St. Louis Dreamers Hope for a Future in the U.S. Trump Doesn't Make That Easy

Areli Reyes, a student at St. Louis Community College-Forest Park, is hoping for a miracle.
Areli Reyes, a student at St. Louis Community College-Forest Park, is hoping for a miracle. ZIA NIZAMI

Sometimes it all gets to be too much for Areli Reyes, 23.

Reyes, a student at St. Louis Community College-Forest Park, worries about her future. She wonders about her career path — human resources — but also about other things her classmates do not. Namely, how long will she and her younger brother be allowed to live in America?

Reyes and her brother are part of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which provides temporary residency for young people who were brought to the U.S. illegally. While President Donald Trump tried to kill the program in September 2017, it clings to life thanks to a series of federal court injunctions.

And so Reyes worries. Another question that haunts her: How long will her parents, who migrated to America from rural Mexico in 2004, and who lack any legal protections, be allowed to remain under a White House pursuing a hardline campaign against brown-skinned immigrants?

Finally, Reyes wonders, will her activism on behalf of herself and other DACA recipients make her a target for Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers inclined to muzzle an inconveniently loud voice?

One night last October the escalating weight of it all — the stockpiled worries, the depressing what-if scenarios — collapsed inward. That was when Reyes was admitted to a local hospital because of intense anxiety. She stayed there overnight.

"They told me I was stressing out too much," she says. "I think I was just thinking about my family and then myself. And then other people I know. And just being an activist takes a toll on you."

Reyes is one of about 3,500 Missouri residents who work and go to school under the DACA program. DACA recipients are nicknamed "Dreamers" after the DREAM Act, a proposed law that would have created a pathway to legal status for undocumented minors. Congress failed to pass it.

Around 11 million undocumented immigrants live in America. DACA was devised to help a small slice of them — about 800,000. The program applies to undocumented residents who were no older than age 31 on June 15, 2012, arrived in the U.S. before their sixteenth birthdays and continuously lived in America since at least June 15, 2007.

The Obama administration crafted it in 2012 as a temporary fix to allow young undocumented residents to work jobs, pay taxes and go to school legally. Nearly 40 percent of Dreamers are high school or college students. Until Congress devises a permanent solution, their future remains in limbo.

Dreamers usually try to fly under the radar. They work, go to school, take care of their families and plan their futures as best they can. All the while, they wonder in the back of their minds how long they and their loved ones will be allowed to remain in the land they call home.

More than a few Dreamers have reached the conclusion that, given the white nationalist winds blowing through Congress and the White House, the current political climate could prevent them from ever receiving permanent legal status to reside in America, much less full citizenship. Dreamers try to make their peace with that. But it is hard, damn hard.

A few years ago Reyes decided to speak out, to try to change the minds of both the public and of lawmakers regarding the Dreamers' status.

"I think it's looking at who your allies are and looking at the people saying that they do support you," Reyes says. "Looking at all those people, the best way is advocacy. That's what I learned with my activism, that's how we can get things passed."

She has become a fixture at vigils protesting government treatment of undocumented St. Louis families. She is active in the St. Louis sanctuary church movement, which now includes three houses of worship, including Maplewood's Christ Church, where Honduras native Alex Garcia has taken refuge for the past eighteen months.

This past December, Reyes also joined a group of activists that traveled to the U.S.'s southern border. In California and Texas, she checked on the status of asylum seekers who had fled Central America because of violence and poverty. She helped one group look for migrants who went missing, and are feared dead, while attempting to cross the desert from Mexico into Texas. In San Diego, she helped another group to collect toys for migrant kids staying in two shelters in Tijuana — one for families and the other for gay and lesbian migrants.

"There's a lot of chaos down there," she says.

Reyes says she chose to speak up for St. Louis Dreamers after her senior year at University City High School, as she prepared for college. Because of her undocumented status, financial aid from state and federal sources wasn't available.

"And it just shocked me that I couldn't really, didn't have anyone to rely on to tell me I could attend college," she says. "I had a plan, right? I was going to go two years to Forest Park, then graduate, then transfer to a four-year university."

The Scholarship Foundation, in St. Louis, "really helped me because they were the first few people who welcomed undocumented or DACA recipients to their scholarship program," she says. "And I was able to learn more about other issues that didn't affect me. But we're kind of in a similar situation; our main goal was to get a higher education. So that's what made me come out and really say, 'I'm one person and there's other people out here.'"

One of those people sits next to Reyes on a couch in the living room of their house outside University City — her mother, Maria, 45.

Maria, who asked that her last name not be used, cleans houses for a living. Fifteen years ago she crossed into the U.S. from Mexico, after a perilous journey traveling north through the desert. She paid the man who led her across the border $3,000. Once in Arizona, masked men robbed members of her group at gunpoint, she said.

Maria grew up in a rural area about two hours south of Mexico City. She was one of 23 children in a family that lived in a house made from cardboard. Maria remains upbeat about her future, though Trump's anti-immigrant rhetoric frightens her, she says.

With her daughter acting as translator, Maria says, "I'm just hopeful another president will come and help us."

