Lorena Calvillo’s first memory is entering kindergarten at Pescadero Elementary School. Some kids cried, but not her. When her mom dropped her off, Calvillo was excited.
“I’ve enjoyed school all my life,” said Calvillo, now a civil engineering student.
It was never a question whether Calvillo would attend college. However, where she’ll graduate is in doubt. Will she be at San Francisco State University where she’s earned a full scholarship, or in Mexico — the country of her birth that she doesn’t remember?
On Sept. 5, the federal administration moved to rescind Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, a policy that temporarily protects qualifying young people brought to the United States without documentation from removal proceedings.
When the Obama administration introduced DACA in 2012, more than 1.9 million young people became eligible for work permits, Social Security numbers and driver’s licenses that made it possible for them to pay taxes and pursue education and careers in the United States. About 800,000 have since taken advantage of the program.
“Having opportunities cut short, seeing you could do anything you want and then having that dream taken away, is just devastating,” said Rita Mancera, executive director of the community resource center Puente de la Costa Sur, which has helped dozens of Coastsiders apply for the program.
The current administration’s decision to terminate the policy was in part fueled by a letter from a group of attorneys general and a governor that said they would sue unless it did so.
The letter called DACA “unlawful,” suggesting that Obama’s executive action was out of bounds. It said that courts previously held that “the executive branch does not have the unilateral power to confer lawful presence and work authorization on unlawfully present aliens simply because the executive chooses not to remove them.”
Now, no new DACA applications are being accepted, and the program is slated to end on March 5, 2018, unless Congress takes action.
This leaves Calvillo and an estimated 9,000 young people in San Mateo County like her uncertain about their futures and whether they’ll be deported from the place they know as home. On the Coastside, community organizations helped at least 130 people file DACA applications. There are many other Coastsiders who were not eligible for the program, and continue to face similar uncertainty.
Living in the shadows
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement doesn’t keep local counts of arrests, but confirmed that 3,710 arrests were made in the first six months of the 2017 fiscal year within the San Francisco field office’s jurisdiction, which includes 50 Northern California counties, Hawaii and Guam. Although unlikely, some arrests occur close to home.
“It could be a monthly event, it could go two months without happening. It’s hard to say,” said Fatima Soares, executive director of the nonprofit human services agency Coastside Hope. “And these are just ones that we’re aware of.”
As a consequence, many people without documentation or who have loved ones without documentation have “lived in the shadows” and kept a low profile, fearful of being discovered and deported.
“They don’t feel comfortable living the normal life they can live in America,” said Belinda Hernandez-Arriaga, director of the ALAS grassroots cultural arts program in Half Moon Bay and a University of San Francisco Psychology and Counseling Department professor who specializes in Latino mental health.
“Every time they’d get in a car, they’d be in fear. If you get pulled over, you could lose your car or be deported,” she said. “These are messages from our government that ‘You’re not welcome here.’”
However, many people who’ve immigrated don’t feel welcome in their country of origin either.
“We find ourselves in this situation where parents of these young people — some of them, if not all of them — were running from violence or very terrible situations — and were coming to safety,” Our Lady of the Pillar’s Rev. Gabriel Wankar said. “The church understands our nation as one of hope. The American Dream, that’s what it’s all about. Most of these parents are bringing these young people in precisely in the hopes of finding better lives.”
Such was the case with Calvillo’s family. She said she couldn’t imagine going through what her parents did.
“My life is just completely different from theirs,” Calvillo said. “I feel pretty lucky. My mom went to school through third grade because she had to work her whole life. My dad had the opportunity to go to school, but didn’t because he wanted to work. He really pushed me to go to school. That was his main thing. It was always an expectation I would go to college.”
DACA made that possible. When the time came, Calvillo said she would go to community college to save on expenses to make it easier for her mom, who works in agriculture, and dad, who works as a cook.
“My dad was like, ‘No. I want you to go to a big school and major in whatever you want. Don’t worry about the financial stuff. I’ll see how I pay for it,’” Calvillo recalled. “Thankfully, he hasn’t had to pay anything for my schooling.”
She earned scholarships and became the first in her family to attend university.
The prospect of DACA’s end presents high stakes for the Calvillo family and entire Coastside community. The majority of DACA recipients in California come from Mexico, and nearly a third of Half Moon Bay’s residents reported being of Latino or Hispanic origin in the last census.
Finding the light
More than 130 people gathered at Our Lady of the Pillar seeking solace at a vigil organized by Hernandez-Arriaga last week. Wankar said the church’s doors are open to people in times of trouble, and this was such a time. Under the moonlight, people lit candles, stood in a circle, spoke, sang and prayed.
“Here in our community, there was a beautiful mix,” Wankar said, adding that to his pleasure both documented and undocumented families came to show their support.
El Granada Elementary School Principal Martha Ladd attended.
“From the point of view of being a principal of a school, I want my school to be a place where all my families feel welcome and safe. As a mom and friend, I feel like during this time we need to stand together,” Ladd said. “I want to show up and be available to make sure we are the best Americans we can be for everybody.”
Farallone View Elementary School Principal César Gaytán was also there.
“We do not want to give up on the idea of this country being free and everyone having an opportunity for a better life and education,” said Gaytán, who emigrated from Mexico in the 1980s. After his arrival, Congress passed an amnesty law, and Gaytán was eventually able to go to college.
After the vigil, he comforted a friend. “I told her we have to be hopeful,” he said.
In the meantime, people are taking steps, large and small, to move forward.
Soares encourages families facing the threat of deportation to make plans in case they are arrested. Assign responsibility to someone to care for children if necessary. If authorities knock on the door but don’t have a warrant, it’s not necessary to open, she said.
“While you’re here, you still have rights,” Soares said. “Know your rights.”
Community leaders say these conversations are sobering, but important — as is fighting for the future, whatever it may hold.
“It’s not about sitting down and feeling defeated. It’s about standing up and saying what we are going to do to make our voices heard in Congress through our representatives,” said Hernandez-Arriaga.
“Call representatives and start putting pressure on them to create legislation that will really benefit Dreamers,” Mancera said.
School leaders are also taking a stand.
“We have passed a resolution in support of the undocumented,” Cabrillo Unified School District Superintendent Jane Yuster said. “We will continue to educate all students irrespective (of their status). We don’t ask; we just educate.” This is a sentiment that is echoed from the state level as well.
There’s hope for undocumented college-bound Californians, Yuster added. Unrelated to DACA, the California Dream Act allows undocumented students to receive state financial aid for college.
“The president’s misguided action will have nothing to do with our California law,” California Department of Education spokesman Robert Oakes said. “We’re trying to reassure students they should take advantage of this opportunity regardless of what happens at the federal level.”
State officials said they will take all available legal precautions to protect student privacy and information for those who participate in the program.
“I want to let all those students know that the American Dream remains safe and secure in California. Our great state will continue supporting these terrific students and their families,” State Schools Chief Tom Torlakson assured in a statement to the press.
Calvillo said she isn’t dwelling on the tenuous status of DACA.
“Right now I feel like it’s the waiting game. We don’t know what’s going to happen,” Calvillo said.
She said she doesn’t have a plan, but she does have a dream. Calvillo will keep doing what she’s always loved — going to school and studying as she works toward her dream of using her civil engineering degree to become a project manager.
“I’ve always played sports so I like the team feeling. That’s pretty much what a project manager does. She leads a team, balances everything — the work, the money flow, and everything I feel like I’m good at,” Calvillo said. “I want to be responsible for something big.”