For DACA students at Maryland, studying and living requires resilience

Evan Kramer/The Diamondback

Published on October 31, 2017

When U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced last month that DACA would be coming to an end, University of Maryland student Valeria A. watched it on a live stream in her dorm room while shaking in tears. 

After the announcement ended, Valeria kept refreshing the page, hoping there would be something more to answer her questions.

“I was an emotional wreck,” Valeria said.

ABOVE: Valeria A., a freshman computer science major, came to the United States from Peru when she was 7 years old and is a recipient of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. 

Valeria is one of the 132 students at this university protected under Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals — a program that allows undocumented immigrants who came to the country as children and meet certain requirements to study and work in two-year blocks — who have been left uncertain about their future following the announcement. Valeria is not identified by last name to protect her identity.

When Valeria, who is from Peru, received her own DACA status in early 2016, it ended years of stress. 

Her parents burst through the door with mail containing her work permit and Social Security number after months of talking with immigration lawyers, hours standing in lines at immigration advocacy centers and days of document preparation. Both Valeria and her parents cried when they received it.

“I was able to say I’m a DACA student,” Valeria said. “I have this now. I don’t have to be as fearful as I was to study and to work.”

To protect her DACA status and her ability to become a citizen, Valeria, a freshman computer science major, stays hypervigilant at all times.

While driving, she’s extremely cautious and always stays under the speed limit. In school, she makes sure that she never engages in academic dishonesty and has excellent grades. And when she discloses her status, she’s careful about whom she chooses to tell.

“One of the biggest things is just making sure that you’re doing everything right,” Valeria said. “Any wrong thing that can happen to you — from plagiarism to getting a speeding ticket or anything like that — could just taint your record, and who knows what the next policy may be?”

ABOVE: Protesters gather in front of the White House on Tuesday, Aug. 15, 2017, to fight to defend the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. (Natalie Schwartz/For The Diamondback)

In the past, her parents urged her to keep her status a secret because people could use it against her. The first person Valeria told was Zachary Weilminster, a friend she has known since high school. She confided in him their junior year, he said.

Weilminster, now a freshman mechanical engineering major at this university, didn’t know what DACA was at the time, so he did some research.

“I didn’t think it was something for anyone to be judged by, and I didn’t judge her [for] it,” he said.

Weilminster said he was surprised when he found out. He knew there were undocumented immigrants in his school, but hadn’t been familiar with Valeria’s background.

“A lot of people think that people who are Deferred Action, people who are not naturalized citizens, look different, act different [and] sound different from everyone else,” Weilminster said. “But they’re just part of everyday society, and they’re here like the rest of us.”

The Trump administration’s announcement was “extremely upsetting” for Weilminster, who started to worry about Valeria’s welfare and safety. Since the decision, he’s informed others on what the program is and whom it covers, especially as more and more people have begun talking about it.

Janelle Wong, a member of this university’s undocumented student working group, said faculty and staff can be insensitive when talking about these issues during class or with students.

“Sometimes they might use inappropriate language, or just make an assumption that, let’s say, all students are citizens, or all citizens are able to travel easily, or all students are able to register to vote,” said Wong, an American studies professor.

This university offers UndocuTerp Training for staff and faculty on handling issues surrounding undocumented students. Demand for the program has increased since Trump’s election and his administration’s DACA announcement.

Although Valeria said she’s tried to keep her emotions in check when people discuss DACA around her — so they won’t suspect her status — she’s recently begun embracing an “undocumented and unafraid” attitude.

After one of her friends was making jokes that made her uncomfortable, she decided to share her status as a way to educate him.

She said that while she was worried about outing herself to him, “sometimes it’s for the better that there’s one less ignorant person in the world.”

Valeria’s friend was understanding, and they’ve grown closer since she told him about her status. In conjunction with an outpouring of support from people who said they stand with undocumented students following Trump’s decision, this has spurred her to be more open about being a DACA student.

However, she still remains fearful that even though many people seem supportive, some may come after her or make fun of her situation, she said, adding that it’s hard to know who will hear her story and what they will think of her. 

“It was hitting at sensitive spots for my path — the way I or my family had to go through,” Valeria said. “I decided to just embrace this fact that I am undocumented.”

“This is how America is going to be”

ABOVE: Demonstrators with Cosecha MD blocked traffic  at the University of Maryland to protest the treatment of immigrants in America on Tuesday, Aug. 29, 2017. The demonstration passed its goal of 11 minutes to represent the 11 million immigrants who may face deportation. (Tom Hausman/The Diamondback)

Valeria’s parents moved them to the United States in February 2007 because of ongoing violence in Peru and to seek out better education for her and her sister.

