Meet four young Catholics in limbo over government’s DACA decision

By Joyce Duriga | Editor Michelle Martin | Staff writer
January 25, 2018

From left, Jesus Adrian Avalos, Daniela Limon, Nayeli Bolaños and Laura Macias pose in front of a mural in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood, Dec. 2. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic

Today, 42,400 young people are able to work legally in Illinois and pay taxes through the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, according to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. 

The DACA program was implemented by executive order during President Barack Obama’s administration and allows young immigrants who were brought here as minors to remain in the U.S. It does not convey legal status but conveys temporary protection from deportation and permission to legally work.

In September, President Trump announced that he would end DACA. At the same time, Trump called on Congress to come up with a legislative solution to keep the program in place.

Cardinal Cupich and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops have frequently called on Congress and the president to resolve the situation. While elected officials work that out, we wanted to introduce you to some of the DACA recipients in the Archdiocese of Chicago who were willing to share their stories.

Jesus Adrian Avalos

Jesus Adrian Avalos, 26, and his family moved to Chicago from Juarez, Mexico, in 2006 when he was 14. 

His father’s family was all living here. His parents moved them here because they saw more opportunities for the children and at the time Juarez was becoming dangerous. 

They came with tourist visas and “just never went back,” he said. 

Like other DACA recipients, Avalos wanted to work and go to college. Since he couldn’t apply for financial aid because he wasn’t a citizen, he worked his way through college and earned a scholarship for playing soccer. He now works as a web and graphic designer for the Archdiocese of Chicago.

When he was a senior at Calumet College at St. Joseph in Whiting, Indiana, DACA was announced and he applied. 

“Now I had a Social Security number. I still wouldn’t get any help from the government but I could pay taxes and work,” he said.  

Avalos earned a bachelor’s in computer information systems and a master’s in management. 

“I was the first in my family to go to college and then earn the degree. Now my sister’s doing the same,” he said. 

Avalos was able to renew his DACA status so he is OK until November 2019.

“The moment that ends I can’t work anymore. They could literally deport me.”

He worries about his family too. After getting a Social Security number he was able to purchase a house for his family to live in. 

“You’re always thinking about ‘What if something happens?’” 

His parents applied for citizenship 10 years ago and are still waiting. They don’t go some places because they are undocumented. Unlike some assumptions made about those without documents, his parents pay taxes. They just don’t get any refunds. 

He disagrees with those who say they are taking people’s jobs. 

“We go to school. We get educated. Especially the DACA recipients — we do it the way that it should be done. I don’t understand how that is stealing jobs.”

In every group of people there are always some who cause problems but because of the requirements under the program, those who receive DACA are “model citizens,” he said. 

“The moment we do something wrong they take it away. DACA is a very special group. We’re in school, we’ve been in school. We’re already working. It’s not just anybody,” he said. “We grew up here.” 

Daniela Limon

Daniela Limon has been thinking about the first teacher she had in Chicago after traveling from Puebla, Mexico, to meet her parents here.

She was 10 years old and was the only student in her class who did not speak English. Her teacher was bilingual and helped her, but also insisted that she use English as much as possible.

“I had a tough time in school. He was really strict,” she said. “I didn’t like it at the time, but now I know how much he helped me.”

She did well enough that by the time she was getting ready to graduate from Elgin High School, she wanted to go to art school. Her application was rejected because she was undocumented.

“I thought about stopping school and working to save money for college,” said Limon, now 25. “But I saw how much it cost and I realized it would take me a very long time.”

A counselor at her school helped research scholarships available to undocumented students, and she studied graphic design for two years at Elgin Community College. But while she was studying, she realized that she would rather be a nutritionist.

That wasn’t possible without a Social Security number because to enter a heath care field a person must pass a background check, she said. 

But once she got DACA status, she transferred to Harper College, a community college in Palatine that has a nutrition program, and recently finished her associate’s degree. She has been accepted to Dominican University in River Forest to finish her four-year degree, with a scholarship to help pay for it.

Limon is hoping that whatever happens, she can continue to pursue that degree.

But she also wonders about the proposals she hears about, the ones that would make it so the parents of “Dreamers” and DACA recipients could not get legal residency in the United States. There should be a solution for everyone, she said, a comprehensive reform of the immigration system.

Limon, who lives in Elgin, said she has become more open about her status since a professor made the point that many people don’t know that they might be sitting next to a DACA recipient on the bus or in class.

“They’re not really aware of what DACA means,” she said. “They think DACA is just taking away jobs from them. We’re not here to take things away. We’re here to contribute a lot to the country that gave us opportunities.”

Most people she has encountered are open to that message, she said.

If, somehow, legislation that would allow these young people to have a path to U.S. citizenship, she would take it, Limon said.

“I want to be able to vote for my legislators,” she said.

Nayeli Bolaños

Nayeli Bolaños, 25, knows she has a lot to lose if DACA ends.

