'He is Mexican, but he is not made in Mexico': Life without DACA would mean new dreams for this NC 'dreamer'
Posted April 28, 2018 4:18 p.m. EDT
Updated July 13, 2018 2:08 p.m. EDT
Chapel Hill, N.C. — You can tell that Maria Vázquez is Sam’s grandmother.
They both have broad shoulders and a short stature. Their eyes fold into the same crescents whenever they smile. If Sam’s mother comes up in conversation, they’re both quick to tear up, pausing to steady their breathing and clear their throats.
But they don’t know how alike they are.
They’ve barely even met.
Maria remembers holding him when he was an infant. He doesn’t remember being held. That was the last time they were together. Sam was 6 months old when his parents brought him to the United States from Mexico. Maria stayed in Nezahualcóyotl – a town outside of Mexico City where she’s lived for decades – with the rest of the family: her sons, daughters and other grandchildren.
Now, Sam Gomez Olvera is finishing his first year at UNC-Chapel Hill studying computer science. Maria has kept up with Sam’s successes through his father, her son. She doesn’t speak to Sam often. When they do get a moment to talk by phone, the conversation is short. The language is one thing – Sam mainly speaks English, she speaks Spanish – but the cultural barriers between them feel just as isolating as another foreign language.
Sometimes, it’s easier to think of her grandson as the six-month-old boy whose baby portrait hangs upstairs, not as the 19-year-old she hardly knows.
He’s a stranger and he’s family. He’s Mexican and American. Both and neither.
Sam has been plagued by paradoxes like these since he can remember, always trying to figure out what he is – who he is – from the labels assigned to his existence. Now, as an undocumented immigrant and Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipient, there’s a new label Sam has to consider: deported.
It’s something he never thought seriously about before the presidential election in 2016. He never really wondered what it would be like to return to Nezahualcóyotl – he’s not even sure how to say it. He never considered what he would say if he met his cousins, his uncles, his aunts, his grandmother.
But now, as the Trump administration has followed through on its campaign promise to terminate DACA, Sam – along with dreamers across the nation – questions his biggest paradox yet: What would it be like, having to return to the foreign land that is, somehow, supposed to be home?
The Obama Administration created DACA in 2012 to defer deportation for those brought into the United States illegally as children. Recipients like Sam, known as “dreamers,” have to meet eligibility requirements and renew their application every two years.
While it’s been Sam’s safety net throughout high school and now college, the program has faced criticism from both parties. Democrats have contested that, though it relieves the immediate fear of deportation, it was designed to be temporary and doesn’t provide a concrete path to citizenship. As an executive order, DACA has also been criticized by Republicans as an overreach of power, because it came in the wake of Congress’ failure to pass the DREAM Act, a bill introduced in 2001 to protect undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children.
According to the Pew Research Center, approximately 800,000 young unauthorized immigrants have received protection from deportation through DACA, with 94 percent being born in Mexico, Central America or South America.
There are more than 27,000 DACA recipients in North Carolina.
In September 2017, the Trump administration announced it would reject all new DACA applications, and although there would be a brief renewal period for current recipients, the program would eventually phase out by 2020. In the announcement, Congress had a six-month deadline to pass an alternative plan.
The Trump administration’s decision to phase out DACA has been contested in courts across the country. In February, the Supreme Court affirmed a lower court order that the Department of Homeland Security must continue to accept renewal applications.
In the meantime, Congress has been scrambling to pass immigration reform. There was the Grassley bill. The Toomey amendment. The “Common Sense” plan. The Coons-McCain bill. They were all put to a vote in February. They all failed.
“I feel like that was our one chance, and they blew it,” Sam said of the recent February attempts at reform. “A lot of people like to use the metaphor that DACA is like a Band-Aid on an open wound. It’s just there to make you feel better, but it’s not a permanent solution.”
On April 24, a federal judge for the District of Columbia ruled the administration must continue to accept new applications and protect DACA recipients – the federal government has 90 days to respond to better explain its position. It all takes a toll, Sam said. He tries to ignore the looming feeling that, even when officials postpone deadlines, it still feels like life in the States has an expiration date.
It’s hard for Sam to pinpoint when he learned what it means to be undocumented, he says. Since his two younger half-siblings were born in the U.S., they have citizenship.
But he’s always felt out of place.
“There’d be times when I’d be like, ‘Woah, I’m different,” he said.
Like when he tried to get a job during his time as a student at West Mecklenburg High School and needed his Social Security number, only to learn he didn’t have one. Or when, after getting into UNC, he felt resentful of his high-school peers who got in-state tuition or financial aid from the federal government, options unavailable to Sam because of his DACA status.
“College was not always an option,” he said. “It was like a faraway dream.”
He had the grades. He didn’t have the money. He held his Chapel Hill acceptance letter with both excitement and dread, knowing it’d take a miracle to afford what this piece of paper promised.
So it seemed too good to be true when he got his miracle: He received a full-ride scholarship from Red Ventures, the marketing company started in Charlotte, through their “Golden Door” program, which awards tuition funds to undocumented immigrants across the country who’ve excelled academically in high school.
With all it’s taken to get to this point – the temporary DACA protections, the UNC acceptance, the full-ride scholarship – it’s disheartening to think about how it could all seemingly evaporate, he said.
