When Jose Ramirez immigrated to Pennsylvania from a rural town in Mexico’s Michoacan province, the then-8-year-old wasn’t struck by the chilly January temperatures or urban streetscapes.
What he remembers most vividly was encountering people who looked different from him.
“Seeing other ethnicities was a culture shock,” recalled Ramirez, now 24, about his arrival in Harrisburg in 2001. “I thought, ‘Wow, there are so many groups of people.’”
Sixteen years later, the same diversity that defined Ramirez’s early memories of America faces unprecedented threats from President Donald Trump’s administration. Ramirez is one of the nearly 800,000 young, undocumented immigrants who received relief through the federal Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. DACA was signed into law by then-President Barack Obama in August 2012, and Trump announced on Sept. 5 that he would terminate the program, leaving DACA enrollees, commonly called DREAMers, vulnerable to deportation.
Trump has since equivocated on his early promises and is using the DACA program as a bargaining chip while negotiating with Congress to build his border wall. Ramirez shows how DACA enabled young, undocumented immigrants to flourish and what they have to lose if the program is rescinded.
Multiculturalism was what shocked Ramirez when he arrived in America, but it’s what saved him when he started elementary school. Since he didn’t know any English, he struggled to meet other students and keep up with school work. He came to rely on the other foreign-born students he met in his ESL class.
“It was such a big help, knowing I wasn’t the only one going to school not knowing what people were saying,” Ramirez recalled.
By the time he graduated from Scott Elementary School, his grades were strong enough to earn him a spot at Marshall Math and Science Academy. He set his sights on college and a career in medicine.
Ramirez knew that he’d have to start saving early to finance college. He worked from the time he was a young teenager, traveling as far as Williamsport for jobs picking fruit and vegetables. He picked up landscaping gigs around Harrisburg when he could. But without a legal work permit, the only jobs available to him were temporary and low paying.
“For me, it was never about not wanting to work—it was that I couldn’t work,” he said about life when he was undocumented. He finished his first semester of college unsure if he could afford a degree.
But that changed with DACA. Ramirez was almost 19 when the program began, and he said he was “ecstatic” to learn about the benefits it carried. He could obtain a Social Security card and work permit, and he’d be protected from deportation for two years.
Most importantly, he’d be able to sit for board examinations and receive a medical license. His dream of becoming a nurse was suddenly possible.
“It was a total gift, honestly,” he said.
To receive DACA benefits, Ramirez had to pass a criminal background check and fingerprint test. Within a month of obtaining his work permit, he landed a job at UPS. He qualified for college tuition assistance through the company’s “Earn & Learn” program and took a second job at an Amazon.com warehouse to make ends meet. By working 40 hours a week during the semester, Ramirez was able to support himself through a nursing program without taking out student loans.
He was in his final semester of college on Sept. 5, when Trump announced that he would end the program and begin phasing out benefits in the next six months.
Smack in the Face
According to Carrie Carranza, an immigration legal counselor with Church World Services in Lancaster, DACA gives undocumented immigrants privileges that many native-born and naturalized Americans take for granted: the ability to drive, build credit and employment history and live without fear of deportation.
CWS serves 100 DACA clients in south-central Pennsylvania, Carranza said, and losing any of these privileges can render their futures uncertain.
For a DREAMer like Jose Ramirez, Trump’s announcement put years of hard work in jeopardy.
“It was a huge smack in the face,” said Ramirez, who is on schedule to finish his nursing degree this year. “It was upsetting because I put so much effort into studying and working, and it feels like it’s very uncertain.”
The worst fear facing DREAMers is that of deportation. Since most DACA recipients arrived in the United States between ages 3 and 6, according to the New York Times, deportation would mean returning to a country that they remember only distantly.
Ramirez only recalls bits and pieces of life in Mexico. He knows he still has uncles living in the small town his family left, but said he doesn’t know where he would go if he were deported.
“I have no plans of going back, but I wish I did because it’s very much a possibility,” said Ramirez, whose DACA benefits expire in March 2019.
His situation is typical of the clients that Carranza serves as a legal counselor. DACA recipients must renew their status with the federal government every two years, a process that includes submitting pay stubs, tuition bills and receipts as proof of residency and employment.
The last deadline for the two-year renewal passed on Oct. 5. If the Trump administration succeeds in fully repealing the program, work permits will be allowed to expire starting on March 5. Returning to their undocumented status leaves DREAMers vulnerable to deportation.
“It was infuriating to tell my clients, who want to be nurses, who parent U.S. citizens, who are in college, or are newlyweds planning their future, that they can really only see clearly for the next two years,” Carranza said. “After that, things get cloudy and uncertain.”
Like many DREAMers, Ramirez only knows the life he’s built in America. His revolves around work and school, as well as trips to the gym and soccer matches with his friends.
“This is my home; I have everything here,” he said Ramirez.
He currently lives with his mother and sisters. Another brother also lives in the United States, and all of Jose’s siblings receive DACA benefits.
Since he can’t plan far into the future, Ramirez is focused on more immediate goals—finishing his degree, sitting for medical board exams and launching a career of helping other people.
“What people don’t understand is I’m that I’m not here thinking, ‘Oh I want to take your job,’” he said. “I’m here to make myself a better person. I don’t want to be begging. I’d rather be the nurse helping you when you’re sick.”