Carla was about 14 when she learned she was living in the United States without documentation.
She had lived in Biloxi since she was 8, when her parents brought her and her siblings here to enjoy a better quality of life.
With high school graduation a few years away, she decided to do like her friends and get a job and a driver’s permit.
“I didn’t have a Social Security card,” she said.
“That’s when it hit me. I was undocumented. I became depressed and it got worse my last couple of years in high school. I knew my only option was to work under the table.”
She’s a Dreamer, a term given to undocumented immigrants brought to America when they were under the age of 16.
Carla saw hope when she learned she qualified for temporary protection from deportation under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals Act, effective in 2012. She is able to live and work in the city and country she loves provided she is able to renew her status every two years.
DACA is for ages 16 to 31. But it appears to be coming to an end. White House officials are arguing that it was unconstitutional for President Barack Obama to create the program.
Carla, now 23, still lives in Biloxi. She is the mother of two children and works as a medical interpreter for a nonprofit organization.
Carla is not her real name. She agreed to talk anonymously to the Sun Herald.
Under DACA, she was able to get a Social Security number. She pays into Social Security and Medicare, but will never be eligible to receive those benefits unless she can become a permanent resident. She is not eligible for any public benefits, such as food stamps.
Carla is among more than 2,800 young Mississippi residents born in different countries with DACA status, according to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. There’s about 800,000 Dreamers nationwide.
Their future is now in jeopardy. DACA is tentatively scheduled to end by 2019, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced Tuesday. President Donald Trump took a strong stance on immigration issues before he was elected, and has shown sympathy for Dreamers in recent months. Now, Sessions has argued that Congress, not the president, is responsible for writing immigration law.
Trump has asked Congress to create the 2017 Dream Act within six months. Previous attempts to pass the Dream Act have failed. It could allow Dreamers to become permanent residents if they meet education, workforce or military service requirements. They would have to pass a background check, be proficient in the English language and cannot have a felony or violent criminal background.
Gov. Phil Bryant issued a written statement Thursday in support of the decision to end DACA and put the issues in the hands of Congress.
“I think the president did the right thing,” Bryant said. “I think President Trump made the right decision. It is Congress’ decision to make any laws regarding immigration.”
Carla, like other Dreamers, is concerned, uncertain of what may happen.
“A lot of people don’t think of immigrants in a good way,” Carla said. “Most of us are good people who just want to live and work in a place we love and feel safe. We contribute to our community just like legal residents.”
Coming to America
Carla was 4 years old when her 21-year-old father left Mexico to make money as a construction worker in America. He found construction work in Atlanta, and his wife joined him about 18 months later.
Carla and her siblings lived with their maternal grandparents in Jalisco, Mexico, until their parents moved them to Biloxi in 2002. A coyote, one who smuggles undocumented persons into the U.S., brought the children here. Her parents decided on Biloxi because they liked the slower pace and family-oriented atmosphere, she said.
Carla has few memories, or flashbacks as she calls them, of life in Mexico.
“I can remember being excited to come here,” she said. “We were together as a family and I liked it here.”
Adjusting to school as a Spanish-speaking child was not as hard as you would think, she said.
“I was speaking fluent English for my age within my first three months in school here,” Carla said.
Carla grew up in a local church where her mother is a catechist, a teacher of Christian faith. Carla has coordinated a youth group. Her brothers have been altar servers and ushers.
DACA allowed her to get a state identification card. After graduating from high school, she bought a car and started her first job at age 19.
She is a volunteer at El Pueblo, an immigration legal services program of Seashore Mission in Biloxi. Her boyfriend works in construction like her father.
She wants to work in the medical field, perhaps be a nurse or a nurse practitioner. But Dreamers have to pay out-of-state tuition to go to college and they don’t qualify for a student loan.
“We are hard-working people,” Carla said. “We want to better ourselves. We have goals. We want to make a difference. And we are good people who like to help each other and those in our community.”
About 25,000 undocumented immigrants were living in Mississippi in 2014, according to a 2014 study by the Migration Policy Institute.
The DACA program was started during Obama’s first term in office. A Supreme Court decision about 30 years earlier had ruled that undocumented immigrant children have the right to attend public schools.
In April, Trump told the Associated Press that Dreamers can “rest easy.” Trump said he’s “not after the dreamers, we are after the criminals.”
But if DACA ends, and no pathway to naturalization is established, Dreamers will be here illegally and unable to pursue their dreams.
Carla is scared. The end of the program would leave her with no legal protection to live and work in the U.S. She’s already been thinking about what the process would be like to be deported and to take her children with her.
“People ask me why I’m not legal,” Carla said. “I would be if I could be.”
The pathway to naturalization for Dreamers is limited.
“Most of these young people are not eligible for naturalization,” said Sue Weishar of the Jesuit Social Research Institute of Loyola University in New Orleans.
“There’s only two ways to become naturalized,” Weishar said.
“You have to be married to a U.S. citizen or have a close U.S.-citizen family member living here. Or an employer can hire you to do a highly skilled job that there’s not enough Americans available to do that type of work.”
Weishar’s work at the JSRI focuses on race, poverty and migration issues in the five Gulf Coast states. She has a doctorate of educational research and leadership and is a migration specialist/fellow.
‘A way to be here legally’
“It is just cruel and counterproductive to end DACA,” she said.
“No other country is their home. America is their home in every way but the paperwork. They are integrated into their local communities and contributing to their communities.”
Weishar said there may be a silver lining.
“The Dream Act of 2017 could provide a legislative, permanent solution for Dreamers, a pathway through legalization that could lead to citizenship. I really hope congressional leaders in Mississippi and other states will pass this as a remedy to a terrible dilemma.”
Carla wants Mississippians to contact their congressional leaders to show support for the Dream Act.
“I want people to understand that we are good people,” Carla said. “I want a way to be here legally.”
“This is my community. This is my home. I’ve been here almost 15 years. I don’t have anywhere to go because this is my home.”
DACA data shows Mississippi had 5,000 youths or young adults who were eligible for temporary resident status in 2016, and 1,659 applications were pending, Weishar said.
Nationwide, there were 1.9 million young residents eligible for DACA last year and 861,192 applications on file.
Those with DACA status include military recruits.
Some opponents of undocumented immigrants argue that they’re taking jobs away from Americans.
“On the contrary,” Weishar said.
“Often times, immigrants take jobs that Americans don’t want or that complement the work Americans are doing. Some economic studies show that, in an expanding economy, immigrants don’t take away jobs, but they complement the work force and help Americans move up the employment ladder.”
“They contribute to the country. They create jobs. They’re consumers, taxpayers and entrepreneurs. They take their earnings and spend them in the community.”
Statistics show more than 11 million undocumented immigrants were living in the U.S. in 2014, including 25,000 in Mississippi, Weishar said. About 40 percent of them entered legally with a temporary visa, such as a tourist, student or temporary work visa, she said, pointing to Migration Policy Institute numbers.