Areli Reyes' mother, Maria, grasps her rosary. - ZIA NIZAMI
Areli Reyes' mother, Maria, grasps her rosary.

To live as a Dreamer means to live in a state of fallbacks, contingency plans, workarounds.

Originally, Reyes had gone to Forest Park to study nursing. But then she learned that, because she lacks permanent legal status, she could not get a nursing license in Missouri. That's when she moved on to human resources.

Juan Carlos Valladares-Hernandez, 25, graduated from Ritenour High School in 2012. He started pre-med studies in the fall of 2017 at the nearby University of Missouri-St. Louis. But UMSL became unaffordable because the school charged him the same rate as non-resident students — $930 per credit hour instead of $345, the rate for residents.

Valladares-Hernandez transferred to Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, which is more affordable since it charges in-state tuition rates through a reciprocity agreement between Missouri and Illinois.

Now planning to graduate with a degree in biology in December, Valladares-Hernandez has the grades and the test scores for medical school but is not sure how he's going to pay for it. Because he is not a fully legal resident of the U.S., he cannot access federal or state loan and grant programs.

"Getting into medical school is already hard enough," he says. "And then putting that additional burden of not having state or the government aid makes it even harder."

And even if he figures out how to pay for it, there's the matter of finding a job. He hopes one day to become an emergency room physician, but that could prove tricky if DACA — which is only guaranteed to exist for one more year after the U.S. Supreme Court rejected a review of it in January — ends by the time he graduates medical school.

"Where would I practice residency?" he says. "Because to get into residency you need to legally work. If that protection is no longer valid, then all this hard work I'm doing now is potentially down the drain until they do something."

For DACA recipient Eric Reyes (no relation to Areli Reyes), 23, getting loans for a car or a house is more complicated because of his lack of permanent legal status. He also feels intense pressure not to screw up on the job or even get a speeding ticket. Job loss or a minor criminal charge could mean being dropped from the DACA program, thereby risking deportation.

"Every single day I wake up and try to do the best I can that day," says Reyes, who works as a cloud computing specialist for a Chesterfield tech company. "Because I have to ... you have to put an effort into doing things that won't put you in danger, won't put you at risk of them saying you are not fit to be here in the U.S."

When DACA began in 2012, it was greeted with relief, says Reyes. For the first time, young people brought to America could work legally, get driver's licenses and pay taxes.

"But it was also a very risky thing," he says. "Because before you were in the shadows and no one really knew where you were, no one knew where you lived. And now with DACA, every time you renew your permit you have to update your household, update your work, update every single detail. You run the risk because they have all your info. Every time you're up for renewal, you're left guessing, 'What if they don't renew it for some reason?'"

Valladares-Hernandez, like the other Dreamers interviewed for this story, considers self-deportation to Mexico an unrealistic option.

He arrived in the U.S. with his parents at five. This is the only home he has ever really known.

Returning to Mexico "would pretty much put my whole life on hold," he says. "My relationships formed here would pretty much be gone. I would pretty much have to start a new life."

Nicole Cortes, co-director and attorney for the Migrant and Community Action Project in St. Louis, says that many DACA recipients she works with deal with the uncertainty surrounding their lives through a form of denial.

"[Dreamers think], 'I don't want to dwell every day that my future is uncertain,'" Cortes says. "'I'm going to continue to study, to go to work.' I don't think it's a comfortable psychological place to be. It's tough and it wears on people, especially in the last year."

Under the policies of the Trump administration, Dreamers are weighing the risks and benefits of remaining in the program, Cortes says.

"It was a bait and switch, right?" she says. "We induced people to give this information, now we pulled it from them, and in doing so, it seems really unjust. Yeah, I think people are really scared."

Still, even if DACA were suddenly shut down and immigration officials began targeting Dreamers, the agency "does not have the resources to deport anywhere near the number of DACA recipients," Cortes says. "It would be impossible even if they decided to focus on DACA recipients to remove them in any sort of efficient way."

Still, for Dreamers, the program's ending is a constant source of anxiety, Cortes says.

"Realistically what they're thinking about is, 'What if I have to go back into the shadows?'" she says. "'What if all of a sudden I can't work to pay my tuition bill? When my DACA expires, what is it going to look like going back into the shadows?' It's draining. Can you imagine how psychologically draining that is?"

Dreamers stand on the center of a basic question at this moment in the United States: Do immigrants add to the nation's strength, or do they subtract from it?

That question, in turn, folds into an even bigger, more fundamental one posed recently by conservative columnist Gerald Seib. In writing about President Donald Trump's demand for a border wall, Seib observed that the debate over it "has crystallized a deep cultural divide, between those happy with the evolving face of America, and those alarmed by it."

Trump surfed into the White House in 2016 on a wave of racial resentment and anti-immigrant animus. It was no coincidence that when he announced his candidacy for president, in June 2015, he took aim at Mexico, which he claimed was "sending people that have lots of problems ... they're bringing drugs. They're bringing crime. They're rapists." He added, "And some, I assume, are good people."

In promoting the lie that Mexico was sending violent criminals to the United States, Trump was merely repeating falsehoods propagated earlier by Ann Coulter, the right-wing author and pundit who has emerged as one of the most strident foes of immigration across America's southern border.

