Eddie Albarran recalls being nervous — but also very determined — as he waited to address about 60 people gathered outside the St. Louis office of U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill last month.
Albarran, who grew up in St. Louis, was about to acknowledge publicly a fact of his life that he usually keeps to himself: He is one of nearly 700,000 young immigrants who have temporary protection from deportation under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. The Obama administration created the DACA policy in 2012 for children who were brought to the United States illegally by their parents.
Albarran, 22, says DACA changed his life. The program granted him a temporary work permit and enabled him to obtain a driver’s license and Social Security number. He found a job and enrolled in college. He though he was making progress.
But that changed on Sept. 5, the day Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the Trump administration's decision to rescind DACA. The program will end on March 5, 2018.
Albarran immediately began to worry about what the decision would mean to his family. And he planned to attend a rally the next day that was being organized by local DACA advocates.
“I should be next to my brothers, next to my sisters,’’ he said. “Without becoming one and fighting together, no change is ever going to happen. So I decided to join them — not out of fear but about educating people around us on what DACA is and how it has let us contribute to the United States.’’
So on a warm Wednesday afternoon, Albarran stood with the group outside the Missouri Democrat’s office on Delmar Boulevard. They waved hand-lettered signs that said “Save DACA” and “We All Belong Here” and listened to young immigrants, most of them college students, share their stories.
When it was his turn to speak, Albarran read from his cellphone a statement that he had prepared.
“I, Eddie Daniel Albarran, am here today to fight for DACA,’’ he said into a megaphone that helped boost his words above the din of passing traffic and horns honking in support.
“I give you my whole name to let you know I'm not afraid,’’ he continued. “And I will not take two steps back into the shadows where I once hid.”
The group cheered. Someone captured the scene on video and sent him a copy.
“It was a little difficult, me having to go up there and finally letting people that I’ve never seen in my life know who I am,’’ Albarran said afterward. “But I know it had to be done.''
“The original dreamers are our parents’’
For Albarran, the United States is home. His mother brought him from Mexico to the United States when he was 2, and he’s never been back.
“I might have been born in Mexico, but I was made in America,’’ he said. “I’m an American boy.”
Albarran speaks both English and Spanish, and his parents have taught him the customs and traditions of Mexico. But going there would be like visiting a foreign country, he said.
“All my memories come from the United States — living here,’’ he said. “So when somebody tells me, ‘Oh, go back to your country,’ I'm like, ‘This is my country.’ ''
Albarran believes that many people in the United States don’t understand how the deferred action policy works, or the impact it has had on people’s lives. Missouri has about 3,500 DACA recipients; Illinois has 42,000.
DACA does not offer a pathway to citizenship, but it did allow Albarran to do basic things that most Americans take for granted: work, drive, go to college — and pay taxes. He was able to open a bank account and buy a car.
Albarran works nights as a server at a popular St. Louis restaurant and attends college during the day. He plans to study communications and photography and hopes some day to work as a professional photographer, telling stories that illustrate diverse cultures.
He is paying his own way through school. Students in the deferred action program are not entitled to federal or state student loans or grants.
In 2015, Missouri legislators decided that DACA students who attend the state’s public colleges would not be eligible for in-state tuition. They are required to pay the highest tuition rate charged at that institution, which means their tuition might be two or three times higher than the tuition paid by high school classmates attending the same college or university.
Albarran was born in 1994 in Toluca, a state capital that is west of Mexico City. When he was 1, his mother left him and his older brother with their grandmother, while she found work in the United States. He and his brother came to the United States by plane a year later. The family lived in California for a brief time before settling in St. Louis.
Albarran appreciates the sacrifice his mother made — leaving her homeland to make a better future for her children.
“When people call us ‘DREAMers,’ I know that the original dreamers are our parents,’’ he said, using a term often associated with DACA recipients. The DREAM Act — Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act — was a legislative proposal that would have offered protections to young immigrants, but it was never passed by Congress.
Albarran said his parents worked long hours to provide for their family. He remembers living in a St. Louis neighborhood where they heard gunshots at night. He felt welcome at the Catholic elementary schools he attended, and he met children who shared his experience as an unauthorized immigrant. But he describes his years at a mostly white high school as “difficult.”
“Diversity was very, very low in numbers,’’ he said. “I remember my first week of school. I was sitting down doing my homework because I would have to wait for my mom a couple hours. And I remember hearing a couple of kids making fun of me, saying racist remarks. And I was heartbroken because I had worked so hard to get there.’’
Albarran said his parents were at first skeptical of DACA and worried about him giving the government his personal information.
He is disappointed by the Trump administration's decision to end the program and concerned about what lies ahead.
“You also feel betrayed because you voluntarily gave all your information — where you live, your name, your address — everything,'' he said. "You let them know, 'I'm not a criminal. Here's my background. And now they want to turn back to you and say, ‘Well, we might now just deport you.’ ’’
Albarran said he was still asleep the morning Sessions announced the decision to end DACA. He woke up to a text message from his mother, assuring him that everything would be all right:
“Through the grace of God, we're going to keep fighting,’’ it said. “And I want to let you know that I love you. That you will always have a family that loves you and supports you in everything you do. Don't lose faith.’’
Despite his mother’s encouraging words, Albarran knew that her heart was broken.
