DACA recipients plan post-election ‘Plan B’

By Zoë Watkins

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The upcoming presidential election has many recipients of the Deferred Action on Childhood Arrivals program on edge. The 2012 program implemented by President Barack Obama protects many of the 800,000 immigrants who were brought to the U.S. illegally as children.

DACA only applies to those younger than 16 and has other qualifiers, including whether someone has lived in the United States for five years continuously; whether they have proof that they are in school; whether they served in the military and were honorably discharged; and whether they have any felony convictions. The program gives recipients protection from deportation and a work permit, which must be renewed every two years.

If President Trump wins the election, a few DACA recipients say they’re prepared to return to their home countries or move to a different country. If former Vice President Joe Biden wins, there is a possibility the program could be saved, allowing them to extend their stay in the U.S.; he says he will make the DACA program permanent.

Betzabeth Fuentes, who, at her request, is being identified by her middle name, is a community organizer and activist living in a diverse community in Minnesota.

She also recently launched a new nonprofit, Latino Voices of Minnesota. “It was born out of all the things I lived,” she said, adding that she hopes to bridge the gap and help those in her community find resources and become aware of programs that are there to help.

As a DACA recipient, she has prepared herself and daughter Nina, a U.S. citizen, for the possibility of Trump further cutting the program.

Fuentes is from Guadalajara, Mexico, and has lived in the U.S. for 20 years. Fuentes, 31, qualified for DACA but her siblings did not apply. Fuentes’ younger brother, Esteban, was born in the U.S. Her brother Abeldardo returned to Mexico for a job opportunity, and her sister, Sinai, married a U.S. citizen, which created a pathway to citizenship for her through marriage.

Woman and daughter
Fuentes and daughter Nina.

“I know what it’s like to have parents taken away and not understand the system or not know what to expect or do next,” Fuentes said, referring to her stepdad who was taken to jail and later deported by immigration authorities in 2006. Fuentes was 17 and still in high school at the time. “It was traumatizing,” she said.

In 2006, over 270,000 undocumented immigrants were removed from the country, according to a 2008 annual report from the Department of Homeland Security.

Her stepfather’s deportation reminds Fuentes of why it’s important to be honest with Nina. “I have a 9-year-old, and every time we are up for renewal, we talk about what might happen and what that means for her and what that means for me and what that means for us as a family,” Fuentes said. “She’s like, ‘Mommy, it’s not fair.’ ”

The act of deportation doesn’t scare Fuentes, she said, but what does scare her, she said, are the “consequences” and the fear of the unknown. Fuentes lives and works in a Latinx community that has seen many deportations.

“I’ve seen all the broken parts of the system,” she said.

Fuentes said before Trump was elected in 2016, the process to apply for DACA was smoother. If someone was denied, the rejection letters were clear in stating the reasons why. Now, Fuentes says the process is more vague, with more rejections than acceptances.

“A lot of people are being declined for no reason,” Fuentes added.

She said she has three “Plan B” ideas if the DACA program is cut and she’s forced to return to Mexico.

She will apply again for DACA, and she will wait for approval in the United States. If that does not work, then she will seek a work-sponsored visa. Fuentes said she has already discussed the possibility of a visa with her employer and it would be a “long, expensive and very difficult process.”

If she is denied the visa and the DACA program is cut, Fuentes and Nina will move to Guadalajara to be with their family. Fuentes said she will try to start a career there but the transition would not be easy. Nina speaks Spanish but not at the level she would need to do well in school, which could put her behind in her classes. The same goes for Fuentes, who said she would have to take a few classes to be able to read and write well enough when applying for jobs.

She said that language is “one of the biggest hurdles to go through. That’s what makes it a last resort.”

The possibility of the DACA program being cut has heightened ever since Trump ordered an end to the program in 2017.

Portugal and international schools as options

In California, Kate Rio, 30, is in her first semester at a community college where she studies anthropology. Rio came to the United States from Brazil in 1994 with her parents on a tourist visa. Her parents made the decision to stay and live in the U.S.

In high school, Rio realized she could not afford college. Because she is not a U.S. citizen, Rio would have been considered an international student, forcing her to pay international tuition rates. . So after high school, Rio began working as a nanny and continues to do so. She has also worked in the restaurant industry.

“The younger DACA recipients, they’re at a much higher advantage than us older DACA recipients because when I graduated high school in 2008, there were no options for me,” Rio said. She applied for DACA in 2012, then a new program under the Obama administration.

She is able to pay in-state tuition fees now because California is one of 20 states that allow undocumented students to do so. (Alabama, Arizona, Georgia, Indiana, Missouri and South Carolina have laws prohibiting undocumented students from qualifying for in-state tuition.)

“I look at all of my friends that I graduated high school with and stuff and you know, they have like careers and families and homes and everything, and they are in a different stage of life than I am,” Rio said. “And, you know, I’m not going to go off and get married and like do all that kind of thing when I don’t have the education that I want. I don’t have the career that I want and I’m already 30.”