In her book Adios, America: The Left's Plan to Turn Our Country Into a Third World Hellhole, published just a few weeks before Trump's announcement that he was running for president, Coulter refers repeatedly to how America's main immigrant groups express a "gusto for gang rape, incest and child rape."

Elsewhere in her book, Coulter writes, "A sixteen-year-old girl at her homecoming dance was gang-raped and left for dead because the Democrats need more voters. We could save a lot of soul-searching about our violent culture if journalists didn't hide the fact that gang rapes are generally committed by people who are not from our culture."

Such attacks on immigrants, whether DACA recipients or refugees, stem from long-entrenched ideas about white identity, says Sara John, executive director and program coordinator for the St. Louis Interfaith Committee on Latin America.

"These are all part of a larger agenda that is seeking to preserve a white supremacist identity for our country," says John, a leader of the St. Louis church sanctuary movement. "And I think that is appalling and contrary to majority values of people of faith and good will in our country."

It is no coincidence that critics of immigration focus on people from Mexico and Central America, John says.

"They're brown people," John says. "Brown people that also bring brown families and brown parents. If you're afraid of white somehow becoming less important, less supreme, then your action would be to stop any possibility that could lead to other cultures, right?"

America's anti-immigration lobby is funded by billionaires like Robert Mercer, a major Trump backer, and well-funded foundations with links to the Trump White House.

One of the most powerful groups is the Federation for American Immigration Reform, or FAIR. After Trump announced he was ending DACA, FAIR issued a statement called "The DACA Myth." The article slammed DACA as "unconstitutional" and falsely claimed many DACA recipients had lost their status because of violent assaults, were not really children when they came to the U.S. and did not hail from nations suffering from poverty or violence.

"The DACA program was illegal," FAIR argued. "But it was also bad from a long-term policy perspective. Rewarding people who violate our laws only encourages more people to become lawbreakers. Accordingly, President Trump's decision to cancel the program is a welcome one."

Yet statistics show that American voters support legislation to allow Dreamers to stay in America.

An April 2017 survey of registered voters found that 78 percent support giving Dreamers the chance to stay permanently in America, including 73 percent of Trump voters. Only 14 percent of all voters, including 23 percent of Trump supporters, believe Dreamers should be deported, according to the Washington Center for American Progress.

Even Trump and his advisers have indirectly acknowledged that Dreamers and other protected immigrant groups pose little threat to public safety.

In late January, in a bid to end what turned out to be a 35-day partial federal government shutdown, Trump offered three years' protection for Dreamers and others covered under the "temporary protected status" program.

Democrat leaders in Congress rejected the offer because it failed to provide a permanent solution.

Juan Carlos Valladares-Hernandez is a pre-med student at SIUE. - ZIA NIZAMI
Juan Carlos Valladares-Hernandez is a pre-med student at SIUE.

Dreamers contribute a lot financially to both Missouri and the nation, studies show.

A 2017 survey by the Center for American Progress found that ending DACA would cost Missouri nearly $210 million in annual gross domestic product, while nationwide its termination would cost more than $460 billion over ten years. And the 1.3 million young undocumented immigrants who are enrolled or eligible for DACA contribute about $2 billion a year in state and local taxes, according to the Institute of Taxation and Economic Policy.

Nearly 80 percent of DACA permit holders are employed. Yet despite their tax contributions, Dreamers are not necessarily eligible for the benefits their money pays into, such as the Affordable Care Act or Medicaid.

"By rescinding DACA, the Trump administration will deprive our nation of their talent, energy and skills," wrote Donald Kerwin, executive director of the Center for Migration Studies. "It seeks to remove many future U.S. leaders and some of the nation's brightest current leaders as well."

DACA recipients add value in many ways, says Eric Reyes. He points out that he is the only fluent Spanish speaker at the IT company where he works.

"In my current position, I speak two languages," he says. "So my company actually benefits from me."

Valladares-Hernandez believes that Dreamers can contribute a lot to America just through their grit and intense work ethic.

"I like to believe that I'm just as American as my fellow co-workers or my fellow peers," he says. "We have the same potential if not even more because we come from the same community that's very hardworking. ... It's just a community-wide Latino thing. We're hard workers because we know where we come from, and that's what drives their hard work ... I believe that's how it is in a lot of families I know."

For Dreamers, the operative word is hope. They have no rational reason to believe Congress will provide a permanent fix for their predicament. Yet perhaps because hope is all they have, they cling to it.

Valladares-Hernandez says he hopes that a year from now he will be applying to medical school and "hopefully at that time Congress will come up with a more permanent solution to this DACA issue, and maybe have a more definitive answer, rather than Band-Aiding it with minor fixes, and we have more certainty of a future."

In the meantime, he tries not to stress. There's only so much he can control, he says.

"I just go with the flow," he says. "I have a plan. Follow it. I might get derailed from it, but you know I have a feeling that things will eventually fall into place. I might have to jump through more hoops but eventually [I'll] steer back into the right direction."

Mike Fitzgerald, a St. Louis writer, can be reached at [email protected]

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