Q&A: Dreamer discusses life under DACA on its ninth anniversary

By: - June 15, 2021 12:01 am

Angel Romero, a 22-year-old resident of Stafford County, is one of 12,000 DACA recipients in Virginia. (Contributed photo)

Angel Romero arrived in Virginia when he was two years old, completely unaware of his parents’ status as undocumented migrants from Mexico.

Under DACA, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy enacted by former President Barack Obama’s administration in 2012, he’s been allowed to live and work legally in the U.S. But the protections are limited, the program has faced legal challenges and there is still no permanent path to citizenship for participants.

Like many other children of the undocumented, Romero says he’s struggled to feel accepted, lived in constant fear of deportation and been denied educational and career opportunities.

The 22-year-old Stafford County resident — one of 12,000 people in Virginia covered under DACA — now works as an advocate for children who find themselves in similar situations as a canvass manager for the immigrant advocacy group CASA in Action.

On the ninth anniversary of the program, Romero spoke to the Mercury about his experience as a Dreamer. The following interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Virginia Mercury: What do you remember about first coming to the United States?

Romero: I don’t remember what it was like coming here. My first memories were actually in the United States. I remember living with my cousins for the first couple months that I was here. For the first couple years of my life pretty much until I had DACA I was largely unaware of the situation regarding immigration.

How and when did you become aware of DACA?

Immigration was a taboo topic in our household, we were told not to talk about that outside of our household out of fear of outing ourselves. It was basically a process of discovering breadcrumbs. So in middle school I found out, ‘Oh I’m definitely not a citizen, something is definitely weird there.’ But then in high school when I actually applied for DACA, which was after DACA was put in place, I had heard about “dreamers” but didn’t really know that that was a label that applied to me until I was actually doing my DACA application with CASA. They did an event for applications, there was a line out the door. I had to go to Maryland for that. 

Was the DACA application process straightforward? Did anyone help?

It was honestly kind of a confusing process, not really knowing what I was applying for. Basically my parents were the ones that were gathering all of the materials that you need, like my passport, records. It was kind of strange sitting in this room with like 10 to 20 people at one time that were being processed for their initial DACA applications. You were asked all these questions for the first time like, ‘Have you ever been involved with a gang?’ — all these questions that felt kind of intrusive. It was stuff that I didn’t even think about before that point.

Did things change for you in Virginia after your DACA approval?

The year before I applied for DACA I was offered this internship that I wasn’t able to actually apply for because of my immigration status. But after that a bunch of doors opened. I didn’t start working at that point but I knew that it was a possibility for me. And it wasn’t until after high school that I started working with CASA.

Were you and your family paying attention to Trump’s rise in 2016? Did you think there was a real chance he could win? 

In the beginning it was just tweets, just jokes. Nobody thought that he was actually running until he actually got the nomination. At that point it was sort of like disbelief, that he wasn’t going to be that bad, he was just preaching to his choir. It was that for his whole presidency ‘Oh he can’t possibly do this.’ But then he does it.

What kind of toll did that take on you and your family? Especially in 2017 when he actively rescinded DACA. 

When Trump was elected I was right out of high school That was actually a really bad time because right out of high school I was going to go to George Mason’s Honors College, but because of financial reasons and because of not being able to apply for any financial aid federally, that was just not a possibility anymore. I went up to the point of going to orientation, I had my schedule. I was holding back, seeing if I’ll get some sort of financial aid, but I didn’t know how to navigate that. After that I wasn’t involved with CASA in Action yet but my sister was. On Election Day when we got the news, I was watching results roll in. Honestly, I didn’t even know how that could be possible. Everyone thought there was literally no way he was going to win.

The day DACA was rescinded in 2017 — by then I was working with CASA in Action, it was my first year getting involved with the movement. And that day instead of canvassing for elections we went to DC and were in front of the White House protesting. That made that day a lot easier because I had a whole community.

What do you think about ICE’s role in all of this?

I do believe in the abolition of ICE. They have been so harmful, especially in the county that I grew up in, Prince William. They had a 287(g) agreement with the Prince William Police Department — basically collaborating with ICE and sending detainees directly to ICE. It was really devastating for our county because everyone just left, including my family. We had to move to the neighboring county. Due to the work CASA has done in the county though that agreement is no longer in place. 

President Biden has “preserved” DACA. How do you feel about his administration’s efforts to do that? And more broadly, how do you feel about DACA’s role in the immigration process?

Although the Biden administration is definitely a step up from Trump’s administration, in his first 100 days he promised to provide some sort of immigration reform, and he hasn’t fulfilled that promise. Right now, we’re waiting on HR6, which, funnily enough, the hearing is going to be on the anniversary of DACA, which would be a comprehensive immigration reform. And that’s really what we want to see.

Can you talk about what CASA in Action is and what you’re working on currently?

Yeah, so it is CASA’s sister organization, we do political work and here in Virginia, we’ve been knocking doors since either 2015 or 2016. And I’ve been with them since 2017 working as a canvasser, now I’m a canvass manager and I’ve been that ever since 2019. With CASA in Action I’ve been able to take on a team of mostly young people who, just like when I started with CASA in Action, are largely unaware of the system and not very informed on how things work. I’m able to educate them and put in my part in making change.

What are your plans for the near future?

Fortunately here in Virginia, there was some new legislation — I don’t really know the specifics of it — but I heard that there is limited free college, and I’m not sure if it applies to any of the fields I’m interested in, but I’m definitely looking for opportunities out there, because I do want to continue pursuing my education.   

House, Senate pass long-anticipated immigrants’ rights bills

Anything specific you’d want to do?

Honestly that’s something that I’m really grappling with right now. Now that I’m more aware of how things work it’s really tricky. I want to go into something where I could help people without contributing to any of the systems that actively oppress our people. When I first got out of high school I was either going to go into business or some sort of tech route, and I wouldn’t want to exploit people by taking a job at a military contractor or something like that.

What is your vision for immigration reform as someone who has experienced this grueling process?

Well I think the first step that needs to be taken to fix our broken immigration system is passing HR6 because we have to make sure that we’re not leaving anyone out of the solution. We have to have a comprehensive immigration solution that includes people and has a real pathway to citizenship.

It’ll be nine years since DACA on Tuesday, do you feel like you can say you’re in the position you are now because of DACA?

Definitely in these past couple years, I’m in a much better position than I would’ve been without DACA. I honestly don’t know what I would be doing right now if it weren’t for DACA. And I’m really glad that we have DACA, but I’m gonna keep on fighting until we have that permanent solution.

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Malcolm Ferguson
Malcolm Ferguson

Malcolm Ferguson is an intern with the Virginia Mercury. He's a recent graduate of the University of Maryland, where he majored in English and political science, and is pursuing a graduate degree in urban planning. Contact him at [email protected]