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Undocumented College Students Share How Deportation Relief Changed Their Lives

Four years ago, President Obama introduced DACA, a deportation relief program that allowed more than a million young undocumented people to stay in the country. We asked DACA recipients graduating from college this year what it's like to graduate...
April 6, 2016, 4:44pm
Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

Jose Aguiluz remembers the exact moment when he heard that President Obama would extend deportation relief to more than a million young undocumented immigrants. "I got like 20 text messages," he said. "I couldn't believe it."

On that day—June 15, 2012—the president stood in the Rose Garden and introduced a measure that would radically change the lives of young people living in the US without legal immigration status. The program, called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), offered a chance for an estimated 1.7 million young people to live and work in the country legally.


For Jose Aguiluz and many other "DREAMers" like him, undocumented immigrants who came to the US under the age of 16, it was as if a massive roadblock had been removed. The distance ahead wasn't free of obstacles, but there was now a way forward—especially for things like going to college and securing jobs.

As we approach the four-year anniversary of the DACA program, VICE interviewed Aguiluz and four other "DACA-mented" young people who will graduate from college this spring. We asked them how they feel about the program and what they think about its future under a new president. These interviews have been edited for clarity and length.


Photo by Sara Combs

VICE: Tell us a bit about yourself.
Maria Reza: I'm 21 years old and I am studying rhetoric and writing at the University of Texas at Austin. I'll be graduating this May.

When we moved here [from Mexico] I was ten years old. We came here with a tourist visa. We just simply overstayed our visa. We came here because my mom wanted to raise her daughters in a better environment and for me to be able to go to college here in the US.

How did you hear about DACA?
I graduated high school in early June 2012, so DACA came out two weeks after I graduated high school. I already knew that I was going to UT [University of Texas], but I also knew that there wasn't anything for me after college. So graduating high school was really a slap in the face for me because it was like, "OK, you have four more years of living comfortably and then after that, it's working under the table with a college degree," if I even get to graduate.


I still remember the day that I found out about it. I got a call from one of my friends and he said, "Turn on CNN and let me know what you think." So I turn on the TV and I see President Obama at the Rose Garden and he's talking about how hard-working children shouldn't have to live under the fear of deportation. I've looked over that speech many times since then. I just remember feeling shock because this means there's hope for me. I can get a driver's license, I can get a job, I can get a state ID. That whole summer before college I was really excited, because I knew after that, thing were going to change.

What do you think will happen with DACA going forward?
There's a possibility that by this time next year, I'll be undocumented as I was four years ago, which is something that is very frightening, but it's also something that I have to take into consideration. Even something as simple as when I apply for a job, I feel like I have to disclose that if they do offer me a job, I might not be able to continue next year because my work permit might not be renewed. What if this company doesn't offer me a job because they don't see me as a permanent person?

Are you happy with DACA as it is?
I'm very much grateful for DACA, but if you think about it, DACA is nothing much more than bread crumbs to keep us from starving. And so many of us are grateful because we've been starving for so long, but at the end of the day, bread crumbs are just bread crumbs.


We deserve so much more because we worked hard, and we're human beings. For us to be treated like second-class citizens, it's not something that I thought this country stood for. But recently, throughout the years, I've seen that this country has proved me wrong. It's pretty tough to be here right now and see how many people want us gone, when all we've done is really just moved here because we wanted some opportunities. We wanted some shot at that American Dream that people always talk about.

Jose Aguiluz

Photo courtesy of Jose Aguiluz

VICE: Tell us a bit about yourself.
Jose Aguiluz: I live in Calverton, Maryland, and in May I am graduating with my bachelor's degree in nursing from University of Maryland, University College. I'm 26.

How did DACA impact your life?
When I graduated from high school in 2007, DACA hadn't passed yet. I went to nursing school at Montgomery College to get my associate's degree, since at the time, it was the only thing I could pursue. I was also working three days a week as an electrician, in order to go to school two days a week. I graduated with my associate's degree in nursing back in December of 2011.

Then DACA came along in June 2012. I became a registered nurse in October, got my work authorization in November, got my Social Security number in December, and I actually had a job as a registered nurse in January. So if you want to talk about how DACA affects the lives of DREAMers, it literally changed my life in four months.

"If you want to talk about how DACA affects the lives of DREAMers, it literally changed my life in four months." — Jose Aguiluz

In the next year, we'll have a new president. How do you feel about your future with DACA? Are you nervous?
My life is planned in two-year stretches because of DACA. So I'm going to have to renew my work permit in October. After that, I really don't know what's going to happen. The Democrats like Clinton and Sanders are up for continuing DACA and that would be great. But if anyone like Cruz or Trump becomes elected, then DACA is pretty much over, DACA is dead. This election for me is the difference between staying in the US and working as a nurse, or becoming undocumented again [and not being able to work legally]. It's a scary feeling. It's a lot of uncertainty. I don't know what my life's going to be past November.

