She’d said it dozens of times, maybe more: “Hi, my name is Maria. We are all ‘Dreamers’ from Arizona who drove 40 hours to speak to you.”
Maria Socorro Leon Pena, 20, said it as she matched pace with members of Congress walking to and from votes at the U.S. Capitol building. She said it to staffers as she sat in the plush Washington, D.C. offices. She said it in the 40-degree cold as wind swept past her and 30 other immigrants and advocates. She said it in the marble-lined halls outside the congressional hearing rooms.
She said it as much as she could while she was on Capitol Hill because she, and about 800,000 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients like her, faced losing the very thing that allowed them to be there.
Pena is a “Dreamer” and a recipient of the Obama-era program, DACA, which provides temporary deportation relief and work authorization to undocumented immigrants brought to the country as children.
Her parents brought her and her younger brother, Alan Leon Pena, to the United States from Mexico 15 years ago; Alan, when he was just two months old.
The program, which began in 2012, allowed undocumented immigrants to live, work, and study in the United States. But that legal lifeline took a turn in September when the Trump administration announced the end of the program. After March 5, 2018, DACA permits will gradually begin to expire. Some estimate around 1,000 DACA recipients will begin losing their status per day. Pena’s is set to end in July 2019.
Since September, President Trump has punted the issue to Congress, calling on lawmakers to find a permanent solution on DACA by the March 5 deadline. He has used DACA to strike deals for ramping up immigration enforcement and border wall funding, as hundreds of thousands of Dreamers wait anxiously. Pena’s once carefully laid plans of going to college to become a pediatrician has been thrust into uncertainty.
In December, it was that very uncertainty that prompted Pena to drive across the United States to D.C. with a group of DACA recipients and advocates to push for a solution.
“It just sucks to have the place where you grew up in, the place where all your dreams were born, and where you feel like you can have the opportunity to go to school, to work, to do the best that you can, but [to have] these laws and these policies are like, literally, ‘No, you can’t. You can’t do that,’” Pena told ThinkProgress.
Growing up undocumented
It was mid-September, a little more than a week after Trump announced the end of DACA, and Pena raked her fingers through the hair of her 15-year-old brother, Alan, in the nook of her kitchen. She pulled it into a tightly woven french braid and let out a laugh.
A few feet away, her 10-year-old brother Eric Leon Pena, a U.S. citizen, and his friends sat in a cluster on the stained tan tile. As they set up a plastic dollhouse that dominated the living space, the kids let the tiny plastic furniture clatter on the floor near their well-worn tennis shoes.
Between the three siblings and their friends, it was cramped in their Paradise Valley trailer. The trailer park was home to the family, and had been for most of Pena’s life in Arizona.
Pena and her brother grew up in Arizona as undocumented immigrants with Eric and their undocumented parents before the program’s inception in 2012. When her parents divorced, her mother, Haidee, and the three children moved to their current home.
To grow up undocumented was to grow up with a lingering fear, scared to do even the smallest things like go to the hospital or take a road trip, she said.
“I remember being scared of the cops because we knew,” Pena said. “My parents would talk about it when I was five years old. I had a bit of an idea. I just knew, though, that we were better off here.”
In the United States, the family escaped the poverty they were born into in Durango, Mexico. In Arizona, they grew up comfortably by comparison, but without affluence.
In their home, pieces of cardboard were carefully duct-taped to the windows to stop cold air from escaping the home. Pena and her mom shared a bedroom, cluttered with stacks of school books, a trundle bed, and clothing. Alan and Eric shared a small room on the other side of the trailer, with walls they covered with spray-painted cartons of pizza and colorful phrases to brighten up the space.
For nine years, the family built a life in the small lot of mismatched trailers in the heart of Paradise Valley, a city characterized by its predominantly white, upper-middle class suburbs.
DACA allowed Pena to do far more than exist in the United States. It helped pull her family out of the shadows.
“Go to school, work, be a YoungLife leader, serve, volunteer, go to church — it [DACA] gave me this freedom where I didn’t have to be afraid,” Pena said.
Immigrants are caught in a political stalemate
Trump’s announcement to end the program brought the call for a “Dream Act” — a permanent piece of legislation that would provide sanctuary and a pathway to citizenship for the young immigrants — roaring back.
The idea is not a new one. It began in 2001 with a never-passed bill called the DREAM Act, or the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act, which offered similar protections to the current DACA program. The bill made way for the commonly used term ‘Dreamer’, and for years, the proposal was tweaked, reintroduced, debated, and shot down.
