Interview with DACA recipients Ernesto Hernandez and Jimena Castro

Author:  Monsy Hernandez

Monsy Hernandez spoke with two DACA recipients, Ernesto Hernandez and Jimena Castro, about how the DREAM Act impacted them and what they think everyone should know about immigrants in the United States.

DACA stands for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, a policy that provides the right to a renewable work permit for eligible immigrants who were brought into the United States as children without documentation. The DREAM Act (Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors) is the name for a process that would grant conditional residency, and potentially permanent residency, to eligible minors with an immigrant background. Many youths and students, mostly undocumented, who are covered by the protections it offers are called DREAMers.

How has DACA impacted you?

Ernesto: DACA has definitely impacted me in a positive way, I mean, previous to DACA, you know, like many other immigrants in this country we were hiding in the shadows for lack of better words, we were undocumented, we couldn’t find jobs or go to school, so when DACA came out it gave us a chance to come out of the shadows, participate in school programs. It helped me seek better paying jobs, and it's definitely helped me out over the last six years of being DACA-mented.

Jimena: DACA impacted me because it allowed me to get a driver’s license. We’re only allowed to have it yearly. From my understanding, United States citizens are allowed to have their driver’s licenses for over ten years. We’re only allowed to have it while our DACA is valid for two years, then we have to go through a renewal. It also allowed me to get a job legally. It gave me a social security number, a right-to-work permit, and it also allowed me to go to school. But every state has different provisions as to what they allow. SC puts a lot of restrictions on the people that go to school, which is why I go to school in Delaware. SC charges out-of-country tuition for DACA, so it’s very unaffordable. No FAFSA, no federal loans, so we’re basically on our own with that. It limits you in what you can be. They don’t allow people with DACA to become lawyers, and anything that requires you to get licensing exams that they would allow any United States citizen to take. I’m going to school to be a nurse, but I can’t take the exam that allows me to get licensed in South Carolina. DACA does allow you to go to school, you just have to find your way.

South Carolina is one of the more conservative states. I'm pretty sure that anyone who wasn't documented wasn't allowed to go to college before DACA, and you're still not allowed to apply for grants and things of that matter, right?

Ernesto: Right, you can go to a school in your state and still have to pay out-of-state tuition. In a lot of cases, even when you have a degree you can’t use it because you're a DACA-mented student. I’ve heard a lot of stories from activist friends of mine in the Columbia area who went to open up a business but can’t because they’re not allowed to use their degree.

Jimena: Yeah, also Georgia. After I graduated I applied to one university with a 3.8 GPA. I got accepted right away, but when I got the bill they tried to charge me out-of-country which was ridiculously high-priced. That’s one thing that they do to prevent people with DACA from going to school is setting high prices.

Do you think South Carolina has made it particularly difficult for DREAMers?

Jimena: Of course. Not just for DACA but for other immigrants, they basically keep building more walls.

What has been your overall experience as an immigrant in South Carolina?

Ernesto: I immigrated to this country when I was three months old, I’m 33 now. I grew up in the rural south. 99 % of the population was white. All of the Hispanics worked in the strawberry, cotton, peach fields. There was definitely a lot of racism. My mom and stepdad tried to open a business and it took them years because of what they look like and how they spoke. It affected me because growing up my mom would tell me, you’re American now. I need you to be an American, learn English, speak English, forget everything you knew before. I would be ashamed to speak Spanish because I would say, mom you told me to be American. It was weird being someone you’re not in order to assimilate.

Jimena: It was hard, and now I can actually compare it to life in Delaware. Growing up in SC is very difficult for an immigrant. The governor who just won said that he wants to ban sanctuary cities. It was hard because I could never explain that to my American friends, I could never tell them that I was undocumented. I always had to hide who I really was. I could express it in front of Hispanics, but never Americans. I understood I was illegal from a very young age. It wasn’t until I went to high school that it affected me even more. My classmates were getting driver’s licenses and jobs. Also when I realized that I wasn’t going to be able to go to college. It was really hard because I was working so hard to have a better future, I had very good grades and it was hard to realize you might not be able to continue your education no matter how much you work. A man by the name of Don Graham started a scholarship I was selected for called the Opportunity Scholarship. It’s made up of private donors, some famous and some regular people. It is what allows me to continue my education, but I had to leave the state and move to Delaware. As I continue to grow as an immigrant, that experience of living in Delaware was 100% different than my experience living here in SC. I’m very, very grateful that I got to experience this, because when I moved to Delaware, all the people that got the scholarship, like 30 people in my cohort, we were very vocal about it. We can wear shirts that say ‘I Am Undocumented’ or ‘I Support Immigrants’ and no one looks down on us. It’s very different, because if I wore those shirts here in SC I would get very dirty looks. When Donald Trump rescinded DACA, we held a small protest at school, our advisor from the university organized a little sit-in protest and there were Americans there supporting us. We never thought that would happen, there were white people and African-American people supporting DACA, organizing with us, and there were older people. I know a lot of younger people are more involved, but we had older people supporting us, which was a completely different experience. It’s been great being able to be who I am without fear of being criticized.

How do you personally try to combat the racism and stereotypes that you face?

