New York, United States, Dec 28 – The mother of Juana and Ines Alejandro took a deep breath, put on a brave face and handed her toddlers over to strangers at the Mexican border to be smuggled into the United States.
That was 17 years ago. For the mother, going back to the poverty of her village in Oaxaca in Mexico was out of the question. Smugglers helped her cross the border herself a few days later.
She collected her daughters in Arizona and traveled to New York to reunite with her husband, whom she had not seen in two years.
Today, those daughters are 19 and 20 years old, study at a community college in New York and are scared to death that they might be deported after Donald Trump takes power next month.
“Being deported is something that does keep me awake at night,” Ines says. “How are we going to do it back home? It would mean starting all over again.”
In never-never land
The Alejandro family has lived in fear of being found out for years. That has meant going to the doctor only in emergencies, skipping school field trips and never returning to Mexico.
Juana and Ines have three siblings who were born in America and are therefore US citizens. But the older daughters and their parents remain in the country illegally.
The mother cooks Mexican food that an aunt sells outside a train station. The father helps, and washes dishes at a restaurant or works construction. They declined to be named for this story.
But Juana and Ines’s luck changed in 2013 when the United States started implementing a program to give young people like them renewable two-year residence and work permits.
It is called DACA, or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, for people who were brought to the United States as children and do not have papers. The idea is that they should not be punished with deportation for something in which they had no say.
“DACA has opened a lot of doors for me. I feel more secure about saying I am undocumented,” says Juana, who studies business administration. “It has removed many worries.”
During his presidential campaign, Trump insulted Mexicans by saying some Mexican immigrants were rapists and drug dealers. He also pledged to end the DACA program immediately.
But he has changed his tune since then.
“They got brought here at a very young age. They’ve worked here. They’ve gone to school here. Some were good students. Some have wonderful jobs,” Trump told Time magazine after his election. “And they’re in never-never land because they don’t know what’s going to happen.”
“We’re going to work something out that’s going to make people happy and proud,” he added without providing details.
A group of Democratic and Republican senators this month presented a bill that would protect such young people from deportation for three years and allow them to work if Trump scraps the DACA program.
A cherished dream
An estimated 1.8 million young people in the United States face the same dilemma as Juana and Ines. Brought into the country by their parents illegally as children, they grew up here, speak perfect English and went to elementary school here.
Some 65,000 graduate from high school each year. Most want to go on to university, but only five to 10 percent can afford it. Some 741,000 have applied for protection under DACA.
They have been living in legal limbo for years, waiting for a miracle. It even has a name: a bill called the “Dream Act,” which would grant such people permanent residency and a work permit. However, the bill has been languishing in Congress for 15 years.
Young people like the Alejandro daughters are called “dreamers.”
“Most of the people like my parents pay their taxes and give as much as they can back to this country,” Ines says. “I am here just for my education. The US is full of opportunities I wouldn’t have in Mexico.”
“My parents do work a lot,” Juana adds. “They barely sleep at night just to help us pay tuition, and we have to work as well.”
If DACA ends, however, it will be hard for the two girls to stay in school even if they are not deported, she says.
Still, despite the fear and uncertainty, the two sisters have stepped forward and made their status known, and are helping other undocumented students like them.
They formed a “Dream Team” at Hostos Community College — where they study — a group the school supports.
“I’d tell the president-elect,” Ines says, “that we are not all horrible people.”