In the early 1980s, opposition groups began rebelling against the South American nation’s government. Guerilla armies sowed chaos throughout the country by deploying bloody tactics that targeted civilians as well as the army, while state security forces cracked down on civilians suspected of supporting the rebels. At least 61,000 Peruvians died during the conflict, which lasted until 2000, according to a commission established by the government in 2001.

“My parents did not want us growing up in an environment where we could be a part of anything that might ruin our lives,” said Valeria, who was born in 1999.

When Valeria’s parents decided to move, they pulled her out of school — she was in second grade and 7 years old at the time — and told her they were going to Disney World.

But they didn’t tell her they wouldn’t be coming back.

“They wanted to treat my sister to something before having this realization that we wouldn’t have everything we had in the past,” she said.

So the family left the warm, arid summer of Peru and landed in Orlando, Florida, in the middle of winter. It was Valentine’s Day — which is now a special anniversary to the family.

When the plane touched down, a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officer stopped Valeria’s parents in the airport. While she sat in a lobby daydreaming about Disney World, her parents were experiencing what she said was one of the “most nerve-wracking moments” in their lives, trying to hold it together and make sure they made it to America.

They had obtained visitor visas, which can allow noncitizens to come to the United States for six months for tourism, visiting family or receiving medical treatment. They were lucky the ICE official didn’t choose to question them further, Valeria said.

When Valeria and her family finally made it to Disney World, it was like a dream come true.

“This is how America is going to be,” she said, recalling her thoughts on first arriving at the amusement park. “I remember driving from the airport to the Walt Disney resort and seeing these neon signs and … everything looking big, and cars and all these buildings.”

Disney World was the “best two weeks” of her life, she said. She remembers being bundled up in the lines of the cold amusement park trying to communicate with almost everyone while only 7 years old.

“I thought I was the ‘Queen of English,’” she said.

But those dreamlike two weeks came to an abrupt end when Valeria and her family flew to Dallas — not back to Peru.

“I didn’t know what Texas was or what Dallas was,” Valeria said. “It was really odd for me.”

Back in her hometown in Lima, Valeria had lived in a three-story stone house overlooking a park in a nice neighborhood. They had a large kitchen and a room for dinners and special occasions. She had her own room with pink walls and every toy she wanted. She even had a nanny and her own transportation to school.

But now, everything was different.

For the first time in her life, she was sharing a room with her younger sister. And her dad and mom — who both held master’s degrees in accounting back home — now worked at a factory and at McDonald’s, respectively, because their degrees were nontransferable.

“Sometimes my mom would go out to work at 5 p.m. and come back at like 8 a.m. from McDonald’s,” Valeria said. “I remember staying up sometimes, watching TV waiting for my mom to come and she would … always be tired, stressed, her body would hurt and everything.”

Even the school buses were strange, Valeria said. She had seen the bright yellow ones in cartoons, but never in person.

“It was a mix of being excited, but also a little terrified and anxious,” she said. “I didn’t know if I was going to an English school. I didn’t  know how I was going to get to school [or] where we were going to live.”

Valeria was put into the second grade again because she wasn’t proficient enough in English. From second to fourth grade she was in ESOL classrooms where the teachers would talk to the students in English, but the students would speak to one another mostly in Spanish.  

“I think the word that can describe it is shock — both from being happy, but also being really distressed and not knowing what was going on,” Valeria said. 

The family bounced around to different cities in Texas before moving to New Mexico and eventually to Maryland in July 2014. One of the reasons Valeria’s parents chose this state was that students with DACA have the option of obtaining in-state tuition, which saves the family thousands of dollars. 

While moving around state to state, Valeria received different qualities of education. New Mexico has ranked among the worst state educations in recent reports, while Maryland ranked fifth in the nation in 2017, according to Education Week. 

“That transition really affected me,” Valeria said. “Seeing my sister, who doesn’t have to go through that, [and] for her to go through this great, amazing education system here in Maryland … she’s going to have better opportunities than me.”

Uncertain future

ABOVE: Leaders from PLUMAS speak at the UMD United After the Election event held outside of McKeldin Library on Nov. 9, 2016. Speakers discussed the fears of undocumented Latin Americans following the election of Donald Trump. (Tom Hausman/The Diamondback)

Following the Trump administration’s announcement, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services said although it was no longer accepting first-time DACA applications, it would process renewals up until Oct. 5.

