Chris Rodriguez hid under the seat of a conversion van as he went through a border patrol checkpoint in San Diego. He was 13 at the time.
“I was very naïve,” Rodriguez said. "I actually didn't understand what it meant to be undocumented."
It wasn’t until his junior year of high school that reality fully set in for him. An avid fan of math and drawing, he wanted to study architecture or civil engineering in college. But he lacked one key thing to move forward — a Social Security number.
“I knew it was a setback, but I knew it wasn’t going to hold me down,” Rodriguez, now a Fulton resident, said.
He managed to enroll in community college and to make a living for himself as a construction worker. But things were not easy. Even daily tasks like driving were risky.
“I still remember being 13 years old when my parents would tell us, ‘Don’t move, sit still, don’t give any reason to get us pulled over,’” Rodriguez said. That feeling stayed with him. “Every time I see a cop, I always get nervous.”
For one DACA recipient, a second Mexico to call home Ana Garcia, a DACA recipient in Mexico, Missouri, watched her father get deported several times. Because of her status, she's never been able to return to the village in Mexico where he now lives and she grew up. "I daydream of that little village and what it's going to be like," Garcia said.
It wasn’t until age 30 that he was granted a work permit through the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program. The Obama-era policy offered renewable two-year work permits for undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children.
On Sept. 5, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the DACA program was being rescinded.
The following week, President Donald Trump negotiated a deal with the House and Senate's top Democrats, Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi. The deal would ultimately protect all 800,000 DACA recipients nationally, also known as Dreamers, in exchange for a package of border security measures. There are also 3,883 DACA applicants in Missouri; no figure was available for the number of state recipients.
Since then, Trump has attached several demands to the deal, potentially dooming its success. The additions include funding for a southern border wall with Mexico and a crackdown on so-called sanctuary cities.
Meanwhile, reports show that up to 22,000 Dreamers failed to meet a deadline to renew their work permits. Those with permits expiring before March 5, 2018, were given until Oct. 5 to apply for renewal. All other Dreamers were told that once their permits expired, they may be subject to deportation.
An uncertain fate for DACA recipients
Trump's latest demands on the DACA deal have left many alarmed and upset.
“They’re using people’s lives as a bargaining chip,” said Martha, who is engaged to Rodriguez and whose last name the Missourian has agreed to withhold.
Rodriguez said they are bracing for the worst-case scenario. He faces possible deportation back to Mexico when his DACA permit expires in October 2018.
"Honestly, I’ll be lost in Mexico," Rodriguez said. "All I know is America.”
Rodriguez and Martha bought a house together in Fulton, Missouri, in May. They planned to marry in July 2018. But now the wedding is on hold as they work and try to save as much money as possible.
At times, Rodriguez' work as a trainer for a trucking company takes him away from home for weeks on end. He said it is difficult to be away from Martha and her two children, an 8-year-old son and a 12-year-old daughter, who were born in the U.S.
Rodriguez said he has become like a father to them over the past three years. He calls them his son and daughter, and they fondly call him "Daddy." When the news came about the DACA program ending, Martha told Rodriguez, “Wherever you go, this family will follow you.”
“Hearing those words just broke me down,” Rodriguez said. “That’s just genuine love.”
Martha said their primary concern is for her two children. Although she works full time, the family relies on Rodriguez for much of their income. She and Rodriguez each said they worry what life will be like if they have to move the family to Mexico — a place largely unfamiliar to all four of them.
“My children shouldn’t have to pay for my parents’ mistake for bringing us in here like this,” Martha, who was brought to the U.S. at age 2, said. “We are not bad people. We are just families that are trying to survive.”
A narrow path to citizenship
So what is stopping Rodriguez, 33, and Martha, 30, from pursuing citizenship after decades in the country?
Immigration lawyer Megan Galicia said the answer is not so simple. She works for a Kansas City firm, Martinez Immigration Law LLC, that has worked with Martha since 2014.
Galicia said that while DACA gives recipients a work permit and alleviates their fear of being deported, it does not give them a legal immigration status or path to citizenship.
“Most people who have DACA did not have any other available forms of relief to them," Galicia said. "You would think, having been here so long and growing up as American kids … there would be something, but there simply isn’t, and that is why DACA was created.”
Galicia said there are limited options for undocumented immigrants to obtain a lawful immigration status, much less citizenship.
“There are very specific eligibility criteria and lots and lots of people who don’t fall into any of those," Galicia said.
Three broad categories allow people to apply for legal immigration status, she explained: through sponsorship by an employer; through a family member who is a permanent resident or citizen; or through a humanitarian visa. The humanitarian option applies to immigrants who have been victims of certain crimes or are in danger if they return to their home countries.
But Galicia said many undocumented immigrants do not qualify to legalize their status. And even if they do, the process may require the help of a lawyer.
"Immigration law is so complex that it’s been compared to tax code," Galicia said.
Galicia said the cost of hiring a lawyer or fear of the process altogether also keeps undocumented immigrants from moving forward. Sometimes, the application and approval process simply takes a long time to complete.
Martha applied for DACA in June 2016 but said her application went untouched for a year. She inquired and was asked to provide more information, yet still saw no progress.
In August 2017, she was was given "deferred action" status under a U visa, which applies to victims of criminal activity, according to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services website. She had waited for that visa for over three years.
Since her DACA application still had not been approved, she decided to effectively withdraw it in September 2017.
After receiving deferred action status under the U visa, Martha was able to get a work permit and a driver's license for the first time in her life. In November, she took a step toward one of her lifelong goals — college. She applied to Moberly Area Community College. She hopes to one day transfer to MU.
"Mizzou has always been my dream college," she said.
Once Martha receives an official U visa, she cannot request permanent residency for another three years. If she and Rodriguez are married then, she could request permanent residency for him at that time, too. But the entire process would extend well beyond when his DACA permit expires in October 2018.
Rodriguez said he would pursue a path to citizenship if it were available to him.
“All I have been wanting my whole life is … to be called American,” Rodriguez said, his voice breaking with emotion. “Sometimes some people don’t realize what they have, what the privilege is of being born here.”
Words of solidarity and hope
Martha said she became an activist for the rights of undocumented immigrants during Trump's campaign. She feels passionately about advocating for and encouraging Dreamers and other immigrants. With the tumult of the current political climate, she said many are afraid to speak out.
“Hope is the last thing that is lost,” Martha said. “We have to stick together. We have to come out of the shadows. We cannot let them put us into the shadows. If we let fear take over, we are done.”
Rodriguez said he encourages other Dreamers and immigrants to combat negative stereotypes by first listening and then offering well-reasoned and thoughtful replies.
“When everybody is yelling the same time, it is very hard to try to get a point across,” Rodriguez said.
Both Martha and Rodriguez emphasized they identify fully as Americans.
“This country that we love was built by immigrants,” Rodriguez said. “They came here just like my parents, just like I did, leaving their country in hope for a better life for them and their kids.”
Rodriguez said having a green card would mean the world to him.
“That little plastic ID that tells me I am a U.S. resident, it’s what’s missing," Rodriguez said. "It’s what’s missing to complete my American dream."
Supervising editor is Elizabeth Brixey.