school, she’d enrolled in junior ROTC and learned about a plane called a C-130.
“When I first started to learn about the planes, I was like, ‘I want to be a pilot so bad,’” she says.
She joined junior ROTC. She felt proud wearing her uniform to school every Tuesday, especially the sound of her medals clinking together as she walked down the hallways. But when she met with recruitment officers her junior year, they told her she couldn’t enlist.
“Reality hit,” says Perez. “You realize that there's a lot of things that you aren't able to do because of a lack of status.”
Perez, who is 20, has lived in Colorado Springs since her family moved here illegally from Mexico when she was just a few months old. As a DACA recipient, she can study and work in the U.S. legally. She pays taxes, but she can’t vote. And it’s difficult to enlist in the military, without specific medical or linguistic skills.
But she still has more than a decade before she hits the Air Force age limit for enlistment, so Perez hasn’t given up yet. “My dream could still be fulfilled. It doesn't end there,” she says.
Meanwhile, Perez has increasingly advocated for others in her position. She and other DACA recipients started the Colorado Springs Dream Team, to raise awareness about undocumented people. Perez interns with the nonprofit Juntos for Education, which aims to raise the number of undocumented and underprivileged students attending college. And she’s flown to Washington to pressure politicians about an ever-elusive Dream Act that could someday allow people like her a path to permanent legal status.
Her political work has sparked a new dream: to one day run for Congress.
“There's people who like to stay apolitical, but when you're undocumented your whole existence is kind of political,” she says. You can’t be a bystander, she adds, “because your life is basically on the line.”
Especially right now. Perez isn’t sure what will happen when her DACA permit expires in 2019 -- if she’ll even be able to remain in her hometown, or if she might get deported to a country she doesn’t even remember.
While Colorado has the most DACA recipients in the Mountain West, Montana has the fewest. There are less than 80 living here, including 28-year-old Nereyda Calero.
“I feel kinda lonely sometimes,” she says. “I only know seven more DACA recipients here.”
Calero is sitting at a picnic table in Missoula watching her two sons play on a merry-go-round. She was eight years old when she came to the U.S. from Mexico 20 years ago. But her sons were born here in the U.S.
Calero, a single mom, says if she gets deported she would take her sons with her.
“They would have to be forced out of the U.S. because there’s no way I’m leaving them here,” she says. “It’s so scary just to think about it because I’m not going to be able to give them what they need.”
Calero is a health care assistant at a hospital in town. She also helps organize a Spanish language mass for the community every month.
“I just pray to God that this doesn’t happen and we get something resolved and we can stay her,” she says. “I know He will always be with us but I’m still afraid.”
Calero’s DACA permit expires in June of next year.
Salt Lake City, Utah
Edison Suasnavas is praying, too. He moved from Ecuador to join his family in Utah when he was 13. He’s 31 now and works in a biomedical lab.
He loves his job, he says, “because it lets me give back to people that don't even know.”
Suasnavas tests DNA for mutations that flag leukemia and other deadly cancers. He’s one of nearly 10,000 Utahns who will lose the right to work if DACA lapses.
“And, as you can imagine, everyone at my job is kind of scared because they have invested not only a lot of training but a lot of time, a lot of resources into me to become what I am now,” says Suasnavas.
And he has a family to think about, too. His wife is a paralegal who also has DACA status, and they have a 2-year-old, Mia.
“The fear that I don't want my daughter to see me get deported is making me try to immigrate to a different country that will take my skills,” says Suasnavas. Skills, he adds, that he learned in the U.S.
He says he’s grateful that churches are pressing for a DACA solution, including the Mormon Church that he belongs to.
“That tells me that God is with us,” he says.
And he keeps praying. He hopes Washington will answer his prayers before the DACA program is set to expire March 5.