Undocumented Immigrants Describe Life Under DACA, and How Games Helped Them
America's immigration system is broken, and one of its few lifelines may soon disappear, causing stress and anguish for those whose lives were changed by DACA.
Photo courtesy of Getty Images
One day in 2008, out of the blue, Lucas Guimaraes' father announced they were headed to the theater to see the animated kids movie Madagascar 2. Going to the theater wasn't strange, but even at 13 years old, Lucas knew something was up when they got there 30 minutes ahead of time. But Lucas soon learned why things were off; the movie was meant to soften the blow about a secret his parents had kept for years: Lucas was undocumented.
Sitting on a bench, confused and upset, Lucas broke down crying.
"I felt like I had done something wrong," he told me recently over email. "That the world was viewing me as a criminal. I broke into tears. I thought to myself 'Why am I being punished for trying to live a normal life? Was I going to be sent back to Brazil? Am I not gonna be able to be somebody? Do I have anything in my life to look forward to?' I thought about it the entire time and didn't even care for the movie that we were watching."
Everyone I talked to for this story had one thing in common: games. Sometimes video games, sometimes tabletop games. But what bound them together was a sense of being thrust into the shadows of society, forced to hide themselves, and finding solace, hope, and even careers in games. While they waited for the world to change, they embraced games.
Lucas, understandably, feared there was no future for him. That changed in 2012, when former President Obama used executive authority to create the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA), which provided legal protection for a narrow but sympathetic portion of undocumented immigrants. Specifically, if you met certain requirements—came to the US under the age of 16; were younger than 31 years old, as of June 15, 2012; lived in the US since 2007—you could be granted a two-year grace period from immigration action. It meant you could safely apply for a job, go to college—all things Lucas figured had been taken away, thanks to a secret his parents had kept from him.
Essentially, if you were a kid who came to the US because your parents brought you here, you had an option. Right now, 800,000 people are able to more fully participate in American society due to DACA. DACA was a band-aid solution to a broken immigration system that Congress has grossly ignored for decades, but a band-aid is better than an open wound.
During the 2016 campaign, President Trump promised to end DACA on "day one." Instead, on September 6, 2017, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced DACA would be repealed in six months, while granting anyone who currently qualified for deferred status to apply for another two-year extension. Various news reports suggested Trump was sympathetic to the plights of the 800,000 protected under DACA, but rather than protect it, he ended it and asked Congress vote on an alternative solution to become law. Now, the future of those who once relied on DACA is in the hands a body that's accomplished almost nothing in 2017.
(Reports suggest Trump has come up with a plan by partnering with Democrats, but as we've seen throughout 2017, Trump has a habit of changing his mind very quickly.)
Lucas' identity feels trapped between worlds, all because his family, years ago, chose to escape a corrupt Brazilian government, low wages, high prices on goods, and a society where the powerful are never punished in by sneaking into the US. He didn't choose this.
"DACA gave me freedom," he said. "It helped me be somebody. I feel like I'm actually contributing to my family. I'm able to work and pay [for college] out of pocket, which I don't mind. I never thought I'd get a chance like that, even though I knew it was only a temporary solution."
Because his DACA status was recently renewed, he's got, in theory, a little under two years before he needs to worry about what happens next. Despite public statements by Trump and Sessions, he's not convinced the government will protect him, and he's become paranoid.
If Congress doesn't pass a DACA equivalent, it's unclear what his future holds. He could go back to Brazil, a country he doesn't remember, where you're forced to register for the military at 18. If he was forced back to Brazil, he could work at a bank as an English speaker—maybe. He could teach English—maybe. He's currently attending school for computer science because he wants to make games, and Brazil isn't part of that plan.
"I broke into tears. I thought to myself 'Why am I being punished for trying to live a normal life? Was I going to be sent back to Brazil?"
"People always say 'Go back to your country and come back the right way,'" he said. "What they don't understand is that we can't just sit there for years and wait it out. I understand that what my parents did was wrong. And I'm not asking for amnesty. I'm not asking to become a citizen at the stroke if a president's signature. I'm asking that this country allows me to show them that I contribute to this country, too."
Lucas' story is not unique, either.
Rohit, who asked to have his last name kept anonymous out of fears for how his identity could be used against him in today's political climate, didn't know the extent of his immigration status until he'd nearly finished college. He knew his family members weren't citizens or green card holders, but his parents would change the subject when the topic came up, and he assumed everything was fine. Life was, for the most part, normal. But a few months before graduation, Rohit received an email asking non-resident students to speak with an international advisor.
"When I spoke to an advisor," said Rohit, "I wasn't able to answer questions like status, because I didn't know. I called my parents."
Over the phone, his parents broke the news they'd been keeping: he was undocumented. At five years old, Rohit's father wanted to start a business in America. Though they entered the country on legal visas, they later lost their legal status because of a bad lawyer and what Rohit called "small mistakes." (His family doesn't like to talk about this period of their lives.)
"I thought it [removing DACA] was a completely cruel decision, made aimlessly and without purpose. The decision is still aimless. As a previously undocumented person, I know exactly how it feels to be stripped of basic opportunities needed to live."
Though frustrated, he doesn't hold a grudge over his parents' decision; he knows they were only trying to do right by him, "to shield me from pain, they tried to take a burden off."
Though Rohit graduated, it would be another four years before DACA officially passed—Obama had just been sworn into office for his first term, and there was talk of passing broad immigration reform—and Rohit immediately slunk into a deep depression.