On June 15, 2012, President Barack Obama announced the beginning of the executive program DACA, which included core elements of the DREAM Act. Since then, around 800,000 immigrants have received work permits and protection from deportation through DACA. Around 689,800 are currently enrolled, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
While politics circulated and protests erupted, Pena skipped class, something she’s only done three times over the course of her college career.
“I knew if I was alone in that moment, without people who knew exactly what I was going through, I would go insane,” she said. “It’s something that hurts a lot. It’s hard to explain because it’s something where you think to yourself, ‘What am I doing wrong? All I’m trying to do is work, become a pediatrician, serve my community.’”
With the Jan. 19 deadline to fund the government looming, Republicans and Democrats are aiming to reach a deal on DACA. Following a meeting with GOP leaders, Trump told reporters Saturday that any permanent legislative solution for DACA would be contingent on a border wall. Democrats tried unsuccessfully to tack DACA provisions onto December’s stopgap spending bill and will likely attempt to do the same thing this month.
Advocates call for a “clean” Dream Act — a standalone law with no additional provisions — and some Democrats have accused Trump of holding the hundreds of thousands of Dreamers “hostage” by forcing a decision on the controversial border wall.
“The reality is that at the moment everybody’s at risk of deportation,” said Francisco Luna, one of many ‘Dreamers’ like Pena who traveled to Washington to advocate for the bill. “Currently, there’s a stance that any undocumented individuals, someone that has a protected status, not including residency or citizenship, could be deported.”
It was December and Pena stood, swaddled up in a black winter coat and fuzzy gloves, her eyes pointed toward the late-night glow of the U.S. Capitol building.
Huddled around her were nearly 30 DACA recipients and advocates, tucking their heads into their coats as a wind swept through the cold night.
Alone, except for the occasional passersby, they waited for more than an hour for members of Congress to trickle out of the building following evening votes.
A bell would ring and lawmakers and their staffers would walk briskly out of the tunnel connected to the House of Representatives floor. And it would begin. The advocates broke off from their group, matching the stride of suit-clad lawmakers to tell their stories.
The goal was to make a connection, to speak with as many of the 535 members of Congress who would, in the coming months, make a vote that would decide their futures.
Pena was among a group of 10 who squeezed into a white van on the night of Dec. 1 with a backpack full of homework slung over her shoulders. She was prepared to drive through 13 states, 40 hours from Phoenix to D.C., and 40 hours back a week later.
The recipients and advocates took turns driving through the night. The 10 were meeting up with other groups brought by Phoenix DACA recipient, Reyna Montoya, the founder of the immigrant advocacy group Aliento.
The groups came from many states — Arizona, California, Texas, Virginia, New York, New Jersey, Florida, Utah, Washington, Oregon, North Carolina, Kansas, and D.C. Over the course of a month, Montoya and her organization brought 83 DACA recipients, immigrants, and advocates to the Capitol.
By night, around 30 immigrants and advocates slept on the floor of a local church. By day, they packed the few possessions they could fit in the vans into a church closet, and headed to the U.S. Capitol donning walking shoes and button downs.
They camped out in the basement cafeterias of the Longworth House Office and Russell Senate Office buildings, scheduling meetings and waiting outside hearings to speak with lawmakers.
They could be seen sifting through policy laptops next to congressional staffers and journalists fueling up with their morning coffees, walking in and out of offices with staffer business cards, and waiting on the Capitol sidewalks armed with their stories.
But they were hardly the only ones making a political push. Since September, a flood of advocates have made their way to Washington, raising noise through protests and civil disobediences.
On Dec. 6, 180 advocates, including two Democratic House members, Reps. Judy Chu (D-CA) and Luis Gutiérrez (D-IL), were arrested on the steps of the Capitol during a protest.
“For us, it’s not about the politics, but our lives, and how do we cut through them [the politics] in order for us to have a solution,” said Montoya. “Time is continuously ticking on us.”
She and a group of other ‘Dreamers’ started their advocacy work in D.C. in October, when they made a similar trip as a response to Trump’s decision to end the program.
“[W]e thought, ‘how can we go about bringing that sense of urgency to the people who are actually going to make a decision in our lives?’” Montoya said.
“All of us have sacrificed everything”
Pena’s home in Paradise Valley has a buzz to it.