Valeria had submitted her renewal only a week before.

For others, the announcement left them scrambling to scrape together $495 for the renewal fee in only one month. Some have felt like they had to pick between their rent or their renewal fee, said Laura Bohorquez, this university’s undocumented student coordinator.

After the announcement, Bohorquez said, students asked themselves, “‘Do I need to worry about my in-state tuition or classification, do I need to create a contingency plan, what are some of the resources in terms of emotional and mental health and well-being on campus?’”

Since the announcement, Bohorquez has seen a spike in undocumented students seeking her advice, and the University Health Center has allowed those with DACA to make emergency appointments.

Maria Berbery, a staff psychologist at the Counseling Center, said many students may be feeling increased anxiety.

“[There’s] a lot of uncertainty about the future — their future in college, what their future careers are going to look like, whether they’re going to be able to work,” Berbery said. “[They’re] worrying about whether they’re safe on campus, whether they’re safe just going out and about in the world.”

Berbery suggested students focus on self-care, reaching out to trusted ones and finding a sense of community to help cope.

“That announcement hit me both ways,” Valeria said. “I was very happy because I was one of those who was able to renew, but I also know, and my parents also remind me to keep in mind that all other kids who were turning 15 that day and weren’t able to apply for DACA.”

Fifteen was the earliest age undocumented immigrants could file for DACA, and Valeria worries about those who may not be able to apply for it — including her 12-year-old sister.

“Even if there is an extension or an enhancement or there’s new legislation that will protect immigrants who came as young children, that does not resolve the issue of mixed-status families where parents might not have documentation,” Wong said. “That does not alleviate the fears of family separation.”

Valeria said she’s lucky to have had the resources to obtain DACA and her renewal.

“Not only do you have to have good resources to get through this, you also have to have money,” Valeria said. “And if you don’t have both, it’s such a difficult process to get through.”

While this university created the undocumented student coordinator position in March after student demand, some groups have begun advocating for a full-time immigration lawyer as well.

Although Bohorquez offers assistance to undocumented students, her ability to provide legal advice is limited, said Madelyne Ventura, the president of student organization Political Latinxs United for Movement and Action in Society.

“While our undocumented student coordinator had a lot of resources available, a lot of these students needed complete renewal packages,” said Ventura, a senior mathematics major. “That’s something our undocumented student coordinator couldn’t necessarily do herself — she can only refer the students to someone.”

Valeria said immigration lawyers were helpful in her own pathway to obtaining DACA.

ProtectUMD, a coalition of student groups, plans on presenting a proposal to this university’s administration for the position. 

“People are people”

ABOVE: Yvette Lerma, coordinator for Latin@ student involvement and community advocacy at the Office of Multicultural Involvement & Community Advocacy, speaks to the audience in Stamp Student Union at a panel to discuss challenges undocumented students might face, on Tuesday, April 5, 2016. (Samuel Antezana/For The Diamondback)

Valeria said she hopes to use her future computer science degree to help underprivileged children and adults learn to code, among other technical skills.

And Weilminster said Valeria is one of the most hardworking people he knows.

“I have a lot of faith in her ability to succeed, and I would hate to see that taken away from her by something that seems kind of trivial,” Weilminster said. “She doesn’t deserve to have [protection] stripped away.”

Trump tasked Congress with creating a solution for undocumented immigrants with DACA. The legislature has crafted several proposals, including the Dream Act of 2017, which has bipartisan support and would provide a pathway to citizenship for those with DACA.

The president has also reportedly indicated that he may extend the deadline if Congress doesn’t push through legislation by the March 5 deadline.

While he doesn’t have much faith in Congress, Weilminster said he hopes they can create a bill to protect those with DACA.

“People are people,” he said. “Whether you are a citizen of the United States, whether you are someone who is covered under Deferred Action, whether you are an illegal immigrant who’s not a naturalized citizen, people deserve respect. … They shouldn’t be treated as anything less than human or looked at as a number or statistic.”

Valeria said she’d like DACA to change from a “Band-Aid” solution into a bridge to citizenship.

And she retains hope that she and her family will have a future in America.

“[My parents] always tell me …  maybe God — because we’re very Catholic — his intention is not for me to stay here, but to just push through,” Valeria said. “But I really hope my intention is to stay here.”


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