Kentucky's DACA recipients try to navigate earning a college degree

'I couldn’t understand why this was happening to me. I didn’t do anything bad; all I wanted to do was go to school and gain a degree. All I want to do is help people and be successful at it.'

  • 7 min to read
5:06:32 DACA

Omar, a Lexington resident protected by DACA, poses with a photo of Santo Toribio Romo, the saint of the immigrants, and a necklace with photos of saints on Wednesday, December 4, 2019, in Lexington, Kentucky. “The necklace with the saints represents protection to me,” Omar said. Omar said the necklace was a gift from his mom when he was young, and he still keeps it in his wallet. Omar said he has heard stories about Santo Toribio Romo, the saint in the larger photo, for a long time. “It’s said that when an immigrant is wanting safe passage on their journey, they pray to him for protection.” Photo by Michael Clubb | Staff

Editor’s note: The Kernel staff has made the decision to change the names of the DACA recipients mentioned in this story for their safety and the safety of their families. We feel that revealing their names could potentially put them in danger, or at risk for deportation or detainment, should the Supreme Court rule against DACA.

Johnathan, 24, who is from Aguascalientes, Mexico, had just turned 8 when he crossed the Mexican-American border. He remembers taking refuge in various homes provided by El Coyote, a Spanish name for someone who brings in immigrants to America, he said.

After Johnathan and his family crossed the Rio Grande on an inflatable boat, they stayed in an abandoned home. He remembers the neighbors bringing him and his family turkey sandwiches and lemonade. Their next step was to try to impersonate a family coming back from Mexico after visiting relatives, but they were caught and detained.

They spent that night in a cell. Even though they were not able to successfully execute their plan, he was grateful he was not separated from his mother, Johnathan said. Once released, Johnathan’s family decided they had to try again because they had “left so much behind that there was no other option than to keep trying.”

After eventually arriving safely in the United States, Johnathan and his family spent a couple of months in Texas, then decided to move to Kentucky. There were more job opportunities, especially for his mother who was raising Johnathan and his two other siblings, he said. He went to elementary school, middle school, high school and college in Lexington, so he considers himself a true Kentuckian.

He was able to do all this through an immigration policy that could now be in jeopardy.

Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, also known as DACA, has been a golden ticket for a future to many undocumented students like Johnathan in recent years.

Former President Barack Obama launched DACA in June 2012 as a protection for eligible undocumented immigrants. Young immigrants who were brought into the United States illegally as children have been able to apply for DACA and renew it every two years.

In September 2017, President Donald Trump announced his plans of terminating DACA. The Supreme Court — which heard oral arguments on the matter last month — could make a decision as soon as June 2020. For now, according to the Immigration Law Office Center, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services is no longer accepting first-time DACA applications. Those who are already DACA recipients are the only ones eligible to apply for a renewal of their DACA.

DACA has protected recipients from deportation, provided a social security number, a work permit and a driver’s license. It is not a source to obtain citizenship at any time, but a temporary protection. As reported by the Center for American Progress, there are more than 825,000 DACA recipients across America as of June 30, 2019.

DACA applicants must have been “under the age of 31 as of June 15, 2012, came to the United States before reaching [their] 16th birthday, and do not pose a threat to national security or public safety,” among other eligibility requirements, according to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

Johnathan said he believed DACA was his way of creating a better life for himself and his family. In 2018, Johnathan graduated from the University of Kentucky with a degree in civil engineering. He knew he had to go to college for himself, but also his family. He is a first-generation college student and said he felt clueless as to what to expect from college but was determined to figure it out.

He recalled that a big obstacle he faced was self-identification.

“I wasn’t sure who I was or who I was becoming,” Johnathan said. “Quite frankly, I’m still figuring it out. I wasn’t born in the United States, but I also wasn’t raised in Mexico, so I was torn of where I belonged.”

He currently holds a position at an engineering firm.

5:30:03 DACA

Isabel, a Lexington resident protected by DACA, holds a photo with a depiction of Jesus on Wednesday, December 4, in Lexington, Kentucky. “He has been with me since the beginning and he continues to be by my side no matter what,” Isabel said. “He has kept me strong through this journey of life. He has helped and guided me to reach my goals and never give up.” Photo by Michael Clubb | Staff

DACA recipients were brought into this country at very young ages. The Center for American Progress reported that “the average DACA recipient arrived in the United States in 1999 when they were just 7 years old. More than one-third of DACA recipients, 37 percent, arrived before age 5.”

DACA recipients still feel the burden of being undocumented. The constant fear of people finding out about their legal status can be daunting, and it’s something citizens do not have to worry about.

When Jasmine, 25, left Honduras at 7 years old, she could not understand why her parents were making her move. She remembers them describing America as a magical place where everything would be better, but that’s not how things turned out, she said.

Since middle school, she found herself going to work with her mom cleaning up to two houses after school and on the weekends. She recalls getting home late and still having to do homework. She said she had to become an adult at a very young age and had no childhood.

Jasmine takes that experience and uses it as a life lesson to work harder.

Now, she is finishing her last year at the University of Kentucky with plans of becoming a teacher, but her journey in college has been more difficult than she imagined. She thought about dropping out many times because she could barely afford tuition.

