Marlene Rangel sits outside of a nondescript Starbucks on a late summer evening, tears slowly filling her soft brown eyes as she begins to recall a particularly painful incident.
“One thing that I’ll never forget is when my mom crashed. This lady hit her sideways and she got out of the car and the lady started saying that is why we shouldn’t be here,” said Rangel, a 24-year-old nursing student from Mexico City. “It hurt so bad because my mom doesn’t speak English and she couldn’t defend herself.”
For Rangel, these types of incidents stand at the forefront of what it means to be an immigrant in 21st century America.
Mario Arellano, a friend of Rangel’s, said being an immigrant has both negative and positive aspects.
“You can think anything you want. I’m an immigrant. I’m a Mexican. I don’t have any papers. I’m a wetback. That’s fine,” 24-year-old Arellano said. “Whoever’s saying that to me, I believe in my head I’m going to be better than him eventually, not only as a person, but as a successful person.”
One of the programs that helped many young immigrants get on their feet, including Rangel and Arellano, was Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, known as DACA.
“When Obama created the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, he basically said any person that’s here illegally can be given a work permit and be told that they’re not going to be deported if they meet certain criteria and they basically left that criteria up to the president,” said Robert Lamb, an associate attorney with Hatch Rockers Immigration.
As a result of the program, many younger immigrants, the majority of which are Hispanic, had the option to go to school and pursue successful careers.
Jacob Oakes, a 40-year-old immigration attorney at Pisgah Legal Services, said he saw positive effects of DACA rippling throughout Western North Carolina.
“The whole office was really excited the other day when we heard that one of our clients got a full scholarship to a college and without DACA, they probably wouldn’t have been able to afford to go to college at all,” Oakes said.
According to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, North Carolina has the 7th highest number of DACA recipients in the country at 27,385.
For Rangel, who currently resides in Hendersonville, DACA opened up the opportunity to pursue her dream of becoming a nurse, something she has been working toward for years.
According to Arellano, she has always studied hard.
“She’s always working hard. She’s always at work. She’s always working and I told her one time, ‘That’s eventually going to pay off,’” Arellano said.
On Sept. 5, uncertainty and fear gripped many DACA recipients when President Trump announced he was cancelling the program.
“I don’t want him to take it away,” said Miguel Benitez, a 24-year-old certified nursing assistant from El Salvador. “DACA helps a lot of young Hispanic people to do something with their lives in this country, like get a job or get a better education.”
Rangel, who came to the U.S. from Mexico City when she was 8 years old, said moving to a different country was the beginning of new opportunities.
“Even though I was really young, we would live by eating beans or rice or stuff like that and so when I came to America, I could eat hamburgers and pizza and all these things,” Rangel said. “So, seeing that helped me realize that I needed to go to school because I had that opportunity, whereas if I was in Mexico, I didn’t.”
Opponents to DACA said they are illegal and as a result should not be entitled to such privileges.
“Immigration’s very complicated and you hear opinions on all sides of this, such as they came here illegally so we can’t forgive that,” Lamb said. “On the other side of it, there are a lot of provisions for there being some kind of equitable consideration, even if someone has broken a law.”
Like Rangel, many DACA students came to the U.S. at a young age and usually did not have a say in whether or not they wanted to relocate.
“I was a kid when my parents brought me here. I remember I was crying,” Arellano said. “I didn’t want to leave where I was from but my parents wanted me to have a better life.”
There are DACA recipients that have been here for up to 30 years and have almost no connection to the country in which they were born, according to Lamb.
“The idea for them is that they didn’t even consciously do anything wrong,” Lamb said. “Someone else made that choice for them and so they shouldn’t be punished for that.”
The question now at the forefront of every DACA recipient’s mind is what will happen when the program ends on March 5 of next year.
“After DACA expires, you don’t get a chance to renew and we’ve gotten somebody with a March 7 expiration saying, ‘Is there anyway you can just try?’” Oakes said. “The answer is, of course, no. There’s no wiggle room there.”
Rangel is reluctant to talk about what will happen after March 5.
“I haven’t thought about that and honestly I’ve been keeping my thoughts away from that, just trying to focus right now because nursing school is super hard,” Rangel said.
The fear has set in for Arellano, as the reality of deportation could become more and more probable.
“Seeing how it’s going in Mexico, all the violence, all the killings, all the poverty, it’s tough to make it over there and it really makes me think about it, you know?” Arellano said. “It makes me think of what’s going to happen if they deport us all over there. What’s going to be of our lives, all the dreams that we have?”
Oakes, an Asheville native, said he is not optimistic about what is going to happen to the DREAMers, as DACA recipients are known.
“I fear that it’s not going to get better before it gets a little bit worse,” Oakes said. “Under the current administration, they’re not particularly sensitive to immigrants in general and so I think it’s unpredictable and predictability in the law is always a very helpful thing even if it’s bad predictable.”
Oakes said a solution must be found and Congress has six months to come up with alternate legislation to DACA.
According to Lamb, the United States’ history of dealing with undocumented immigration is relatively recent.
“Before Reagan and Bush, we didn’t have this issue. Before the 1950s, there were no laws about whether someone was or was not allowed to come here,” Lamb said. “So, this is a new problem that we’ve created by creating immigration laws to restrict the flow of people into the country and something that we’re having to deal with.”
The laws will affect individuals like Rangel, who, despite the circumstances, refuses to be negative.
“I was taking my dog for a walk, just not thinking about anything and then all of a sudden I turn around and there’s this little rock on the ground and it has ‘hope’ written on it,” Rangel said. “That’s my motto, to never lose hope, because there’s always a door that’s going to open, no matter what. They can’t all close.”