"I couldn't drive, couldn't work, really couldn't do anything all day, nearly every day, except the few rare times a month a friend was willing to drive me to some social activity," he said. "I'd suffered from depression since high school. I got a handle on it through seeing counselors/therapists for years in college, but when I was home post-graduation, in a near-literal house-arrest, it flared to monumental levels, from which I haven't really recovered."
Rohit gained weight, his hair greyed, and any headline about immigration or elections caused immediate stress. His future was not in his hands. It was up to politicians. He felt helpless.
When DACA passed, everything changed. He was able to get a driver's license, a work permit, and feel pride in contributing to his community. He even started establishing roots for a hopefully prosperous career. While in college, he tried to find a group to play Dungeons & Dragons with, but nothing panned out. Frustrated by the options available online, he put his engineering degree to work and developed a website to bring tabletop fans together. It's been going since 2013, a year after DACA originally passed, and is still running today.
"I spent a lot of time in isolation when I was young because I wasn't popular, because I was geeky," he said. "In college, because I couldn't drive and didn't drink. After college, because I was stuck at home for years. So being social in gaming means a lot to me; being part of a community is a balm."
As for what happens if DACA isn't replaced, Rohit isn't sure. He hopes to move to California soon to get a job in Silicon Valley, but has trouble imagining a company would hire someone who might be deported in the next few years. Otherwise, he's considered going to India because that's where his family is from, but they don't have valid passports there, either.
"I don't know what that'll entail," he said, "and sometimes I do worry if I have the mental strength to make it through intact."
Both Lucas and Rohit have benefited from the temporary status DACA provides, but neither has much hope, even if DACA is formalized by Congress, for a real path to citizenship. There's nothing about DACA that moves you in the direction of changing your legal status, even though DACA candidates are, by requirement, very productive members of society.
"I could go back to Mexico and wait there until I get approval or not," said 22-year-old DACA recipient Armando
. "The biggest fear would be being sent to a country I do not know. Mexico is my birthplace, but it's not my home."
Anton Herrera, however, is one of the lucky ones. The six-year competitive fighting game veteran, known in the Street Fighter tournament circuit as Filipinoman, has been in the US since he was four years old. His parents brought him from the Philippines, but he remembers nothing about his time there. Approved for DACA at 18 and a green card at 21, Herrera represents one of the few undocumented immigrants who managed to change status.
How Herrera made it out of DACA is complicated. Because they entered the country legally, they were able to work through the system, spend a lot of money on applying for government programs that might not pan out, cross their fingers, and hope to come out the other side. Eventually, Herrera's mother, a nurse, found an employer willing to sponsor her for an EB3 visa, aka a green card, which allows you to become a lawful resident, based on employment.
Through luck, money, and good timing, Herrera escaped this othered status. As such, when the Trump administration announced it would rescind DACA, he was furious.
"I thought it was a completely cruel decision, made aimlessly and without purpose," he said. "The decision is still aimless. As a previously undocumented person, I know exactly how it feels to be stripped of basic opportunities needed to live. Tell me how you would live your life if you couldn't work and couldn't drive to work with consistency? You inherently break the law by working if you're undocumented, but what are the undocumented going to do, not work and have no money? No food on the table? No place to live? No place to go?"
Herrera's family came to the US in 1999, before 9/11 and the increasingly strict security measures that came with it made immigration even more difficult. At that time, it was easy for them to acquire travel visas—all they did was wait in line.
On a travel visa, you can only stay in the country for a limited amount of time. Herrera's family decided to stay past that timeline, violating their visa. Fortunately for them, there's an easier path to become legal when the system has already, in some way, vetted you.
Contrary to other folks I spoke with, Herrera knew about his status from an early age. His parents were upfront about their situation because it gave him a framework to understand why they lived in a bad part of town, why his parents couldn't always be there for his sports games (they had to work), and why, when he got older, things might get harder for him.
"As an undocumented kid, you understand that these are sacrifices that they had to make," he said. "I just stayed home all the time where it was safe. I had to stay indoors because I lived in a very poor and dangerous area as a child. Going outside was not an option. That pulled me towards playing games, and falling in love with them."
Herrera entered the competitive fighting scene prior to the implementation of DACA, which meant he, like many undocumented workers, was taking a risk when money was involved. Fortunately for him, though, most sponsors he worked with didn't ask for employment verification documents, a work permit, or other sorts of paperwork.
"When DACA wasn't a thing and I was an up and coming player, it was scary to sign those tax forms to get money for your winnings at some events," he said. "You just have to live life without fear of that, and if something happens, it happens."
The family filed for a green card in 2007. It was accepted in 2008, but their green card didn't show up until 2016. (Only a set number of green cards are given out per year, and they were behind in the queue.) In America's immigration system, everything takes a very long time.
"Immigration is extremely convoluted and obviously needs reform," he said. "Not everyone had the same luck that I did. Each little step, every pay stub saved, every transcript kept, made all the difference in proving that I was here the entire time, that my parents were here, and that we filed all these provisions just to try to get our stuff fixed."
Now, in addition to being a competitive player, Herrera finds himself being an advocate for immigration reform on social media and informing people about the undocumented.
"Congress is talking about working on a fix," he said. "People are rallying in favor of DACA, and like I've said to others: it's always darkest before the dawn, and I hope they get something better after this got taken away. Life gives and takes."
For the 800,000 who once relied on DACA, they're hoping it soon starts to give.