In 2012, former President Barack Obama approved an administrative program called the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals for the benefit of children who came to the U.S. illegally under the age of 16. Under the program, these immigrants could receive Social Security numbers and other forms of identification, enabling them to acquire jobs and attend universities.
“There was definitely excitement,” said Bustos, 25. “We didn’t know what we would need, but we were going to try to find out everything possible to get that legal status.”
“I guess this is what we get when we do it the right way.”
− Brenda Bustos
Ceron, also 25, moved to the U.S. when he was 5 and received DACA protection in 2013. He secured a job as a machine technician at a factory in Morristown, Tennessee, and married his wife. After two years, he applied to become a permanent legal resident so that he and Bustos, an American citizen, could travel.
“We needed to do it the right way,” said Bustos. “I guess this is what we get when we do it the right way.”
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services approved Ceron to become a legal resident, and also granted him an interview in Juarez, Mexico, to finalize his status.
“What we didn’t know was that we had to have an I-160 form saying why it would be hard for me to be separated from my husband,” said Bustos.
When Ceron arrived in Juarez for his interview, he was denied and received a 10-year restriction from entering the U.S. again, because he was missing his I-160 form. His DACA rights were also stripped because he left the country.
Now Ceron is a customer service representative in Mexico City, making $300 a month. Bustos, who visited him over Christmas in 2016, is now back to work at the Johnson City Community Health Center, raising her newborn baby in her parents’ home in Erwin. She hopes to visit her husband soon so he can meet his son.
“When I went to my OBGYN, they were trying to get social workers on me to make sure I wasn’t going to do something crazy,” said Bustos. “I haven’t gotten to the point where I want to hurt myself, but I’ve been really depressed. I started gaining a lot of weight, and then I got to the point when I realized I couldn’t be doing this anymore.”
The couple spoke to a lawyer who believes he can bring Ceron back to the U.S. within the next year. The application to reenter the U.S. costs $800, and an additional $2,000 is needed to start the case.
“I will be sending the application along with letters of support,” said Bustos. “These will help him show that I really need him here, so I won’t depend on the government to be taking care of me; I need my head of household to take care of me.”
Within the first year of his absence, Bustos was paying her own bills as well as his. She filed for bankruptcy, lost her home and moved in with her parents. Visiting Mexico is expensive, so she has only traveled there twice. This, combined with the presence of a newborn, makes it difficult to pursue the case.
“There will always be a day when we will be back together as a family; that’s pretty much what keeps me going,” said Bustos.
Ceron plans on returning to the U.S. and going back to school. Once an honors student in high school, he received scholarships to go to college, but was unable to use them because he entered the country without permission. His opportunities through DACA are gone, but with a green card obtained through extensive paperwork, he hopes to pursue that dream once again.
“No one can stop you from going to school.”
– Brenda Bustos
“If that’s what your goal is, go for it,” said Bustos. “No one can stop you from going to school.”
Students like Rubi Estrada, 18, have taken that to heart. Estrada and her family entered the country illegally and moved to Avery County, North Carolina, when she was 7 years old. Now a freshman at East Tennessee State University, Estrada is studying public health so she may pursue a career as a physical therapist. Estrada, like Ceron, was also an honors student in high school. She is a Roan Scholar, a recipient of a prestigious regional scholarship that offers her a full ride to ETSU. DACA provided her the Social Security number and paperwork needed to receive this scholarship and attend college.
“With DACA being here, you have no excuse not to go to college,” said Estrada. “It’s pretty meaningful, and I know it’s a relief to my parents. They work so hard every day, and it just makes it worthwhile. That pressure is a privilege.”
As of early September, DACA and its recipients were placed in jeopardy. The attorney general and governor of Idaho wrote to President Trump, threatening to sue if the program implemented under the Obama administration was not repealed. Congress was given six months to change the legislation that affects nearly 800,000 immigrants, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. Estrada is concerned for her fellow DACA recipients more so than for herself.
“I don’t understand why someone wouldn’t want to show their support when all you want is to get an education and contribute to the United States,” said Estrada. “We’re talking about good people.”
According to a study by the Public Religion Research Institute conducted in August 2017, two-thirds of the U.S. population supports the DACA program. Among them is ETSU sophomore Noah Nordstrom, 19, who led a campus rally supporting DACA recipients. He is dating someone who benefits from the program.
“I’m somebody who really cares about him and I’m committed to sticking with him,” said Nordstrom. “So because you don’t want him here, do you not want me here either? Do you want me to go become a Mexican citizen or permanent resident because of your opposition to [illegal immigration]?”
Those who disagree say that illegal immigration is pushing U.S. citizens out of the job market. There is also concern that DACA can be an avenue to allow drug cartels into the U.S.
People who are already DACA recipients had until Oct. 5 to renew their membership. They can continue college for the next two years, but after that the future is unknown.
While DACA was an administrative program, a legislative proposal is in the works that would guarantee the provisions offered under DACA and give qualifying minors a path to legal residency. Variations of the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act, or DREAM Act, have been circulating on Capitol Hill for over 16 years, but have yet to be approved. Nordstrom believes the DREAM Act is starting to gain bipartisan support.
“No matter where you are ideologically, you’re not going to have people saying, ‘Hey, get out of our country,’” said Nordstrom. “There might be a small group of people that just don’t have any capacity for empathy, but I don’t think that’s a big segment of the population. I hope I’m right.”
This article was updated Nov. 26, 2017.
Top left, second right: Brenda Bustos shops downtown in Erwin, Tennessee. Third left: Seven-week-old Enrique Ceron slumbers in his stroller. Bottom right: Rubi Estrada studies for her biology midterm at ETSU. (Photos: Mansi Boegemann)