From the Other Side

How DACA Recipients Persevere in the Face of Adversity

by: Kevin Diaz Chavez

Santiago (left), with older brother Armando (right). Photo by Kevin Diaz Chavez

Imagine yourself on the other side of your comfort zone with no immediate knowledge of how things work. The fear you sense quickly melts into excitement as it’s a brand new world for you, with limitless opportunities just waiting to be discovered. But, wait… you need to eat today. And, in order to eat, you need money. To have money is to have a job, to have a job is to be able to understand how the world around you works. Now it hits you. This side of your comfort zone is everything you’ve dreaded — fear, loneliness, anxiety. But, remember… you’ve still gotta eat.

Carmen Cuevas with her son, Armando Alvarez. via Carmen Cuevas.

That experience is shared by the countless number of migrants who come to the United States, most entering illegally, in search of a better future. 2021 brought the highest number of unauthorized migrants crossing the Mexico Border that U.S. Customs and Border Protection has encountered since the year 2000. The countless number of migrants who do manage to get through stare straight ahead into an unknown and unfamiliar country. What could be worse than worrying about how you’re going to feed yourself that day? Feeding not only yourself but as well as the children who come along with you. Carmen Cuevas, a recently naturalized citizen, found herself in a similar position back in the early 2000s when she first emigrated.

Carmen details her experience in an emotional interview. “I felt a sense of insecurity and fear,” she says softly, “I didn’t know this country. I didn’t know the laws. I didn’t think I’d stay here long, especially as a single mother.” A better life for her and her son is a universal goal shared by all parents, to do whatever it takes to give their children everything they didn’t have growing up. “I was scared for how I was going to take care of my son if I had to work all the time. I was scared I wasn’t going to be there for him… but, in reality, his character helped me cope, and mine helped him, and we just sort of figured it out together.” She pauses. “Even with that fear though, I had peace because I kept finding work. I always had work, and with that, I had money to eat, to feed [Armando], to pay rent. As time passed, the fear sort of melted away, and sure we lost the opportunity to see most of our family from the other side, but I can’t really imagine what life would be like had I stayed in Mexico with my son.”

For most migrants, their children are the main motivators for coming to America in hopes of something better, and some are willing to do whatever it takes to ensure their child gets a fair shot. Back in August, Border agents took in 834 unaccompanied migrant children, a record high at the time since the Biden administration began releasing data. How many parents could fathom sending their children on a perilous journey alone for a fighting chance at a better life? It’s something unheard of to those who will never understand the need to do whatever it takes to break a vicious cycle. To many, it’s a risk worth taking over and over again.

USCIS San Fernando Field Office in Chatsworth, CA. Photo by Kevin Diaz Chavez.

In June of 2012, the secretary of Homeland Security announced the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals aka DACA, a program that, if qualified for would allow certain migrant children legal stay in the United States. The program, however, did not grant these children legitimate U.S. citizenship. DACA came with a $495 fee recurring every two years, along with certain parameters that had to be met. The most significant of which requires these individuals, known as “Dreamers”, to remain in the country in order to be eligible for renewal. It was groundbreaking for migrants, but even more so for migrant children who would finally be given a chance to be recognized in some form of legitimacy in the United States. Carmen’s son, Armando Alvarez, qualified and was granted DACA from the program’s start in 2012.

I asked Armando what DACA meant for him in an interview. “Because of my status, I wasn’t gonna have the same opportunities that a citizen would have, so with DACA giving me that, it was one of the happiest memories I could think of right now. And then especially giving me the opportunity to work legally,” he says with a smile, “especially when I looked at it from the perspective of my mom and her struggle. She had to get a ‘dirty social’ in order to make a living on top of working with the fear that at any moment they could take it all away because this is happening illegally.”

Armando at his work desk. Photo by Kevin Diaz Chavez

This was the tale told far too often for those that were here before DACA and had no choice but to use “dirty socials” — Social Security numbers that were being borrowed or forged altogether. I asked Armando if he felt the added conditions of DACA were an unfair pressure considering citizens do not have the same repercussions. “You do have to tiptoe around more. More careful around what you do. But it really only positively affects me because it keeps me out of trouble,” he chuckles, “But, really, I’m a strong believer that obstacles are put in front of you because you’re strong enough to face them.” This is a similar sentiment shared between most DACA recipients.