Ernesto: Ever since I was a kid I knew that growing up in this country was going to be tough. I took it as a challenge and I grew from it. When something happens I don’t let it get to me. I go meet up with friends and we talk about things, we have dinner dates, we go do ‘artivism’ stuff, we meet local organizations and do things. We met with Senator Lindsey Graham years ago, talking about opening the doors and immigrants and the DACA program, When Obama was in office, Lindsey Graham was all about DACA and DREAMers. I don’t know what happened in the last few years because now he opposes anything having to do with immigration.

Jimena: At my school there is a DACA organization and what we do is inform people about immigration and hopefully change people’s minds. A lot of people believe the things they hear on, for example, FOX News. After Donald Trump said that thing about us being criminals, a lot of people developed prejudice thinking we’re criminals and drug dealers and rapists. Any time that an illegal immigrant commits a crime those people make sure that everyone knows about it to show that Donald Trump was right. It’s hard because we are illegal, but we’re just trying to have a better future. We have an event at school, ‘Day of the Immigrant’ where we talk about how we are immigrants and how we contribute to society. We have hosted a forum at the school for my organization, in which I am the public relations officer, where we inform the student body of what DACA is, what we benefit and don’t benefit from.

How important do you feel that political activism and voting are?

Ernesto: The party that we have in place right now isn’t ideal. Latino votes can help, like in the midterms this year. So many think that their voices don’t matter, but we have shown that if you do go out and vote, it does matter. Find those Latino people that are running for office now who know the background, who grew up in a similar way to how we did.

Jimena: It is incredibly important. I’m glad that it’s very precise nowadays for the younger generation to go vote. If you’re not voting, especially if you’re a woman, you have to remember that not even 100 years ago women couldn’t vote. African-Americans have gone through the most laws that anybody has gone through to be able to vote. If you look at history, to vote is the future of this country. Voting decides what happens to us DREAMers, healthcare, the environment. So it’s incredibly important to vote, I have a lot of friends who voted, they messaged me and let me know. They obviously did not vote for Trump. That was their choice to disclose it, but my friends are very supportive of DREAMers.

What do you think the next generation of Latino immigrants is going to look like? Do you think things will be easier for your children later on in life?

Ernesto: We can all hope. I know that’s what my parents were hoping when they brought me here. If you think about it, even with living in the shadows and all that, we still benefited. This country does offer great ways of becoming a better person not only financially, but in general. But being undocumented sets us back, even though we’re so talented. We were so lucky with what Obama put in place, to be able to get a work permit, to be able to be who I am. Before Obama put it in place I was working a regular kitchen job, making $7.50 an hour. Now I oversee four restaurants and am a district manager for a restaurant company. That wouldn’t have happened if it wasn’t for DACA. I’d still be making minimum wage or stuck back in my country probably. Hoping that the next generation will be better off.

Jimena: The reason I came to the US was because my mother died when I was three, and my father didn’t live in Mexico. I’d never met my father, and lived with my older sister who is undocumented. When I was 14 I moved in with my godparents. My godparents are actually legally here. Even though they are legal, we also experienced racism. My sister has green eyes and blond hair, she looks white. She’s undocumented, she’s illegal and she’s never experienced racism. People think that she’s American. My godparents, who are legal, experience racism for their pronunciation, skin color, people always tell them that they’re undocumented. And that definitely lets you know that people are judging you for your skin color. It’s hard for my godparents, but that’s the reason why I’m in the US.

I’ve learned that you can either be the victim of your life story, or you can use it as inspiration to move forward. I know people who’ve lost their parents, and for me I chose to talk about that and chose to use it as the reason to move forward. My sister and godparents are incredibly important to me. My godparents took on the role of mother and father when they didn’t have to, and my sister raised me until I was 14. I’m very thankful to her. The reason I’m getting an education now is so I can provide for them later. I think that’s what we all want, white, Hispanic, black or Asian, we all have that same dream.

What would you like people to know about the process of becoming a DREAMer, given the misconceptions about the program?

Ernesto: The process took me about a year, from going to the beginning of processing then getting the biometrics and paying the $495 fee. I think it was like $480 six years ago, now it’s $495. There aren’t any perks other than being allowed to work. You can’t receive food stamps, no social security stuff other than paying taxes. Let’s say that I become a citizen, I won’t see any of the money that's collected.

I’m surprised I have white friends who don’t know much about DACA. I had lunch with one of my friends who didn’t even know I’m not American, he just thought I was an American that was brown who happened to be from Mexican parents. He said, I’d heard about it but I didn’t know you guys were going through this. It’s nothing to be ashamed of, you just gotta talk about it, continue to do activism and get the word out.

Jimena: I would say definitely meet a DREAMer. Ask them questions. What you hear on the media are stereotypes. They're false. The idea that DREAMers or Hispanics don’t pay taxes is a huge insult. We work, I have a job, I report my taxes every year, and the ironic thing is we don’t qualify for welfare. I don’t qualify for federal aid, Medicaid, Medicare, I’m not sure about social security, but I know that I don’t qualify for many things that most Americans do. There’s not a DREAMer I know that uses food stamps, we don’t qualify. I don’t know a DREAMer that is using government help for anything in their lives. Yet people think we’re only here to benefit from the government. Get to know an immigrant, get to know a DREAMer.