“It was sad because she felt things were starting to get better,’’ he said.
Albarran believes Congress should legislate a path to citizenship for immigrants who proved by their acceptance into the DACA program that they are doing everything right — working hard and contributing to the United States.
His younger brother was born in St. Louis and is a U.S. citizen.
“He doesn't have to worry about all the things we've worried about our whole life. And it's great to see that,’’ Albarran said. “Because it's something I wouldn't wish upon anyone.”
DACA was a temporary bandage
The deferred action program was a temporary bandage that protected young immigrants after Congress failed to pass comprehensive immigration reform, said James Hacking, a St. Louis immigration lawyer who represents clients protected by DACA.
Administered by the Department of Homeland Security, the program required applicants to provide detailed histories of their lives in the United States and to renew their applications every two years. To be considered, applicants had to be under the age of 31 on June 15, 2012.
“You have to show that you have no criminal record and that you have either finished high school or are working toward finishing high school. You have to pay a fee of around $500, and it is no path to citizenship at all. It is simply a temporary halt to deportation — and work authorization,” said Hacking, whose law firm helped applicants file for DACA before the Oct. 5 deadline set by the Trump administration for applying to the program.
There are 690,000 immigrants currently enrolled in DACA, according to statistics released last week. About two-thirds are from Mexico, but Hacking said he has also worked with clients from Central America, Malaysia and Europe.
“These people are going to college, going to law school, going to medical school — they're contributing to society,’’ Hacking said. “And, as I think everyone has agreed, they've done nothing wrong. Immigration is a political football that gets thrown back and forth, but these kids are caught up in the crosshairs of deportation.’’
Hacking is concerned that Congress will focus on issues like tax reform and hurricane assistance — and put overhauling immigration policy on the back burner.
“If somebody has a DACA work card that expires on March 6, 2018, they will not be able to renew,’’ he said. “They will lose their immigration status. They will lose their ability to work in the United States. Their driver's licenses will end. And if they've already been ordered deported, then Immigration and Customs Enforcement will start their deportation up again. And, depending on where they were in that process, they'll either be deported or be put back into removal proceedings for deportation.”
The uncertainty is affecting not only current DACA recipients but also their younger brothers and sisters, said Felipe Martinez, immigrant student adviser for The Scholarship Foundation of St. Louis, which helps area students pay for college.
“You have an entire generation of students right now sitting at their desks in class wondering, ‘What am I allowed to do?’ ’’ Martinez said. “What's the point of getting good grades if I can't go to college? What's the point of getting a job if I can't have the job?’’
When Sessions announced the administration's decision to end DACA, he said the policy was an unconstitutional exercise of authority by the executive branch. He said it's up to Congress to decide whether it should be replaced with permanent legislation.
The attorney general also said the decision was not a reflection on DACA recipients.
"This does not mean they are bad people, or that our nation disrespects them or demeans them in any way,'' Sessions said. "It means we are properly enforcing our laws as Congress has passed them.''
Democratic U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois and Republican U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina have reintroduced a version of the Dream Act that would allow young immigrants who qualified for DACA to apply for permanent residence and, eventually, U.S. citizenship.
Trump, who has expressed support for “DREAMers,” has been meeting with congressional Democrats and Republicans over immigration and border protection. On Sunday, he sent Congress a list of items that he wants included in any legislation that addresses DACA recipients. Those include building a wall along the southern border of the United States, tougher immigration laws and an end to sanctuary cities.
“You’re dealing with my future”
When the Obama administration announced the deferred action policy in 2012, Nallely Barboza-Barron, 24, of Collinsville saw it as a shining light that offered hope and a future.
She grew up in the metro-east and describes her childhood as the same as any American child’s — until it wasn’t.
That realization came when she was in high school and couldn’t get a driver’s license or apply to colleges without documentation.
“That's when all the questions really started to rise and where I became more aware of my situation,’’ she said. “It was just very depressing. You want to join the crowd. You want to be part of society.’’
Barboza-Barron’s family is from Monterey, Mexico, a place she has seen only in photographs. She was 6 when she walked across the U.S.-Mexico border with her mother and brother to join her father who was already working in the United States. She remembers little of that journey, except traveling at night with several dozen people.
Barboza-Barron works full time as an account manager for a Belleville firm and also has a part-time job. She wants to be an elementary school teacher, and is taking courses at a community college. Unlike Missouri, public universities in Illinois charge DACA students in-state tuition rates.
But even with that, Barboza-Barron struggles to pay for college.
“We don't have access to financial aid, unfortunately,’’ she said. “So that requires me to work two jobs.
Barboza-Barron said her co-workers didn’t know that she was a DACA recipient until the day Sessions made the announcement — because she couldn’t stop crying. She was devastated by the decision and hopes that people understand the impact it is having on hundreds of thousands of families.
“It worries me every day because I don't know what turn this is going to take,’’ she said.
If she loses her DACA status, Barboza-Barron thinks she would move to Mexico because she has seen how difficult life is for undocumented immigrants in the United States.
“Everyone has their own version of the American dream,’’ she said. “But mine is just to be able to stay here, grow old here, graduate and be a good citizen to this country.”
Follow Mary Delach Leonard on Twitter: @marydleonard
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