The Story of My Family and What DACA Means to Me

“They never teach us in school that the huge Latino presence here is the direct result of our own government’s actions in Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central America over many decades. Actions that forced millions from that region to leave their homeland and journey north.”
- Juan Gonzalez in ‘Harvest of Empire’.

Harvest of Empire’ is a great documentary that discusses systematic oppression, covert operations, and local proxies used to destabilize governments in the region by the United States. For example, during WWII, the Bracero Program allowed millions of Mexican men to come to the United States to work on short-term, primarily agricultural labor contracts, making it the largest US contract labor program. As a result of US intervention in Latin America (e.g. Columbia, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Nicaragua, to name a few), millions of Latinos have immigrated to the US. The idea that we come here in search of better opportunities, a better life, and in search of the American dream are all a romanticization of the truth and hardships immigrants face when they choose or are forced into exile.

DACA is not a Latinx-only issue, but it does affect millions of Latinxs. Although I do not represent all Latin@s, I can share my personal experience with immigration and growing up as the daughter of Salvadorian immigrants in Santa Ana, CA.

My parents started their lives together in Usulután, El Salvador, where they met, married, and had my older brother. My dad was a university student during the ‘70s and ended up becoming a part of the civil war by teaching literacy to campesinos or farmers. At the time, El Salvador was governed and controlled by an oligarchy of 14 families, all of which were actively taking over land by deception and force. To help counter their efforts, my father and his classmates began to teach campesinos to read and write, so that they could eventually stand up for themselves and stop getting taken advantage of. One day, on his way to the university, my father was warned by the neighbors that his school had been taken over by the army. They were taking student records, beating and killing students, and were going to burn the school to the ground. As he got closer, he smelled the fire burning and decided to leave for the capital to avoid bringing danger to his door where his parents, siblings, my mother and their month-old baby boy lived.

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"The idea that we come here in search of better opportunities, a better life, and in search of the American dream are all a romanticization of the truth..."

Because my father attended the National University and had taken it upon himself to work on educating campesinos, his name was added to a kill list and he had to leave the county or risk losing his life. My father and his parents decided the best option for him would be to leave for the United States. It would be 12 years before my father was able to return home. With time, he saved up money to bring my mother and later my brother, to the United States.

Together again, my parents had me, my sister, and my little brother which meant we were automatically citizens. My father was able to continue his work with funding and support from the Sisters of St. Joseph's in Orange County, CA. He founded and ran a nonprofit that taught literacy to adult immigrants who never had the opportunity to go to school. My parents’ work didn’t stop there. Throughout my childhood, we attended events and retreats where comrades would discuss the current situation in El Salvador and how to help the country reach new heights post-revolution.

In the ‘80s and ‘90s, Santa Ana, CA was part of a Republican-run Orange County. It meant that, although there were hundreds of thousands of Latinx immigrants in the area, who were employed at many levels—both illegally and lawfully—the general sentiment was that we were unwelcome. In 1994, at 8 years old, I marched with my family and friends against Proposition 187 on the hot streets of LA. Prop 187 would make anyone residing in California who was in the country without legal permission ineligible for public benefits (so they couldn’t attend public school, visit a hospital, etc.). Voters passed Prop 187, but it was quickly shut down by a permanent injunction after various groups, including the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF), the League of Latin American Citizens (LULAC), and the ACLU, filed suits.

Surrounded by beaches, surfer dudes, and bleached blondes, we quickly learned we were the wrong skin tone, that we belonged to a “subpar culture,” and that we weren’t actually considered American. One day in 9th grade, on my way to school, a lady screamed “go back to your country” at me from the side window of her car. All I could think was, “but I was born here -- this is my country.” It made me upset, but I didn’t really understand why. During my internship in the local hospital, the nurses were discussing how “Latinos breed like rabbits” and that they had to “deal with them and all their babies.” When I was accepted into UCLA, I was told it was only because of affirmative action, and that I should feel lucky that I was “given priority over a very deserving white person.” In 1996, Californians passed Proposition 209 which eliminated affirmative at all schools in the University of California system.

I share these incidents with you to explain the climate I grew up in. It was hostile and racist, and it made me realize how important it is to have a sense of belonging, and a respect, understanding and appreciation for each other’s cultures, histories, and experiences. My struggle was a fierce one, but it was nothing compared to the one my older brother faced.

As a young child in Usulután, El Salvador, he was being raised by our loving grandparents in a large, comfortable home and only knew of his father through a voice on the phone and a face in pictures. To unite their family, my parents decided to bring my brother to the United States. This major upheaval brought him to a tiny house, where everyone outside spoke English, and where he was being forced to assimilate and learn at the same time. My brother was 4 years old and struggled with his new life. School was an everyday challenge, since he had to learn English in a time before there was ESL, he faced many bullies, and learned from racist teachers and counselors He came to miss our grandparents and had an especially difficult time when our grandfather passed away and he wasn’t allowed to travel and see him be laid to rest. As an undocumented child, he had very few rights, and my parents didn’t want to risk putting him in danger of deportation for any reason. He went through school with many disciplinary issues and with his major secret -- his undocumented status. He would not be applying to college with his friends, he would not qualify for financial aid, and besides, his school counselors had already told him he would be better off as a mechanic. My brother went on to marry his high school sweetheart and ended up becoming a citizen through her. As a first-generation Mexicana, she like me, had been born here and didn’t face any issues. My brother was a DREAMer before Obama. He never became an AB540 student and didn’t have the luxury to travel to El Salvador or anywhere out of the state where he lived.

In 2012, the Obama administration established the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) immigration policy, that allowed some individuals who entered the country illegally as minors to receive a renewable two-year period of deferred action from deportation and to be eligible for a work permit. As of 2017, approximately 800,000 individuals—sometimes referred to as “DREAMer” after the proposed DREAM Act—were enrolled in the program created by DACA. The policy was rescinded by the Trump administration in September 2017. These DREAMer have entered the United States for various reasons and are only trying to be accepted in a country that they have lived in most of their lives. They want to get an education, attend college/university, and establish a career and sense of purpose like the rest of us. Unfortunately for them, they were born somewhere else. What I think we should all work to understand are the mitigating circumstances that push so many people to immigrate to the US.

you broke the ocean in
half to be here.
only to meet nothing that wants you.

- ‘immigrant’ by Nayyirah Waheed

DACA was an opportunity to give these young people a chance to make a difference in their lives and in their communities. Suspending the program not only has a devastating effect on hundreds of thousands of lives; it also pulls us back from the progress we have made politically–and as human beings–when it comes to respecting the lives and experiences of others. Here is what I ask of you: vote to support people, vote on legislation and for representatives that will account for social  impact and respect human rights. Stand up and speak out for all of those who are unable, or afraid, to do so. We can only improve as a society when we respect human rights and value the diversity that makes America so great.

Doris Q. is a community organizer and repro justice advocate based in DC who supports communities to access essential health services.