After long weeks of searching for an undocumented student on campus who would be willing to be interviewed, we were fortunate enough to come across an interviewee. Her name was Isabel*.
We met Isabel during lunch in a staff workroom in the E building. Perched anxiously on red chairs adorned with cheetah-print cushions, we hurriedly scarfed down a few bites of our lunch and sat there, waiting for Isabel.
As Isabel was about to walk to where we were in room 103, Rosa Velazquez, a teacher and AVID adviser, called after her.
“Do you want me to be with you?” Velazquez asked.
Isabel stopped, turned and then responded.
“I’m good, Mrs. V. I’m a big girl.”
After being elected in 2008, Barack Obama’s first term in office was dominated by efforts to stabilize the economy in the midst of the Great Recession and to pass his eponymous healthcare reform bill — Obamacare. After Obama was re-elected in 2012, an increase of Republicans in the House of Representatives ended the Democratic majority and prevented any chance of passing comprehensive immigration reform. Lacking options in Congress, the Obama administration resorted to an executive action, creating the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, a policy that allows un-naturalized children of undocumented immigrants to avoid deportation and legally drive, work and go to school in the U.S. DACA’s enforcement was immensely popular. Approximately 750,000 Dreamers, as those who benefit from DACA are called, signed up for the program, according to the Pew Research Center. Republicans, however, found this an overreach of federal authority. During the 2016 presidential race, Republican candidates made it clear that, if elected, they would rescind Obama’s executive action and end DACA. On Sep. 5, President Trump fulfilled this promise. Joined by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Trump announced that he would phase out DACA and called on Congress to replace the program.
Isabel is one of over 800,000 qualified children of undocumented immigrants who qualified for DACA; fifteen years ago, one-year-old Isabel was smuggled across the U.S.-Mexico border after her “dad found a route.” Next year, Isabel will lose the protection that DACA has provided.
Agreeing to be interviewed by the Falconer on such a personal topic was not an easy decision for Isabel. Most students are blindly unaware of passing police cars or occasional law enforcement officials who roam the TPHS campus. However, these events are nightmarish to Isabel, who feels a slight wave of paranoia sweep over her until the officer disappears from sight.
“It’s one of the scariest, most frightening things that I could ever feel,” Isabel said. “You know that you’re not here to commit a crime or to steal anything or sell drugs, but you still have that kind of ‘Oh, they’re here for me, they’re going to do something bad to me or to my family.’”
This fear of law enforcement extends to situations in which Isabel or her family need the help and protection of the police, but they have no choice but to deal with problems on their own rather than calling the police. In fact, only a few months ago, her uncle, who was in the U.S. illegally, was deported back to Mexico after being caught driving without a license.
“We’ve had cases where we felt like we should call someone or we should call out for help but we don’t,” Isabel said. “[If we did], you’re asking for something bad to happen. That’s how my mom would put it.”
The fear of law enforcement and the government as a whole was something SDUHSD Superintendent Eric Dill and the school board wanted to address after the election of Donald Trump. In an email to district staff, Dill affirmed the district’s support of DACA and other immigrants.
“That was something our school board felt was important following the events of the last election and the general anxiety that many were feeling,” Dill said. “We ended up affirming our commitment to serving all students in the district regardless of where they have come from.”
For some immigrants in the U.S. in violation of the law, this fear has already materialized. Sayra Gonzalez, an immigrant in San Diego who works as a comprehensive perinatal health worker, has known many intimate friends and family who have been deported, and deportation is always a traumatic experience that affects her every time.
“[Deportation] breaks up families,” Gonzalez said. “When I was a child, there were a lot of [family members] during Christmas time, New Year’s time. It was just a really happy moment, and then with the deportations and separation of families, I feel like each year, it just keeps decreasing, decreasing. It gets to the point where we’re not even excited to celebrate the holidays.”
Isabel also has had family members deported. She does not even want to think about what would happen if her parents were rounded up by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials.
“There’s still a possibility that when I get home from school my parents aren’t going to be there,” Isabel said.
BriAnn Raduenz (10) is openly conservative and supports Trump’s decision to end DACA.
“These situations are sad, and I believe there should be a compromise where undocumented parents with children should be able to be on a path to citizenship that is legal and addressed by Congress to prevent families from being torn apart,” Raduenz said. “There needs to be a legislative solution rather than people breaking the laws, and our government needs to enforce the laws.”
Despite keeping her immigration status a secret from most people, Isabel still feels targeted because of the offhand jokes she hears in her classes.
“I was in my Spanish class, and this particular classmate of mine decided that it would be funny to start telling me, ‘So why are you still here?’” Isabel said. “‘Do you even have your papers? Are you going to be a maid? Why are you even in school? You should just start being a maid.’”
According to Isabel, jokes like these are made often about students of Latino descent. However, because she is a Dreamer, she is more vulnerable to questions and comments about her citizenship. These jokes can even come from other members of the Latino community.
“Whoever was around me was like ‘Oh look, the Migra [ICE officials] are coming,’” Isabel said. “That’s when I realized [that] people see [being undocumented] as a negative thing.”
Isabel feels a little safer at school than when she is alone or anywhere outside her home. Lately, she has opened up to a counselor and several teachers with whom she “shares a connection” with.
“If a student wants to go to school, we are going to educate you. Why you’re here is none of our business,” Principal Rob Coppo said.