“I’ll have this college degree, but what am I going to do with it if I can’t even work? There are a lot of people who want us to contribute to society, and we’re trying to,” Sam said. “But whenever we don’t get anything fixed in terms of immigration reform, we can’t really get anything done to contribute. And we want to contribute.”
Whether you’re documented or undocumented, everyone feels American at heart, he said. The only thing that differentiates one person from another is what’s on a piece of paper.
“I love the American culture,” Sam said.
“I love hamburgers.”
Green chile. Guacamole. Pitchers, and then more pitchers, of agua de sandias – watermelon juice.
Like a magician, Maria unveils a new dish with every trip she makes into the common room, setting the plates and pitchers down on the folding table she propped up for lunch.
She’s on her way to the pantry again – she forgot the lime wedges – when a sizzle on the stove catches her attention. It’s the corn tortillas with cheese that she asked her daughters to fold into quesadillas. She smiles when she smells them. In Spanish, she tells her daughters to make more.
There’s never been a lot of money, she says, glancing around her Nezahualcóyotl townhouse that she shares with eight other family members. But there’s always been enough food to share.
Maria is the kitchen’s conductor, her smile baked into every part of the process: stirring, chopping, plating, serving. But there’s one dish she’s never gotten to make, one that she’s been dreaming of for the past decade.
When he was little, Sam used their brief phone conversations to ask her, again and again, to learn the recipe for apple pie. Apple pie – what’s that? She didn’t know, but she played along. Of course she’d learn how to make an apple pie, she’d say. That way, whenever they’d see each other again, they could bake one together.
That was years ago. Now she’s not sure if they’ll ever make their apple pie.
It’s a bittersweet dream. She longs for the apple pie days they never had, the days when they could spend an afternoon together laughing and dirtying the kitchen with flour, when Sam could be her grandson, and she could be his grandmother, and that’s it.
But she fears the apple pie days, too. If there’s ever a time when they’re together, it would mean Sam had to leave his friends, his school, his life, everything that’s his in America. “I cannot give him here what he has there,” she says.
But if the unimaginable were to happen, and they were together again in Mexico, he’d arrive to a family who loves him, she says.
And maybe she’d try to find some apples. Just in case.
Though it's been the focus of government revitalization projects in recent years, Nezahualcóyotl – “Neza” for short – is one of the most dangerous suburbs in Mexico. The crime and corruption were part of the reason Sam’s parents decided to move to the U.S., eventually settling in Charlotte, N.C.
Technically, Neza is Sam’s home. But he couldn’t tell you that out of all the single-story shops lining its streets, no two buildings look alike, with every storefront looking like it was painted a different shade from the palette of a piñata.
He’s never seen the giant beige octopus in the center of town that his cousins laugh about, because it’s become the landmark for where to turn left to get to his grandmother’s house.
He’s never been soaked by the Mexican rain that, when it snaps against the suburban streets, looks like it sparkles during spring showers.
Sam doesn’t know anything about Neza. Which is why he smiles when he thinks about the glances he’s always gotten from his peers in Spanish class. They expect he’ll know all the answers whenever the unit on Mexico comes up. In reality, he’s learning everything for the first time, too.
Monica Jacobo, a Mexican scholar and activist who has studied the behaviors of Mexicans now moving back from the United States, said it’s this identity clash that proves to be one of the most profound difficulties for immigrants returning to Mexico.
“It’s very different because you are supposed to be back in your home country,” Jacobo said. “They find out they are not as Mexican as they thought.”
There’s a lot that plays into this perceived metric of how Mexican one is, Jacobo said. Whether they don’t pick up on the cultural norms, or if they don’t speak Spanish perfectly, or if they’re out of touch with tradition, they are perceived as being different.
“Many of them don’t feel Mexican,” she said.
This same clash is what Jose Vázquez, Sam’s uncle, first mentioned when he thought about the challenges his nephew he hasn’t seen in nearly two decades might face if he had to return.
“He’s Mexican,” Jose said in Spanish, “but he’s not made in Mexico.”
As with Sam’s grandmother, Jose wishes his nephew was more than a name he sees on social media pages or a voice he occasionally hears over the phone. Jose’s family was especially close with Sam’s mother before she passed away when Sam was eight. He wishes he could have made sure Sam felt loved by his family, especially during those times of grief.
Jose knows Sam dreams of pursuing computer science after college, and that he’s the first in his family to have a grasp on that dream, as he’s the first one to go to college.
Yes, Jose wants to know his nephew. But he wants success for Sam in America, too.
More than anything else, he hopes for a day when Sam can live without the fear that he will one day be deported.
“He has a lot of family that not only love him, but that also support him, a family that will protect him,” Jose said. “What will happen in his life is not in hands of a politician or another person – it is in God’s hands.”
After college, Sam thinks he might want to work for Google.
College has been difficult. He wrestled with an identity crisis during his first semester, his undocumented status haunting his perception of himself. But given how far he’s already come, maybe he could get to Google, he says.
Those are the ideas he tries to focus on, he says. Google, the future, what he can accomplish if he continues to be diligent. Not his legal status, not the questions about the last time he’ll see his father and siblings.
Not who he’d have to become, were he to start over in Mexico.
“It’s a scary thought, really, because I have no memory [of Mexico] whatsoever,” he says. “It’s a very foreign place to me.”