Negotiating Dreams: DACA’s possible end pushed student to leave UT-Austin

Maria Mendez

Over the last year, protections for undocumented students, known as DREAMers, have become leverage for negotiating border wall funding and immigration reform in U.S. politics. This is what these federal negations look like for the UT community.

This story is the first installment of a semester-long collaboration between The Daily Texan and UT’s chapter of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists. Through Negotiating Dreams, NAHJ members and The Daily Texan will share stories of UT’s DACA students.

*Editor’s note: Some last names have been omitted out of respect for the privacy and safety of our sources.

Yanelly lies on her queen-sized bed. A rustling of keys is heard from a distance as Yanelly’s mom, Juana, walks into their home. She calls for her but walks into Yanelly’s bedroom a couple of minutes later, laying next to her daughter and a Bevo stuffed animal on the bed.

Their white poodle trails in next, jumping onto the uplifted bed. They look at the small dog, nicknamed Panda for Pandora, and laugh together. As Panda cuddles up next to them, they turn their gaze back to each other and begin to talk about their day.

Now that Yanelly is home, this is their daily routine. But these are the moments they could have lost if Yanelly had returned to UT-Austin this spring.

When the Trump administration announced the end of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals last September, Yanelly was forced to choose between studying at UT-Austin and seeing her family.

Former president Barack Obama’s DACA policy, which prevented deportation for young undocumented immigrants, allowed Yanelly and many others to attend their dream school. It also allowed her to safely travel the path back to her family’s home in Brownsville, Texas, which runs through an interior border patrol checkpoint in Corpus Christi.

Yanelly’s DACA permit will be one of the first to expire after the Trump administration’s scheduled end for the policy on March 5, 2018. Without the legal protection DACA currently grants her, Yanelly would face deportation at this checkpoint. This means Yanelly, who is a freshman, would not be able to visit her family for at least four years if she had remained at UT-Austin once DACA was rescinded.

DACA has been at the heart of congressional politics lately, even leading to a two-day government shutdown on Saturday, but the lack of government action in the fall led Yanelly to make her own decision last December.

“There was times where I would just cry in my (dorm) room, thinking ‘Am I going to go back to UT-RGV (Rio Grande Valley) or stay here?’” Yanelly said. “It was like a waiting game.”

So, like most students, Yanelly went home for the holidays. But she didn’t come back to UT-Austin.

From her bedroom, Yanelly watched on Snapchat as her old roommate returned to their Jester dormitory and her friends said hello to UT’s Tower last week. Then, she headed to UT-RGV’s Brownsville campus, where she will now start her second semester of college and try to figure out the future of her dreams.

Longhorn dreams

Pictures of Yanelly and her accomplishments decorate the living room and kitchen of her cozy Brownsville home. On side tables, picture frames capture her high school prom and the New York trip she took with her older brother after he was admitted to the Icahn School of Medicine. A poster on the wall with the number four, for her high school class rank, shows Yanelly wearing her letterman jacket.

As an immigrant from Matamoros, Mexico, Yanelly previously worried about going to college. But when DACA was created in 2012, she allowed herself to imagine a future beyond the Rio Grande Valley.

“Ella, su ilusión era estudiar alla,” (Her dream was to study over there (UT Austin)), Juana says, leaning against the kitchen table with her arms around a chair.

She looks at Yanelly, sitting across from her on the living room couch, and adds, “Ella quería y quería estudiar alla” (She really, really wanted to study over there.)

Yanelly looks down at the tile floor.

For Yanelly, UT-Austin presented the opportunity to explore a life and career outside of The Valley’s medical industries. Even though she entered UT-Austin as an undeclared major, Yanelly hoped to study communications or business in order to work for a corporation like Apple before helping expand the Rio Grande Valley with a business of her own.

“McCombs, it’s really well-known all over the U.S.,” Yanelly said. “They have a business school here (in Brownsville), but it’s not as good as McCombs.”

The ‘waiting game’

Knowing that going back home would mean giving up these plans, Yanelly considered staying at UT-Austin, even with her DACA permit expiring March 22. But the Trump administration only allowed DACA recipients whose permits expire on or before March 5 to renew their DACA for two more years. And without her DACA permit, Yanelly, who does not receive federal financial aid, could not legally work to help pay for housing in Austin.

Still, Yanelly went to class, did her homework and tried studying for her tests, but it was hard to concentrate under the weight of uncertainty.

