LOS ANGELES — It was just about a year ago that Yamilex Rustrian, 19, was on the National Mall in Washington, joining the Fast for Families demonstrations for immigration reform. She fasted for four days, and when President Barack Obama visited their encampment, she said, she rushed to him and said, “‘Thank you for DACA’ … He hugged me. He promised he would pass something.”
Rustrian is one of some 685,000 who came to the U.S. illegally as children and qualified for a reprieve from deportation under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), the directive issued by Obama in 2012.
But Rustrian, who thanks to the program has been able to get a driver’s license, work, pay in-state tuition at colleges and stop worrying about being deported, wanted the same for her 44-year-old mother, Annabella.
So while many immigrants cheered Thursday’s controversial executive action by Obama that will shield an estimated 5 million undocumented immigrants from deportation, about 300,000 parents of DACA beneficiaries will continue to live in the shadows, no matter how long they’ve been in the U.S.
The plan will, however, extend the benefits to an estimated 300,000 more immigrants by easing DACA's age and date qualifications, according to an analysis by the Migration Policy Institute. Plus, it will protect 3.7 million parents in the U.S. illegally — 1.1 million in California alone — but only parents of U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents.
Despite the celebrations across the country, here in the offices of SEIU United Service Workers West, the union that represents many Latino workers, tears were flowing. “It’s very disappointing,” said Rustrian. “Many of our parents won’t qualify.”
Rustrian recounts how her mother left her children behind with their dad and came to the U.S. more than a dozen years ago to provide some relief for her family living in poverty in Aguablanca, Guatemala. But her father was assassinated by gang members and Annabella paid a coyote $8,000 to guide her daughters Yamilex, then 7, and Yosselin, 6, across the border.
It was a grueling two months journey that Yamilex and Yosselin recount tearfully but with astounding detail: the small room that they and 40 others were crammed in along the way, the dirty lagoon water they were forced to drink, almost passing out from exhaustion crossing mountains and deserts, little Yosselin having to be carried for part of the way, the pregnant woman in her group who went into labor and was left behind in the desert by the coyotes.
“I wish I could’ve helped her but I was just 7,” said Yamilex.
The coyotes kidnapped the girls for 10 days once in the U.S., demanding another $3,000 before releasing them to their mother in the dark of night in a parking lot.
Ten years later, DACA has changed the young women’s lives. They no longer fear being pulled over for a mere traffic violation that could get them deported. They still want the same for their mother, who works as a janitor and is an executive board member for the union.
But nothing in Obama’s new plan dispels their fears of being separated from their mother. For years, every time she left their North Hollywood home for work, she reminded them of an emergency protocol (whom to contact, where to go) in the event of an immigration raid at work and she were unable to return.
The protocol will continue.
“I was really hopeful that that situation would change,” said Yamilex, who has just been hired by the union to head a state council on the youth vote. She started the group Children Over Politics and plans to keep fighting for change. “It started because we want to be part of society,” she said.
Ixchel Hernandez, 18, a student at Cal State Northridge who received a $40,000 scholarship, is also a DACA beneficiary who left Oaxaca, Mexico, at age 4 to rejoin her dad, who had already made the crossing to the U.S.
“Before all this, my biggest hope was simply for them to feel safe,” she said of her father, Jose, who works in the food industry, and mother, Guadalupe, who cleans houses. “So that we’re not constantly hiding because that’s what we’ve been doing all our lives … constantly in fear.”
The uncertainty continues for families such as the Rustrians and Hernandez, and even the DACA protection they cherish is not a long-term solution. They have to reapply every two years at a cost of $500 each time and hope that their application is approved.
“I feel very limited,” said Hernandez, who works as an usher at the Walt Disney Concert Hall in downtown Los Angeles. “I feel like my future only goes to a certain extent … DACA is temporary relief.”