Tashi Sanchez-Llaury

Photo by Julio Sanchez

VICE: Tell us a bit about yourself.
Tashi Sanchez-Llaury: I am 27 years old and I go to Southern Connecticut State University in New Haven, Connecticut. I'm studying early childhood education. I came to the United States when I was four years old from Peru. I grew up in Stamford; I haven't lived anywhere else. I've gone through the whole public school system here.

How did you feel when you were approved for DACA?
Once you apply, you can check online—every day if you want—to see if your application status has changed. I would check every day and I think there had been a week where I was like, You know, I'm not going to torture myself, I'm just going to not check this week. And within that week, my work permit came. It's hard to describe, to be honest, but it was really momentous for me. I'm going to actually be a teacher and all this work that I've done, it was for something.


What are your plans after graduation?
I've thought about this a lot. In Connecticut, students who are going into the field of education have to take what's called an ELL class, which is an English Language Learner class. I took that class two semesters ago and I was just floored. Growing up and being in the immigrant rights movement has really taught me that there's a lot of parents who don't have the language, and that makes it hard for them to be involved with their children and academic work and all that. There's such a shortage of bilingual education teachers and it really affects how our immigrant students are able to succeed in schools.

I kind of felt like, "All right, I've got to do something about this."At first, my plan was to get my bachelor's and go straight into teaching, but now I want to become a bilingual education teacher. I've already applied for grad school in the same place, at Southern, to get my master's degree in bilingual education. That's the plan. I'm waiting to hear back; hopefully all goes well.

Is there one party or one presidential candidate you would trust more to continue DACA?
I'm not big on politics; I know just enough to keep myself informed. I'm not a Democrat or Republican—I mean, currently, I can't even vote! But I do believe from what I have seen and read that the Democratic Party, any of the candidates are probably more likely to keep the program. Maybe some of them even find a way to make it something that can eventually give young people who are undocumented some path to citizenship. That's the hope.

James Jeong

Photo courtesy of the New York Immigration Coalition

VICE: Tell us a bit about yourself.
James Jeong: I study at the City College of New York and I'm majoring in mechanical engineering. I live in Flushing, Queens, in New York City. I've lived here for 16 years or 17 years. I'm 21 years old right now.

I first came here when I was three years old. I came under a tourist visa, which means I could only reside here for two years. Then I would have to go back to South Korea, which is where I'm from. But my parents skipped that whole entire process and just ended staying here. I can't speak an ounce of Korean and my brother, it's also the same with him.


Do you remember how you heard about DACA?
I just kind of heard from word of mouth from a family friend. I was like, "Oh, I guess I can work now." But then it didn't really apply to me because I was about to go into college. I was just going to school and the work wasn't something that had crossed my mind. Now I definitely have a greater appreciation for the program. I'm just thinking about how I would be unemployed or working not at a legitimate job, so I'm definitely very grateful for it right now.

What do you think will happen with DACA in the future?
Honestly, I don't really have any thoughts about it, but I'm staying cautious. Right now, I'm trying to come up with a backup plan, just in case something does go wrong. If someone like Trump gets elected, shit's gonna hit the fan.

How is the job search going?
It's rough, but it's not that bad considering that I have DACA. Location wise, I have to confine myself to something near my family. All my friends and family are here. I think it would be very mentally and physically exhausting if I moved elsewhere and tried to assimilate there, considering my immigration status. Because there are so many undocumented people and Asian Americans in Flushing, I just feel a lot more comfortable being here.

Paul Quiñonez

Photo courtesy of Paul Quiñonez

VICE: Tell us a bit about yourself.
Paul Quiñonez: I'm 21 years old and I go to Gonzaga University. It's a Catholic university in Spokane, Washington. I study political science and economics.

I moved to the US when I was seven. My dad was already here and then my mom, my brother, and I came to be reunited with him. We were coming from the state of Colima, which is kind of the midwestern coast of Mexico. It was a small town called Minatitlán.


Did the DACA announcement impact your decision to go to college?
My parents wanted me to go to college, but they had a lot of doubts. So it helped to reassure them that it was a good investment, that I would be able to work and use the degree I had once I graduated. And also with DACA, I was able to qualify for the state financial aid once it passed. It definitely made things more affordable and seem more realistic.

Do you feel secure that DACA will be there for you as you start your career?
I don't think I feel secure, but it was better than what we had before. It's still very limiting. There are certain opportunities that I don't qualify for because they require citizenship. I'm planning on going to the state government and working as a legislative aid, and they told me there have been people whose DACA has expired and taken too long to renew, so they haven't been able to pay them. They've had to technically fire them and then go through the rehiring process once their DACA is renewed.

And then there's the question of whether DACA will even exist with the new administration. I would still be able to work until my DACA expires but then if I weren't able to renew it, then I wouldn't be able to continue to work. It's a lot of uncertainty.

What's your plan if DACA disappears?
I'm conscious that's a possibility, but I don't really know what I would do. If it came down to that, I wouldn't be able to work, to use any of the skills that I've acquired. I would have to do service industry jobs or agricultural work, which is what people who are undocumented tend to do. It's not really something I've wanted to give as much thought to yet. But I know what it would look like, because I've seen my parents and the jobs they've had to do because they're undocumented. And it would just be putting myself back into that situation.

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