McALLEN — The first thing she did was get a driver’s permit and eventually a part-time job.
Having just been approved for the federal program that protected her from deportation, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, the aim for this recipient, who we’ll call Kimberly, was to become a productive member of society.
What she didn’t know was that despite acclimating herself to the only country she’s ever known, her very legal status would eventually be in question, and eventually politicized.
The Guerrero state native, who spoke on a condition of anonymity for fear of retribution, recently spoke fondly of her life in America.
A few years after gaining DACA approval, she had saved up enough money to buy her own car at age 16. It was something of an accomplishment for her, especially considering she was the first in her group of friends of mostly U.S. citizens to buy one.
Kimberly, who was brought to Texas by her parents at age 4, said she felt like any other American teenager who worked hard to save up for a car.
“I felt really good because I worked so hard,” Kimberly said. “…You work hard whether you’re a citizen or not, you can achieve your goals and that was one of my goals. It was one of the happiest days of my life.”
Things changed on Monday, Sept. 11, just an hour after boarding a commercial bus headed more than 300 miles north of the Rio Grande Valley, where she works at a roofing company. That’s where the 20-year-old DACA recipient was detained.
Almost immediately, the sense of security she had experienced over the last four years as a recipient of the program vanished.
Upon arriving at the Falfurrias checkpoint around 7 a.m., Kimberly recalls a U.S. Border Patrol agent boarded the bus and asked her to follow him.
“I was shocked,” Kimberly said in a phone interview days after her ordeal. “(The agent) said my permit was not valid anymore because the president had rescinded the program, and that basically I was there illegally.”
She was the first of a total of nine DACA recipients to be detained that day.
“I was the first one, then two other guys came in — they were in a car, they were going to work (up north), and they were stopped,” she added. “The last girl that was detained, she was on a bus as well but we weren’t together. We were all stopped separately.”
In all, Kimberly said six men and three women were detained Monday. They were originally headed north to places like Corpus Christi and Robstown.
The group, who were all DACA recipients, was held for several hours with the last of the detainees not being released until just before 7 p.m. — nearly 12 hours later.
This came less than a week after U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that the program instituted under the Obama administration more than five years ago was being phased out. The caveat was that Congress would have to create a plan to replace it for the nearly 1 million people enrolled.
“… When we were inside (the) room, we were asking each other if it was true, that our permits were invalid,” Kimberly said. “Everyone had heard the news, we watched when (Sessions) announced the rescission of the program but no one heard that we couldn’t travel; (that) our permits were not valid anymore.”
As the only one in the group not originally from the Valley, Kimberly said her shock turned to panic when agents told the group that they were going to be processed and then deported.
“I was crying,” Kimberly said. “I don’t know Mexico. I’ve haven’t been there since I came over (to the U.S.) as a little girl, so it was very scary to think that I would have to go to a country I know nothing of.”
Shortly after word spread of the detainment, border patrol as well as U.S. Customs and Border Protection authorities released a brief statement regarding the detention.
“When a DACA recipient presents themselves for immigration inspection, they will temporarily be detained for accuracy and verification of status,” Robert Rodriguez, a spokesman for border patrol said. “Once substantiated, the DACA recipient will be processed and released accordingly.”
Rodriguez also included a statement from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, which read: “As of Sept. 5, 2017, DACA applications will no longer be accepted by the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). USCIS will reject all requests to renew DACA and associated applications for employment authorizations filed after Oct. 5, 2017.”
Kimberly’s detainment and that of the others, sparked outrage from politicians who questioned CBP’s actions, asking for clarity on what seemingly was a new policy regarding DACA recipients with regard to their travel within the United States.
U.S. Reps. Vicente Gonzalez, D-McAllen, Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, and Filemon Vela, D-Brownsville, also reacted strongly.
“After speaking with (Rio Grande Valley Sector Chief Manuel Padilla), I can report the following: It is clear that the DACA recipients in question were held for too long,” Gonzalez said in a prepared statement Monday.
Vela also raised concern about the length of time the DACA recipients were held.
“CBP must ensure that Border Patrol agents at all levels are informed that DACA is still in place for the next six months,” Vela said in his statement. “DACA recipients cannot and should not be held for hours at checkpoints due to confusion over changes in policy.”
Only two days after the group’s detainment, Democratic leaders who met with the president Wednesday night announced an agreement on a replacement for the program.
But Trump, who on Thursday confirmed the discussions with Democratic and Republican leaders on DACA, stated that no deal had been put in place. Despite as much, the president said he would work quickly to come to an agreement, but that border security enforcement must be included.
Many DACA recipients and advocates of the country’s immigrant youth believe the status of dreamers in the country should not be used as a bargaining chip.
“As border dreamers, it is unconscionable that we would accept any deal that essentially trades our safety for that of the safety of our family members and neighbors,” Itzel Guillen, a border dreamer and immigration integration manager with Alliance San Diego. “One out of every five DACA recipients lives in the border region, and almost half of all DACA recipients live in the southern border states – California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas.”
Guillen, who’s also a member of the Southern Border Communities Coalition, further noted, “Our communities are already hyper-militarized, with unaccountable border agents patrolling our communities and asking people for their papers at any time and for any reason. We need to pass a clean Dream Act so that we can continue to contribute to our economy without using our parents and loved ones as bargaining chips.”
Osiris Badillo, 20, of Edinburg, who lived nearly her entire life in what Guillen calls a militarized area, fears the incident last Monday means that she and other DACA recipients like her will end up going “back into the shadows” — this as a means to survive and avoid deportation.
“ I don’t know what life in Mexico is, and I don’t want to know,” Badillo said. “No matter how Mexican I feel that I am … I love my Mexican roots, but I don’t know Mexico. That’s a foreign land to me. This is home to me — the Valley. …So if you’re asking me if I would go back to the shadows — I would.”
Badillo, who is employed at a hotel and currently enrolled at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, is scheduled to graduate in early 2018 with a degree in mass communications, but is concerned she won’t be able to finish her semester before the March 2018 expiration date.
“ My future is on the line,” Badillo said before acknowledging that the detainment soured upcoming plans to travel north. “It’s scary to think about the idea of not being able to finish college, which is all I ever wanted.”
Kimberly shares Badillo’s optimism and believes national support for dreamers could lead to a deal from Congress.
“ Right now DACA has a lot of support,” Kimberly said. “They’ve seen how much we’ve done. There are many doctors, lawyers and entrepreneurs. (We’re) opening businesses (and) opening jobs for others. We’re not taking jobs from anyone; we’re helping open more. We’re working hard, studying hard, and if Congress sees that then as a whole (they’ll) come together to (pass) legislation to help us.”