“It frustrates me at times to see documented students not take advantage of going to college and being able to receive financial help from the government,” Jasmine said. “Some of my friends have enough financial help to pay half or even all their tuition. Even though I am happy for them, a part of me is jealous and resentful that I don’t get that privilege.”

Unlike documented students, DACA recipients do not have access to federal financial aid, grants or loans that many documented students can receive from the FAFSA form. This results in them having to pay out of pocket or search rigorously for the few scholarships they can apply for.

Isabel, 29, who is from Mexico and is a first-generation student, graduated from Kentucky State University with a degree in social work.

She knew college was a must for her, but when she graduated high school in 2008, she had to take a three-year break due to the lack of financial help. While Isabel shares many of the concerns as DACA recipients, it was not an option when she graduated, she said, so she did not have a social security number to apply for scholarships.

After her break, she decided to go to college but had a fear of people finding out she was undocumented.

“I felt like I didn’t belong, which led to me feeling ashamed of who I was,” Isabel said. “I couldn’t understand why this was happening to me. I didn’t do anything bad; all I wanted to do was go to school and gain a degree. All I want to do is help people and be successful at it.”

Now, Isabel is working as in an administrative position in a school. She plans on going back to college to obtain her master’s degree in social work. She said she hopes to find a job as a school social worker after receiving her master’s degree.

5:13:57 DACA

Omar, a Lexington resident protected by DACA, holds a necklace with photos of saints on Wednesday, December 4, 2019, in Lexington, Kentucky. “The necklace with the saints represents protection to me,” Omar said. Omar said the necklace was a gift from his mom when he was young, and he still keeps it in his wallet. Photo by Michael Clubb | Staff

Omar, 25, who is from Aguascalientes, Mexico, said that being deported back to a country that he is not familiar with would ruin all the opportunities he has been given.

Omar was only 4 when he was brought into the United States. He was sent with another family to cross the border. At the time, he saw it more like a game as he did not understand the reality of it all, he said. Now as he is older and reflects on that time, he knows it was much more than that.

Through DACA, he has been able to work at a well-paying job that has been able to support himself and his family, while also having a sense of security, he said. Like Isabel, Omar also decided to take a break after he graduated high school in 2013 due to tuition costs.

Omar said he is very open about his legal status and does not mind if people find out that he is undocumented. He wants others to understand that immigrants are not dangerous people or criminals.

“The truth is that as a young child I had no choice in being brought here,” Omar said. “My parents, just like many others in this country, chose to come here for their family’s well-being.”

Despite tuition being very expensive, Omar decided to pursue his college career and is currently a student at Bluegrass Community and Technical College. He said he hopes to earn his degree in business administration and potentially move from Lexington into a bigger city.

Although many DACA recipients are able to go to college, some decide to take a different path.

Noelia is a married 29-year-old mother of two boys and has been living in America for more than 20 years after leaving Mexico. Like many undocumented people, Noelia had to drop out of college because tuition was too much, she said.

As a hostess making $9.50 an hour, she could not make ends meet, as she had to pay for her tuition, rent, house bills, car insurance: the list felt endless. She felt as if the pressure of working and making ends meet was bigger than school, she said.

The reality of her legal status haunts her and brings her to tears.

The thought of what would happen to her boys and husband is a worry that she carries with her all the time.

“I have learned to enjoy every day and not think of my harsh legal reality,” Noelia said. “I pray to God that one day this country decides to fix the broken immigration system we have and let me live my happily ever after in the country I love.”

Undocumented immigrants know that every day is not a promised one.

If DACA is terminated, simple advantages like possessing a driver's license or state ID will be revoked. This would make it difficult for DACA recipients to “open a bank account, pick up a prescription, cash a check, or rent an apartment,” as described by the Center for American Progress.

If DACA is terminated, Johnathan said his world would be turned upside down and he wouldn’t be able to imagine what life after would be like.

“I would not lose hope though. There was a dark time where DACA was not possible but came into existence. The impossible can be possible, sometimes it just takes time,” Johnathan said.

Isabel’s father, who is a U.S. citizen, is her alternative fix if DACA comes to an end. She said she is currently in the process of filing through her father for her residency. It has been a long, tedious and expensive process as she has spent more than $6,000, she said.

For Omar, there is not an alternative if DACA is terminated.

“We came as kids without having a say of our future, but that’s why our parents brought us here, to give us a future. But now it’s in jeopardy and I feel like many of us don’t know what to do if they take DACA from us,” Omar said.

5:08:46 DACA

This photo of Santo Toribio Romo, the saint of the immigrants, and a necklace with photos of saints belong to Omar, a Lexington resident protected by DACA. Photo by Michael Clubb | Staff

5:32:17 DACA

This photo with a depiction of Jesus belongs to Isabel, a Lexington resident protected by DACA. Photo by Michael Clubb | Staff

Omar said he wishes for the day he will get to walk across the stage, receiving his college diploma, but worries that it won’t be anytime soon, especially if DACA is terminated.

Jasmine lives in constant fear of the thought of being sent back to a country that she no longer considers home. Her legal status is something she thinks about all the time, she said, even with DACA protecting her.

“We are living in Trump's America, a country that has made us feel unwanted and like criminals. Most college students don’t have that worry of being branded with those titles,” she said. "They don’t have to walk around feeling unwanted in their country. They have that advantage of feeling like they belong.”