Threat of deportation isn’t what fills 18-year-old Juan Gutierrez with worry. It’s the notion that his dream of getting a business degree at the University of Texas at Austin will be crushed by President-elect Donald Trump’s immigration policy.
“What good does our education do if we can’t use it?” said Gutierrez, a senior at Fort Worth’s Diamond Hill-Jarvis High School. “My future is based on an executive order that he can void whenever he wants.”
Gutierrez is Mexico-born but America-raised. He arrived in Fort Worth without legal status at age 3. His family had left El Bordo, a community of about 2,000 people located northeast of the city of Zacatecas, in search of opportunity. Three of his four brothers were born in the United States.
Gutierrez calls himself a Dreamer — a term sometimes used to describe more than 741,000 young people who were brought into the country as children without legal status and have stepped forward to identify themselves in exchange for a promise that they wouldn’t face deportation and could apply for work permits. They must reapply every two years.
In 2012, President Barack Obama signed an executive order establishing the program. called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA. The idea was to buy time for Congress to act, but now only days remain, and Obama has almost no options to give Dreamers more solid footing from possible deportation.
“My status doesn’t represent me or what I am able to accomplish, but at the same time, that little paper that says I can work can change your life completely,” said Sandra Tovar, a 29-year-old Spanish-language medical interpreter who helped her family buy a house while in the DACA program.
Trump’s plans for DACA are not clear. Before the election, he pledged an immediate end to what he called an “illegal executive amnesty.” But as president-elect, he has softened that stance.
“We’re going to work something out that’s going to make people happy and proud,” he told Time magazine recently. “They got brought here at a very young age, they’ve worked here, they’ve gone to school here. Some were good students. Some have wonderful jobs. And they’re in never-never land because they don’t know what’s going to happen.”
Douglas Interiano, CEO and founder of Proyecto Inmigrante in North Texas, said many undocumented immigrants are worried.
“DACA does not confer a permanent legal status or a path to citizenship,” Interiano said. “Any new administration can undo DACA.”
Adding to the fear, their personal information, and that of some relatives, could soon be readily accessible to immigration enforcement officials, if the incoming administration wishes.
In search of political allies
Dreamers like Gutierrez and Tovar said they have long hoped for comprehensive immigration reform that offers a path to legalization.
DACA gave them work permits, driver’s licenses and hope.. Tovar, a graduate of Texas A&M University, was cleaning houses in upscale Dallas neighborhoods before the program was established.
But their community became a target during the presidential election. Not only was there strong support for Trump’s proposed border wall and tough immigration stance, but the Senate and the House are controlled by the GOP, Tovar pointed out.
“People who had already come out saying they were undocumented, now they are on the down low again,” Tovar said. “People, who are undocumented and haven’t come out, they don’t want to.”
Tovar said she has been trying to quell fears, including among high school students who wonder if they should self-deport after graduation.
She said they have seen how immigration takes the spotlight only to disappear without action from lawmakers. She said they have never stopped fighting.
“Someone telling me that I’m worthless, that I’m a criminal, someone telling me that I don’t deserve to be here — I’m not going to let them win,” Tovar said. “If they are going to push, I’m going to push harder because I deserve everything I have and I deserve to be here like everyone else. I truly believe I’ve made a lot of positive contributions, not only at a community level, but at a state level, and to the economy as well.”
Political allies are emerging also.
“The Bridge Act,” Gutierrez said, referring to a bipartisan effort by senators to extend the legal protections and work permits offered under DACA for three more years.
In early December, U.S. Sens. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Dick Durbin, D-Ill., announced the Bar Removal of Individuals who Dream and Grow our Economy (BRIDGE) Act. It has drawn support from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Graham touted the effort on Twitter: “These young people have much to offer the country and we stand to benefit from the many contributions they will make to America. #Bridge Act.”
But similar efforts have failed, even when Democrats held majorities in both houses, so the likelihood of a last-minute comeback isn’t great.
‘This is what we look like’
Gutierrez was consumed with college plans and work when Election Day arrived. He was “heartbroken” when Trump won.
“I felt betrayed by this nation that I love so much. I felt my life was over,” he said, explaining how he stayed up until 2 a.m. searching for election news on the internet.
After the election, he learned that co-workers he respects and teachers he admires supported Trump. He wanted to tell them: “Hey guys, I’m an undocumented student. I have been working with you guys. This is what we look like.”
Despite the uncertainty ahead, Gutierrez is committed to his dreams. He is applying to the UT McCombs School of Business.
Gutierrez is staying focused on schoolwork — efforts that helped him move into the top 10 percent of his class by his senior year.
Gutierrez wakes up at 5:30 every morning so he can attend a calculus class held across town in the hours before the official school bell rings at Diamond Hill. After school, he works at a home improvement store until about 11 p.m. when he starts his homework.
“We are here to stay,” Gutierrez said, explaining that his family has worked too hard to give up. “I am going to keep doing what I’m doing. I will find a way. I am still going to go to McCombs. I’m still going to go to college.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report, which includes material from the Star-Telegram archives.