Eric, the loud, “Twilight” vampire-loving 10-year-old constantly popped in and out of the trailer with friends, often sisters and brothers of undocumented immigrants themselves. Alan, a more reserved teenager, would tuck away in his room until Pena and Eric would pull him out.
But there was one person often missing from the chatter: Pena’s mother.
Haidee, a single mom and an undocumented immigrant, was a school janitor of ten years and worked late on weeknights. The siblings would hardly ever see her shy of weekends.
“I work. I work to provide for them, and I sleep when work ends,” Haidee said in Spanish.
Woven throughout Pena’s childhood was also her mother’s battle with depression.
“She was a depressed single mother trying to support us,” Pena said. “I had to kind of grow up in a way. I had to mature a lot faster, and I had more responsibility with me. When you got home from school you didn’t see your mother, you would have to take care of your brothers, make sure your brothers ate, make sure your brothers did their homework.”
At the age of 10, Pena became “Mom” on the weekdays, often referring to her young brothers as “my children.”
“I remember learning how to make food for them,” she said. “When my little brother Eric was born, I remember changing his diapers. I remember feeding him. I remember taking care of him. I remember him crying and [me] calling my mom like, ‘Mom, what do I do? How do I help him?’”
Now, 10 years later, Pena seems comfortable as the de facto leader of the family, balancing multiple jobs, volunteering, advocacy work, and studies with goals of someday making it to a school like Harvard. She cooks dinner with the pans lining the kitchen counter and presses band-aids onto the scraped knees of neighborhood children as if it were muscle memory.
It is a leadership role many ‘Dreamers’ have assumed from a young age, and one that has become all the more difficult to continue after the Trump administration announced the program’s end.
The uncertainty and pressure often brought with it mental illness unique to immigrant youth like them, said Jesus, an 18-year-old undocumented advocate who said he was denied DACA because he didn’t have enough government records. (Jesus’s last name has been withheld to preserve his privacy.)
“None of us have pushed ourselves hard enough,” Jesus said, sitting on a curb outside the Capitol in December. “And none of us have sacrificed enough. But all of us have sacrificed everything. So it’s that kind of point of everyone gives what they can, but what they can is not enough.”
Pena’s mom, as well as her brother, have struggled with depression and Pena said she’s felt lingering anxiety hanging over her since Trump announced the program would end in March.
So she began to dive into immigrant advocacy, showing up to protests, talking to her community college about how they can help immigrants like her, telling her story to her local YoungLife group, and becoming more involved with Aliento through Montoya.
She saw it as her “time to help,” and found herself less focused on school, more focused on sharing information about DACA.
“I have been struggling with just being anxious not knowing, being sad, in a way, kind of depressed,” Pena said, days after the announcement. “It’s like what do I do, you know? What do I focus on? What should be my priorities right now? Should I go to school? Those thoughts come into your head because you don’t know what’s going to happen. Should I be planning for the worst or what should I be planning for?”
The pull of advocacy
For some like Montoya and Pena, the desire to be an advocate stemmed from a heart of service. For others, like Brenda Lopez, 32, the desire was all about staying connected to her two U.S. citizen daughters.
“If I lose my work permit, I’m not going to be able to work, how am I going to support my U.S. citizen kids?” Lopez said, pausing to hold back tears. “I am a single mother, I depend 100 percent on this work permit which I got through DACA. If I lose it, I lose everything.”
For Jesus, the motivation was fighting for his brother’s DACA status, even though he wasn’t sure he qualified for the benefits himself. And for Francisco Luna, it was the need to speak on behalf of other immigrants like his partner and mother who couldn’t be there to speak for themselves.
“I’m afraid of going back to Arizona and my partner not being there, my mom not being there, my sister and my three nephews being separated,” said Luna.
“That’s a fear that I have and that’s something that I keep in mind. That’s why I’m here pushing for everything that I can.”
The stories are different, but the underlying fear is the same.
On the Hill, some congressional meetings came with condemnations from lawmakers and others came with uplifting pronouncements.
“It is very normal to feel discouraged when you have opposition and people who, they don’t just not understand, but they don’t really care,” said Montoya.
“I think that that’s a very normal feeling, but I have to keep the eyes on the prize and understand that it’s not personal,” Montoya added.
“I know we’re on the right side of history. They can call me illegal, they can call me all the names and all the slurs, but I know who I am, and I’m very proud that I’m that.”