“I don’t care if I get left in South Korea!” says Alejandra as she looks exaggeratedly across our table. We’re sitting together talking about her life. And to date, it has been a lot.
A life that spans multiple borders and states. A life of navigating traditional public schools and charter schools, weaving in and outside of languages and cultures. The fact that she’s thinking of going abroad at some point only makes sense; already in her young life she’s branded as rather boundless.
Even where our conversation is taking place—in the middle of a bustling student center at an elite private college in the Northeast—is proof. We are nearly four hours from her home state of Delaware. A bright, wildly likable person, she’s shown me around her campus with the same attentiveness of a tour guide.
Alejandra is amazing; a friendly, chatty, engaging, whirling dervish who is both active and studious with a budding vision who serves as the glue of her social circle. She speaks like any other college student nowadays; a combination of slangs, abbreviations, deviations and self-affirmations with a sprinkle of the types of words that would probably make her mother cluck her teeth. Here, amongst the din of the 2,800-student campus, Alejandra feels exceedingly ordinary, even if her circumstances are anything but.
Alejandra is a DACA student, a term that inspires a range of reactions depending on where you stand on the complicated issue of immigration in the United States. The objective definition first: DACA is the acronym for ‘Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals,’ a program created under President Obama in 2012 to provide temporary relief to the approximately 700,000 youth aged 15 years and up from potential deportation due to being brought to the country undocumented in their childhood. DACA does not provide a pathway to citizenship. It does, however, provide a means of allowing such youth access to all the things that their peers can enjoy, ranging from a driver’s license to work permits to home loans to college access.
Since coming into office, President Donald Trump—who campaigned on the election trail that he’d “clean up” the illegal immigration issue—has signaled his intention to end these protections. A March 5, 2018 deadline has been set to make a final decision around the program and its associated protections, and the federal government has spent a significant portion of 2018 to date negotiating on this very topic. DACA families could submit a $495 application through October 5, 2017 to maintain the protections and delay deportation in two-year increments.
As families scrambled to gather the fee and application, rampant issues with processing the nearly 125,000 applications that came flooding in were reported in the press. A backlog in the processing system cast doubt and raised the ire of politicians and advocates alike, but more importantly, raised the anxiety and purgatory of the thousands of impacted families looking for protections.
A popular tactic in defending the right of DACA students has been quantifying their contributions to society. It combines the merits of academic achievement with good citizenry status as a means of justifying their entitlement to being in the U.S. and living and working alongside natural-born citizens.
There have been appeals to the country’s bank account, its job prospects for U.S.-born citizens and, of course, safety issues; the kind of arguments that fall into a familiar American pattern of quantifying the humanity of non-whites in a manner that tends to feel more cattle than character.
Alejandra, and the 17 percent of DACA students pursuing ongoing education like her, would fit this ideal mold of the irrefutable exemplar student who shows hard work and promise. Even more, they embody the beloved American term: potential. Alejandra’s story is the stuff of media and grassroots campaigns brought to life. Originally from Mexico, she and her parents moved while she was a child to the United States; first to Colorado and then on to Delaware.
Once in the Delaware school system, Alejandra and her family walked a hard road together; while her father returned to Mexico, her mother waited tables at a local restaurant in Delaware. Alejandra spent her K-12 years navigating towards the front of a system that seemed designed to let her down every step of the way. Yet her persistence and ambition brought her more and more opportunities via extracurricular activities and leadership roles.
As a high school student she got involved with a regional nonprofit that worked to elevate the leadership of students like Alejandra to become not only ambassadors to inspire their peers to pursue college, but also develops their skills and resources to be competitive for college admissions themselves. Alejandra juggled all this while graduating with a 4.0 and exploring the college selection process. Her journey did not go in vain; she was accepted to a prestigious school that boasts a 17 percent acceptance rate with a full-tuition scholarship.
This brings us back to South Korea. Now that she’s in her first year at school, the sky’s the limit for Alejandra. When you see everything and everyone the world has to offer, you realize how closed-off your life had been prior, and suddenly everything seems simultaneously bigger and smaller. For Alejandra, this means that college holds the same promise that it does to almost all who enter a university campus: adventure.
Topping that list for her is studying abroad. As a result of taking Elementary Korean this year, she has her eyes set on South Korea. The conversation is animated at first as we imagine her walking the streets, testing how it feels to speak Korean in actual Korea versus the tidy university classrooms she’s spent the first couple of months in. But then the mood darkens slightly; “That’s if I don’t end up being stuck over there because I don’t have documentation to get back because of DACA.”
We’re both unsure of how to navigate this part of the conversation. In a lot of ways, we’ve only talked about DACA on the peripheral; treating it more like a distasteful memory we share instead of an unpredictable reality. This is the way DACA pops up for her, an ever-looming threat that surfaces at the oddest times. It insinuates itself when we’re talking about simple things like traveling home, staying in school beyond this year.
One of the questions I want to ask is what it would mean if DACA ends and she’s no longer protected. While we’re together on campus it becomes painfully clear what it would mean: leaving all this behind. No more kaleidoscope of new friends. No more walking trips to downtown to get bubble tea or Secret Santa gifts at the local mall.
“If that happens, I don’t care if I get left in South Korea! Maybe that’d be fine!”
As my shadow day with her draws to a close, we stand outside the student center and say goodbye. My commute home is an hour short of the usual time it takes Alejandra to get to and from her family home in Delaware by bus. Sometimes her mother will make the drive up and pick her up from school, and head back the same day. I mention how sweet that is, but how exhausting it must be for her family to do that drive the same day.
“Oh but I can help drive sometimes now too since I have my license!” Alejandra bursts out excitedly, and then retracts, “unless I end up losing my license and can’t drive anymore.” There it is: DACA again.
In addition to all the things a college freshman will encounter on their path into adulthood, there’s still the looming clock of DACA hanging above it all. Even if she chooses to ignore it, a decision not in her favor could change everything that she’s built: love, relationships, a budding career, community. What is the toll of carrying that uncertainty around?
With a final wave, Alejandra turns and bounds back into the student center. Within moments, she fades from view: indistinguishable from every other student inside.