By Carlee Nilphai
Carlos Gonzalez came to the United States in 2002 from a decent life in the Dominican Republic. Early life in the D.R. for Gonzalez was “not terrible,” as he words it. “We had our own home, domestic assistants, a couple vehicles, my sisters and I went to private schools … we even had a country club membership.”
Gonzalez’s mother decided to come to the U.S. with three kids legally on a tourist visa, after they lost their father to cancer when Gonzalez was 8. The promise of America offered a better life and education. Gonzalez and his family have spent their lives in the U.S., attending school and working for fifteen years undocumented.
“I always knew, even from a very young age, that my status was going to be an issue,” he said. “But one of the main reasons [my mother] came here was to give us access to a better education. I knew that, one: I had to learn English, and two: my status could affect my opportunities to get into school. But I just felt like, not to focus on the long term and just focus on the now … I treated every test, every assignment like my life depended on it, because in many ways it did. I knew the only way I was going to get to college was if I was one of the top students and they couldn’t deny me.”
To honor his mother’s sacrifices, Gonzalez did everything he could to succeed. He graduated from Hempfield High School in Lancaster, Pennsylvania in 2009, where he was president of student council, had extensive volunteer experience, was involved in extracurricular activities, and maintained outstanding academic records throughout. Even so, Gonzalez was never able to receive enough financial aid to be able to go to any of the schools that accepted him. Being an undocumented citizen, he could not apply for any other type of aid.
Eventually, Gonzalez found an opportunity to attend Harrisburg Area Community College (HACC) that came with its own struggles. “The problem was they were charging me twice as much as everyone else, so even though I graduated from Pennsylvania high schools, I paid international rates. … So the next step was, how do I stay in school now that I’ve found my opportunity?”
Along with help from his grandmother and a few community scholarships, Gonzalez worked a physically demanding job at the local mall, making only $6 an hour, to pay for school. “To me, that was fine, as long as I could keep my schooling.”
After a year at community college, Gonzalez learned about a community college transfer initiative at Amherst College in Massachusetts. “I went, I applied to the school and it just felt right,” he said about Amherst. “That’s where I wanted to be. A residential school where all I could focus on was just my education.” Amherst administrators told him that as long as he was able to get into the school, they would offer him the financial aid he needed. After he graduated from HACC, Gonzalez applied to Amherst and was wait-listed. His burning desire to attend this school persuaded him to call the admissions office to discuss what he needed to do to improve his chances of being accepted. They told him that they had not accepted a student off the waitlist in five years. Despite the odds, Gonzalez told the person on the other end, “You know what? I have a feeling I’m going to see you in the fall.”
A few months later, that same person called Gonzalez and offered him a place at Amherst. “All I could say was ‘thank you,’ and as soon as I hung up the phone, I just started crying. You know, it’s a different thing when you chase an opportunity and an idea for so many years, and not knowing if it’s going to happen. For it to actually come true for me is a big blessing.”
“When you’re undocumented, you always feel like there’s this shadow over you of uncertainty,
and DACA lifted that.”
After about a year at Amherst, Gonzalez now worried about what he was going to do after he graduated. For undocumented immigrants, getting a job, especially a job associated with a college degree, is nearly impossible. “Is this paper just going to be a nice thing on my wall, or am I going to use it to improve the lives of my family and myself? That was a very big concern.”
Then, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) was announced — a policy implemented by President Obama on June 15, 2012. This policy is administrative relief for undocumented immigrants who were brought here at a young age by parents or other circumstances. Those who qualify for DACA are granted a two-year deferral period in regard to removal action and are able to apply for renewal every two years.
“When you’re undocumented,” Gonzalez explained, “you always feel like there’s this shadow over you of uncertainty, and DACA lifted that. When I knew it was a real opportunity, it felt like some shackles were taken off my ankles. … I was finally going to be able to pursue my dreams without fear.”
After graduating and having the freedom to work and live without fear, Gonzalez went straight into the business of helping immigrants. He went to Illinois to engage immigrant community members for a four-month campaign. When that ended, he was awarded a scholarship to study towards his masters at Cambridge University. After that, another scholarship opportunity came along to study in China for another year.
Since coming back from China in July 2017, Gonzalez has been working for the immigrant community again. He is currently the Statewide Capacity Building Coordinator for the Pennsylvania Immigrant and Citizenship Coalition (PICC), a group of organizations dedicated to advance immigrants’ rights and promote full integration of immigrants into society. PICC’s goal is to advocate for more welcoming processes and policy for immigrants, with regard to arriving here and receiving education. Through PICC, Gonzalez also leads PA Is Ready!, a project aimed at expanding community education of the current political situation regarding policies like the Temporary Protected Status (TPS) and DACA.
But the current political climate in the United States could take away everything Gonzalez and thousands of other DACA beneficiaries have worked and prayed for. Since the election of President Donald Trump, DACA has seemed in danger. While the president has stated he will look over the policy with “a big heart,” many shake with worry over whether or not he will keep it in place.
Like many others, Gonzalez remains hopeful. “We’ve got some options,” he explained. “If the President completely rescinds the executive order, that means you will have to return the permits or they will be invalid. … What we think is the more likely option is that he is going to sunset the program, to allow current people to keep their permits, but not renew. So [in that case], every month, 10,000 people will lose their ability to work and then after two years, there will be no more people benefiting.”
The economic impact of losing DACA is some-thing advocates are stressing. Annually, undocumented immigrants pay an estimated $11.64 billion in state and local taxes, according to the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy. If those same beneficiaries are taken out of the workforce, more than 800,000 people, according to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, would be without a job. The fact is that the impact would be a national problem, not just an issue for DACA beneficiaries. Gonzalez himself is extremely concerned about his security in the country. Because Gonzalez and his family stayed past the expiration date of their tourist visas, the law states they could all be subject to deportation and a 10-year bar from coming back into the country legally. Even though for most recipients of DACA, America has been home for as long as they can remember, they could be sent back to their country of origin — a country where they do not know anybody and cannot speak the language.
“Just because it’s a law, it doesn’t make it just.” Gonzalez says. “This is not about economic opportunities alone. I love this country; this is where I was raised, this is where it feels like home. People ignore that piece. But if there’s no permanent solution, put yourself in my shoes — what would you do?”
What would someone do? The idea of deporting all 800,000 plus recipients registered for DACA — is it really possible to successfully deport them all? Gonzalez has figured out a few options. “Canada has pretty good migration policies, especially for me. I have graduate degrees, I speak English, I’m young. So that is an option. Australia is probably an option too.” Even though there are options, there is no remedy for the emotional ramifications.
In today’s America, it is more worrisome and frustrating for those who are living undocumented, both DACA-benefited and not. Hearing about a self-made, undocumented immigrant realizing his American Dream is reassurance for the future of others in his shoes. It’s reassuring, even if the outcome is tenuous.
Note: On Sunday evening, September 3, 2017, the Writing Wrongs group was busy working on their articles, photos, and videos when the news broke that Donald Trump would not renew DACA. There were tears and frustration as this news sunk in. These students had just spent hours interviewing, photographing, and recording local first- and second-generation immigrants, some with DACA status. What would this announcement mean for them? For their families? Today, we are seeing what has happened — and what has NOT happened. They deserve better. We can and we must resolve this issue compassionately and with respect to all involved.
This story is published in “Untold, Unseen, Unheard: Perspectives on Immigration.”