Sergio Chavez places the final touch on a tile wall a day after he and his father initially started the job. Photo by Kevin Diaz Chavez

Sergio Chavez, a DACA recipient since the start of the program in 2012, echoes these beliefs during our conversation when asked what DACA meant to him. “A second chance,” he said sternly, “since we’re not from here and obviously we don’t have the proper documentation, DACA is a way for us to reside in the US without the worry of deportation. Our parents, they have to worry about that you know? But luckily for us, that’s something that we don’t have to worry about.” Sergio’s parents made a similar decision to leave what they knew behind in search of a better opportunity, with their three young children in tow. “My brother and sister are also on DACA, right now and they’re both working in the medical field. That’s something I feel is beneficial for the United States, especially with the pandemic going on” Sergio goes on to say.

It’s true that many DACA recipients are on the front lines making a positive impact in society. It’s become common practice amongst DACA recipients to defend their position, something that became commonplace during former President Donald Trump’s attempt at ending the program. A country notorious for selling the American dream had tried to strip the American dream from those labeled Dreamers. Once again, these migrants found themselves at the forefront of political war they didn’t ask to take part in, to be used as pawns for a greater picture of America they were restricted from. The fact is that a majority of DACA recipients migrate from Mexico, and with the overarching issue of immigration constantly being strewn through American media, it has always made them an easy target for vilifying by the U.S. Still, this isn’t enough to deter the mass amount of migrants who come to the US searching for better, including Sergio’s Dad.

Sergio Chavez Sr. (right), with his son, Sergio Chavez (left), wipes down the finished product. Photo by Kevin Diaz Chavez

“My Dad always talks about is how hard it was leaving his country, especially coming here knowing nothing, but having my siblings and me in mind all the time. He had no connections [in the US] and still managed to provide for all of us. He instilled that work ethic in me. Even now we work together installing tile, and there are times we have to work seven days a week, but you’ll never hear him complain. It just is what it is. I mentioned it earlier about doing things the right ways, in the eyes of the country, but if I didn’t have DACA, I’d still have to get things done, you know? It’s just how things have always been.”

The difficulty lies in doing everything the proper way, with the legal documentation the country has provided and it still will not be enough for some. Armando recalls a time he lost a job opportunity as an assistant in a physical therapy office because of his status as a DACA recipient. “I had already been there for a few days but the onboarding process was slow, so once the doctor found out about my status as a DACA recipient, he told me he didn’t want to hire me because of the money he would invest and let’s say, I don’t renew or the laws change, he didn’t want to worry about that.” The reality of the world is that, as individuals, we can only do so much until someone with more power can stop it. The story of immigration and DACA recipients is one that parallels Armando losing this job opportunity because we could be everything someone wants and it would still not be enough. “Another saying I really try and dig my foundation in is ‘what’s for you, won’t miss you’ and that just gives me a lot of peace. You have to just kind of let life guide you through what you’re supposed to do, what way you’re gonna get to where you’re supposed to be, I mean it sucks and it’s hard to step back and let life do its thing, but again, I’m gonna repeat it, the only obstacles put in front of you are the ones you can overcome.”

Armando (right), showing younger brother, Santiago (left), the various settings on his Canon camera. Photo by Kevin Diaz Chavez

Something shared between the three is the lack of time to feel sorry for themselves. There seemed to always be another way to go at life for them, and for the many that have gone or will go through similar situations. The reality is that migrants and DACA recipients are contributing more to society now than ever before. The country can always count on them whether they recognize them or not. “DACA gives me a fighting chance, and I have foundational support from my family, and now we can both guide my little brother [Santiago] with the knowledge that we have. That gives me the strength to constantly move forward so I can’t complain,” Armando says with a nonchalant shrug, “it can be hard, but what’s the alternative?”

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