Despite having lived in Chicago since before her second birthday, she would lose a job as a medical assistant that she likes, and she would lose the opportunity to start nursing school in August after completing an associate’s degree at the City Colleges of Chicago.

She copes with the uncertainly by turning to her friends in the Catholic Dreamers Ministry that meets at a Chicago parish. The term “Dreamers” is based on never-passed proposals in Congress called the DREAM Act that would have provided similar protections for young immigrants as DACA.

Bolaños said, like many DACA recipients, she didn’t know she was undocumented until she was in high school and had to fill out some kind of official documents. In her case, it was for driver education at Steinmetz High School in Chicago. Without a Social Security number, she said, she could not get a learner’s permit or apply for a driver’s license.

Then, when she realized that she couldn’t get financial aid for college, or work at anything but an “under-the-table” job that would pay less than minimum wage, she wondered why she even bothered to study in school and earn a 3.5 grade-point average.

“I felt like I had my hands tied,” Bolaños said.

A friend from the Dreamers Ministry encouraged her to find a job anyway.

“I knew I would be underpaid,” she said, and she was, getting a dollar or two under minimum wage from the dry-cleaning shop that hired her.

“It wasn’t the best job,” she said, noting that she would be exhausted from lifting and hanging heavy clothes over her head. “But it was OK.”

Then, when DACA was instituted, she had another chance: a doctor who came into the dry cleaner asked her if she would work in the new office he was opening in the neighborhood. She explained that she was waiting for a work permit, but he hired her — at a legal wage and not under the table — and she’s worked there for five years, moving up to become a medical assistant. After finishing her associate’s degree at the same time, she hopes to become a nurse.

“It’s like I’m part of society,” said Bolaños, who lives in Chicago and attends St. John Bosco Parish.

Those dreams could be ruined if there is no DACA solution.

“When I first heard our president say we had to end DACA, I was devastated,” Bolaños said. “It’s hard to say you’re sending me back to where I belong, because I don’t remember anything but here. This is where I belong.”

Members of the Dreamers Ministry are leaning on one another during the times of uncertainty, Bolaños said.

“Our faith, it’s like a light that’s lit in the middle of the room,” she said. “We have to be stronger than ever. We shouldn’t let ourselves break down. We have to be more faithful. There’s a reason why things happen.”

Laura Macias

When Laura Macias finished high school and found her opportunities limited because she did not have legal residency in the United States, she moved forward at a run. Literally.

Macias, now 33, was 12 years old when she moved to Chicago from Mexico with her mother and six brothers, ranging in age from 3 to 16. They came to meet up with her father, who was already living and working in Chicago.

She was a junior at Farragut High School before she realized that she was undocumented, and learned what that would mean for her future.  

“At the end of your junior year, you hear the other students talking about scholarships and applying to university,” Macias said. “But when we read the documents and looked at the application requirements, that’s when we realized we were missing a lot of things.”

At first, she wasn’t too upset at the idea of not being able to go to college. Her first choice was to graduate high school and get a job.

“There was so much need in the family, and I wanted to get a job and help,” she said.

But without a Social Security number she couldn’t legally work.

But Macias had been a cross-country runner in high school, following in the footsteps of her older brothers, and she continued running at Morton Community College, the only school she could afford to attend without financial aid. Even so, she planned to drop out after her first year to earn money before returning. 

When her coach found out, he offered her an athletic scholarship to cover some of the cost. After her second year of community college, she was offered an athletic scholarship to run at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

It was hard, said Macias, who lives in Berwyn and attends St. Anthony Parish in Cicero.

“It was Division I, so some of the people we ran against were trying for the Olympics,” she said. But she had faith that if she trained hard and did what the coaches told her, she would succeed.

She graduated with a bachelor’s degree in world history.

As soon as she could, Macias applied for DACA, and now works as an assistant to the admissions director at the University of Illinois at Chicago, advising prospective medical students. She is also studying for a master’s degree in literacy education.

“The fact that I can have a stable job, and I can get paid for my skills — that changed my life,” she said. “It means everything — emotionally, psychologically, physically. I felt like I won the lottery with DACA.”

It’s especially important for her, she said, because she was able to break the pattern of generations of women in her family who stayed home to take care of the house and children. That was never what she wanted, and if she couldn’t get good paying work, she didn’t see any other option.

“I used to cry because of the impotence of not having that,” she said.

Since President Trump announced in September that DACA would end, her parents have been worried for her and youngest brother. The other siblings have married U.S. citizens and have green cards; only the two of them would be in jeopardy if Congress does not resolve the DACA situation.

“The sacrifices they made for us, even working three jobs, it’s not in vain,” Macias said. “Just by the fact that they see us succeeding and working hard.”

The uncertainty has been hard, Macias said, and she doesn’t want to leave her family, but if it comes to it, she said, she will find another country — maybe Mexico, maybe someplace else — that will value her gifts.

“The education I have, that’s not something they can take away from me,” she said. “The way they brought us here, with no education, no opportunity, that’s not the way we’re going back.”


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