According to SDUHSD superintendent Eric Dill, “[the district] would not have any information on the residency status [of] its students.”
In fact, an article in The Atlantic reported that “federal law prevents schools from sharing student information, including their citizenship status, and ICE states that it does not interface with schools at all.”
Although Isabel is grateful for the temporary security that school provides, “there are small things … that kind of remind you, ‘Oh wait, I’m not just like everybody else. I’m not going to build a future just like everybody else.’”
One of the subtle differences between Isabel and her peers is that she has very limited options for traveling outside of her local bubble.
In middle school, Isabel told her mom about different places she wanted to visit. She told her about her dream to visit Hawaii and to travel to exotic places that many of her peers had already visited. Contrary to the young version of herself, Isabel now understands the impossibility of a dream that no amount of time can help her achieve.
“My mom told me, ‘You can’t [go to Hawaii].’ I asked why and she explained to me the whole story of how I am undocumented,” Isabel said.
Immigrants concerned with run-ins with law enforcement limit their travel, affecting their ability to make plans.
Gonzalez’s fear of police officers and her knowledge regarding “a checkpoint going up toward Anaheim” prevent her from joining her friends on their trips to Disneyland. The checkpoint makes travel outside of San Diego, even just for a two-hour drive to Disneyland, “very frustrating and scary.”
“Something as simple as driving is scary when you don’t have a driver’s license,” Gonzalez said. “You’re always on the lookout.”
Travel is not the only thing that those who have arrived in the U.S. through illegal immigration were unable to do. They faced legal barriers that kept them from holding jobs and having driver licenses before DACA.
On June 5, 2012, the 30th anniversary of Plyler v. Doe, the U.S. Supreme Court case that struck down public schools from requiring undocumented immigrants to pay tuition, President Obama stood in the Rose Garden and announced the creation of DACA on national television.
“I definitely knew [that I was an undocumented immigrant] by the time I was in high school and [it] was never really something that I was worried about until maybe my junior year of high school when everyone was getting ready to apply to college,” Gonzalez said.
Isabel does not remember the creation of DACA, but was pleased when she found out that she could get a driver’s license.
“My parents started explaining to me, ‘once you turn sixteen we’re going to do this, this and this to get you to be able to work and to travel and to get your driver’s license,’” Isabel said. “That’s when it opened my eyes and I realized that I could be normal—or what I consider to be normal.”
For the first time in her life, Isabel felt she could blend in with other teenagers. This state of perceived normality, however, did not last. While Isabel was slow to learn about the creation of DACA, it did not take long for news of Trump’s decision to end the DACA to spread in her community.
“I cried,” Isabel said. “It’s a very emotional thing for people to think of you as less than a human because I know that I’m here for an education and I’m here to work.”
Even Raduenz sympathizes for undocumented students. “I know it’s not their fault and despite my label of myself as being conservative, that doesn’t mean I look at them as any less of a person and I still wish them the best,” Raduenz said.
In response to Trump’s decision to end DACA, the California legislature passed a law making the state a ‘sanctuary state,’ meaning that law enforcement officials in California would limit their cooperation with federal ICE officials. However, California’s new law does not nullify federal authority or prevent ICE from conducting deportations.
While Isabel’s younger siblings were born in the U.S., she was smuggled across the border from Mexico. In the case that DACA is rescinded, her parents plan on returning to her birthplace: Mexico. To Isabel, it is a scary and an unfamiliar country that she has never lived in.
“[My parents] are like, ‘Oh we’re just going to send you back to Mexico,’” Isabel said. “You can’t throw me in a school in Mexico when I haven’t ever studied there. I came here at the age of two. I don’t know the language.”
Hours after his announcement to end DACA being hit with a wave of backlash on social media, Trump signaled a potential reversal on his earlier announcements, tweeting “Does anybody really want to throw out good, educated and accomplished young people who have jobs, some serving in the military?”
Trump’s tweets were used by federal judge Nicholas G. Garaufis in a New York court, who told Trump’s lawyers that the President’s own statements seemed to contradict “any effort to throw these people out.”
Despite Trump’s ambiguous tweets, the Trump administration has not changed its date for ending DACA: Mar. 5, 2018.
Isabel sits in her AVID class, filling out a worksheet with potential majors she wants to pursue in college. Unlike most of her classmates who are enthusiastic about mapping out their futures, Isabel is cautious about reading too far into life after high school.
“I just recently found out what I want to major in, so it’s an exciting time, but then you remember [that you are an undocumented immigrant].”
The conflicting statements about the fate of DACA from Trump and his administration has created an air of ambiguity over the policy’s future, spreading further concern among DACA recipients.
“I’m right now currently working and studying hard,” Isabel said, her voice cracking.
We look up from our notepads to see that there are tears pooling in her eyes.
“My parents are working their butts off to help me get a life that I know I can’t have.”
Perhaps for the first time in her life, Isabel gave herself the opportunity to share some of her concerns with someone other than her family. After thanking her, Isabel quickly wiped the tears off her face before stepping out of the room. In the moments after, we sat still, having trouble processing the full weight of Isabel’s story. In the weeks passing, both of us have passed Isabel in the hallways. Each time, we engage in an awkward standoff, while trying to both recognize and ignore Isabel’s presence. Yet we understand the awkward silence. In a country where many documented immigrants and American citizens take their citizenship for granted, Isabel and Sayra must continue to live under a veil of secrecy, trying to protect themselves from the hands of deportation.