Math teacher Maleny Calderon bid goodbye to South Hills High School last week to embark on a journey to Mexico that will turn her into a student again.
Calderon, 23, is one of 10 participants in the DACA Cultural Exchange Program, which targets people who arrived in this country without legal status as children, but who now live and work under Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, commonly known as DACA.
The trip is educational, but also emotional because it is the first time participants will return to their birth country.
“I’m super excited,” said Calderon, whose family left Ciudad Juarez across from El Paso in 2005. “I get to travel outside of the United States [for the first time] since I came 11 years ago.”
Calderon and other participants were scheduled to travel Saturday. Their journey will take them to El Colegio de Mexcio in Mexico City, which is also known as COLMEX.
The program is sponsored by the Dallas-based Latino Center for Leadership Development and the Consul General of Mexico in Dallas.
“I am convinced that this academic exchange program will make a significant difference in the lives of 10 DACA students of Mexican origin,” Francisco de la Torre, consul general of Mexico in Dallas, said in a statement. “They have the potential of being future leaders, a generation that will explain the integration of North America to the world far beyond trade.”
The participants are also known as “Dreamers,” because they arrived to this country with no immigration status. They grew up in the United States and pinned their hopes on comprehensive federal immigration reform. In 2012, the DACA program offered these young adults relief from deportation, said Rebecca Acuña, executive director of the Latino Center for Leadership.
“They all have similar and different stories,” Acuña said of the students. “They all wanted to do this trip for different reasons.”
Opportunity to learn
The study abroad program is a first for the Latino Center for Leadership Development, which helps train future leaders.
Participants in the project were born in places throughout Mexico, including Mexico City, Ciudad Juarez, Saltillo and Hidalgo del Parral. Their families brought them to the United States as they searched for economic opportunity and safety.
The group includes teachers and college students who live in Texas, Virginia and Washington state between the ages of 19 and 33.
Acuna said teachers in the group want to incorporate what they learn in lesson plans. One participant from Seattle, who works with a state senator, wants to talk to Mexican farm workers so he can better relate to those who works as migrants in the U.S.
Fort Worth’s Calderon said the trip will help her find out more about her culture and expand her horizons. She said lessons learned during the trip will help her become a better teacher.
“I think this trip is going to help me grow as a person,” said Calderon.
While people on DACA can work and live in the United States without fear of deportation, travel is limited, Acuña said. They have to go through a process called “advance parole” to leave and enter the country, she said. It is typically granted to visit a sick family member or for educational opportunities, she said.
The process includes a fee of $350, which the Mexican consulate covered, Acuña said. Additionally, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services helped streamline the process, she said.
Growing as leaders
Acuña said 250 people applied for the program from 22 states.
“The young people we have selected are already leaders in their communities,” she said, noting that many are activists and grassroots organizers in the immigrant community. Their work helped bring about DACA, which was announced by President Barack Obama’s administration in June 2012. An expansion of that program and another federal program that allows the parents of Americans relief from deportation is currently before the U.S. Supreme Court.
“We are seeing that the leadership among Dreamers is leading to policy changes at every level of government from in-state tuition to deferred action for themselves to a potential protection for immigrant parents of citizens,” Acuña said.
She said the participants are inspiring.
“They all faced tremendous obstacles, yet they have all been able to get a college education, help their families and continue to work to help other people,” Acuña said.