Rio has wanted to be a travel host her entire life and the irony, she says, is that in her situation she cannot leave the United States when she has always wanted to live in Europe. “That is like the bittersweet situation of my life. Not really bittersweet, just bitter,” Rio said. “Ever since I was 10 years old, I’ve wanted to be Samantha Brown on the travel channel.”

Rio said she has been thinking about a “Plan B,” since she was 18 or 19 years old. If DACA isn’t renewed, she doesn’t want to return to Brazil because she said she doesn’t feel connected there. “Even throughout my life in the United States, I actually felt rejected by my own people and culture,” Rio said. “And then also never felt fully American.”

She plans on finishing her degree and then applying to international schools in France, Germany, Canada and the United Kingdom.

Rio is scheduled to graduate from her community college in the spring of 2022.  But if Trump wins, she said she will apply to schools abroad, and if accepted, apply for a student visa.

“I feel like if he won, I would probably stick around to finish my second semester of school, and I wouldn’t probably be here through June,” Rio said. “I would not see myself here through the summer.”

Her next option is to move to Portugal and apply for residency there.

Rio’s parents are supportive of her plans, she said, though probably disappointed. “They moved here for the American Dream,” she said, but, “It’s not really the American Dream for me.”

Rio said she has spoken to over a dozen immigration attorneys about the possibility of applying for residency and U.S. citizenship. But when looking at her case, the lawyers tell Rio it’s not an option.

“Every single lawyer I have spoken to says it is not possible,” Rio said. “They tell me it’s not possible, and after I get really upset about it, they say, ‘Oh, don’t worry about it, you’re pretty enough to get married.’ Rio’s response is usually “Yeah, well that would be great if I wanted to get married, but I don’t.”

“I’ve had people tell me that since I was 16 or 17 years old. They’ve said that to my face,” Rio added. Her parents were also told Rio would be able to “fix” their situation if she married an American.

But lawyers told Rio that because of her undocumented presence in the U.S. between the ages of 18 and 22, she isn’t eligible to apply for permanent residency or citizenship.

“I’m not willing to waste another 15 years of my life,” Rio said.

Before U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services changed the renewal policy in July, recipients were granted two years on their DACA card. The recent change forces recipients to pay a $495 renewal fee every year instead of every two years. Rio renewed her DACA one year before the new policy, allowing her two more years to stay in the United States.

“I was one of the lucky ones,” she said.

[The Investigative Reporting Workshop has been tracking immigration issues since President Trump began his term in January 2017. Check out our interactive timeline.]

Returning to Honduras

Bessy Ochoa, 29, has been planning for her departure from the U.S. for three years.

Ochoa, originally from Tegucigalpa, Honduras, became a DACA recipient in 2013. She lives in Amarillo, Texas.

“After many years with no hope in getting citizenship and Trump taking office as the 45th president, I knew I had to create a Plan B,” Ochoa said. “I sat down with my husband and told him that we had to plan ahead to get ready for whatever was to come.”

Ochoa’s husband, Jose Mata, is a naturalized U.S. citizen and Democrat, who recently voted by mail for Biden. Ochoa and her husband watched the recent presidential debate in which Biden said if he is elected, he would create a pathway to citizenship for DACA recipients. Ochoa said her husband’s reaction was hopeful and he told her, “If he’s elected, maybe we can stay.” But Ochoa said even if Biden is elected, she doesn’t think the DACA policy will change immediately. And she doesn’t want to stay to wait it out.

Ochoa said her husband was reluctant at first but eventually agreed to move to Honduras. “He always tells me, ‘We can live anywhere as long as we’re all together and have food on the table,’ ” Ochoa said.

Children jumping in a bounce house
The Ochoas:  Khaled, left, and Khloe play in a bounce house in Amarillo, Texas.

In order to afford their trip and to be financially stable in her home country, they began to invest in real estate in the U.S. and Honduras. They currently own a restaurants  in Honduras and Oklahoma, where they lived before moving to Texas. Ochoa and Jose used to work for the same company but Ochoa said that their past jobs “weren’t getting us anywhere.” Now, they are self-employed and work in real estate.

Ochoa wants to apply for U.S. citizenship but she and her parents crossed the border from Mexico to America without proper documentation when she was 10.

“I have to go back to my country to start the process from scratch, Ochoa said. “I can’t apply for permanent residency from within the U.S. … When I go back, though, I get a 10-year ban for living in the U.S. illegally for so long, even though I was a minor when I was brought here.”

According to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, if immigrants reside in the U.S. unlawfully, there is a possibility of being barred from the country for between three and 10 years.

Ochoa, who is expecting her third child in March 2021, said she, Jose and her two children, both U.S. citizens, ages 6 and 3, plan to leave on June 24, 2021. She decided to leave a few days before her birthday, which is June 26, to be with her grandmother, Maria, whom she hasn’t seen in 19 years. Maria will turn 74 on June 30, 2021.

“I want to celebrate with her,” Ochoa said.