While other UT students began signing apartment leases for the 2018-2019 academic year last September, Yanelly began a transfer student application to UT RGV. She also submitted a state financial aid application for UT-Austin and continued waiting for a solution from President Donald Trump or Congress.

As the months passed, Yanelly began discussing moving back home to Brownsville more seriously with her parents and older brother, whose DACA permit expires in 2019.

“Yo le decía a ella ‘yo me sacrifico de verte a tí para que estudias alla’” (I would tell her, ‘I would sacrifice not seeing you so you can study over there,’) Juana said, tearing up. “Pero ella me decía, ‘no yo quiero verte,’” (But she would tell me, ‘no, I want to see you.’)

By early December, there were no promising answers to the DACA riddle and Yanelly’s dilemma. Yanelly just knew she did not want to be stuck in Austin for four years, especially if something were to happen to her family.

“I value education a lot, but I obviously value my family more,” Yanelly said.

On Dec. 11, Yanelly took her last final, finished packing, said goodbye to UT-Austin and went back to Brownsville.

“I chose to stay here ‘cause I would still be continuing my studies,” Yanelly said. “It’s not like I was just going to give up on college, so I figured UT RGV is less expensive, I would have my family here, and I would technically be safer here.”

Federal negotiations

As Yanelly debated whether to stay or leave UT-Austin, President Trump, congressmen and activists have also debated the future of the nearly 800,000 “DREAMers” in the U.S., including the estimated 124,000 in Texas.

In October, President Trump said he would “love” to sign a DACA alternative in exchange for more border security and wall funding. But Yanelly and her family didn’t cross the U.S.–Mexico border illegally.

Born in Matamoros, Mexico, on the other side of Brownsville, Texas, Yanelly travelled with her family to the U.S. with a tourist visa when she was just a year old. They traveled back and forth for a couple of years, but eventually made a life for themselves in Brownsville, where Yanelly started grade school. When their tourist visas began to expire, they were unable to apply for new ones because they were already living in the U.S. The last time Yanelly ever stepped foot in Mexico was in 2006.

In Brownsville, Yanelly and her family have always had a close view of the border wall. They say they have seen people get around the wall, so they’re skeptical of Trump’s immigration strategy. But what bothers them is how Yanelly and other DREAMers have become bargaining chips for this strategy.

“We’re humans too,” Yanelly said. “We shouldn’t be something you have to negotiate. It’s our lives you’re messing with.”

As DREAMers protest for a solution, both Republican and Democratic congressmen have introduced varying bills in search of a DACA alternative. One failed Republican bill called the SUCCEED Act created an eventual path to citizenship for DREAMers, but barred them from helping their parents gain legal status. Juana says she hopes Yanelly and her son gain legal status, even if it is at the expense of her own legalization. But Yanelly would not want this.

“Her whole mindset is to help us,” Yanelly said. “But I think us, the kids, we want to help them too because they came here to give us a better life … So why not give them the ability to be here legally, work here legally and take away their worry? They worry too, not just for themselves, but for us too.”

Earlier this month, a U.S. district court injunction gave DREAMers hope by blocking the Trump administration’s original decision and temporarily preventing the end of DACA as U.S. courts make a final decision.

This court injunction opened a window for DACA renewals for students like Yanelly, who could not apply under President Trump’s rescindence order. But UT law professor Elissa Steglich said the federal government has the right to approve renewals at their discretion, and renewals are not guaranteed.

Under the recent court injunction, Yanelly was able to submit her DACA renewal application last Friday, but she’s still waiting for a permanent solution.

“It’s just still waiting to see what they do, like something official from the president, from Congress,” Yanelly said.

Finding new dreams

If her DACA renewal application is approved, Yanelly could safely remain at UT-Austin for at least two more years. But Yanelly still thinks she made the right decision for her and her family.

“Overall, I don’t think I regret it because of the situation I was put in,” Yanelly said.

Juana remains hopeful in the possibility of a DACA alternative. Depending on what happens with DACA, Yanelly says she would consider transferring back to UT-Austin.

But after receiving a scholarship from UT RGV, Yanelly is also considering staying in Brownsville to become a nurse practitioner or a doctor.

Regardless of what happens, Yanelly says this year of DACA negotiations is just another obstacle she will overcome.

“I haven’t lost my dream,” Yanelly said. “I just had to change it.”