Invisible Americans: A Framingham State DACA student shares her story
By Alexandra Gomes
Imagine living in this country for as far back as you can remember. Your friends and family live here. You’ve gone to school and graduated here. You learned how to drive here. You opened a savings account here. You learned how to read and write here. You learned how to tie your shoes here.
You experienced the tragedy of 9/11. You celebrated when Osama Bin Laden was killed. You witnessed Barack Obama become the first African-American president. You watched Boston police chase Dzhokhar A. Tsarnaev across Watertown on live T.V. following the Boston Bombings.
And yet, every two years you have to spend hundreds, sometimes thousands, of dollars to renew a document that allows you the same luxuries your neighbors and peers are given as a birthright – the ability to work, drive and study in the United States.
This is the life of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) receivers. Brought to this country as young children, DACA receivers are granted permission to stay in the country for two years at a time.
Once the two years are up, immigrants must reapply. This process not only costs them the DACA and the lawyer’s fees – it costs them peace of mind as well.
And life has never been more uncertain for DACA recipients than now. President Donald Trump has promised mass deportations of undocumented immigrants and, at certain points during his campaign, to eliminate the DACA program entirely.
Currently, over 780,000 immigrants are protected under the DACA program in the United States. In Massachusetts alone there are 12,058 DACA recipients. At Framingham State, there are 31 DACA students currently enrolled.
This week, The Gatepost is publishing the first of three articles depicting the lives of MetroWest DACA recipients, and what the policy has, and has not, given to them.
All names have been changed to protect the individuals featured.
One early morning in seventh grade, Sarah woke up and started her morning routine. She got dressed for school. She sat down to eat her breakfast. Her father left for work.
A few minutes later, he came running back in. His car had been broken into, and many valuables he had left inside had been stolen.
So unsurprisingly, Sarah’s father called the police. But when a police officer showed up, he did not seem to be in a “protect and serve” mood – at least, not for Sarah’s family.
The officer didn’t even glance at the car. Instead, he focused his attention on Sarah and her family.
He took one look at them, according to Sarah, and decided the family was not worth his time.
“No. You go back where you came from. I’m not going to help you guys,” said the Framingham police officer. “You don’t belong here.”
Then, the officer got back into his cruiser and drove away.
“That was the first time I had seen my dad cry. I won’t forget it. It really hit me – how my life was going to be,” she said.
Sarah, a junior sociology major at Framingham State and a DACA recipient, has been dealing with the consequences of her family’s immigration status since she was five years old.
After this particular incident, Sarah’s father decided to tell their story and reach out to the Brazilian community, hoping to address an issue many undocumented immigrants face.
Sarah was inspired by her father’s courage, and his desire to inform the community by sharing their story.
“My dad told his story to bring awareness to other people,” she said. “And that stayed with me.”
Today, Sarah still believes in the power of stories. Here is hers.
Immigration and assimilation
When Sarah was just five years old, she boarded a plane with her mother and older sister in Brumado, Brazil. It was a hot day, about 85 degrees – the average weather in her hometown.
When her plane touched down in Boston, Massachusetts, she saw snow for the first time.
Her family had come to the United States with 6-month tourist visas, but intended to stay in the states permanently.
“They wanted to give us the best education possible and the best future possible,” Sarah said of her parents. “They couldn’t provide us that in Brazil.”
Her father was waiting for them, having already come up a few months earlier to start working and find a home for them.
But the place he took his family to was far from homey, according to Sarah.
A friend of her father’s was allowing Sarah and her family to live in his basement in Framingham until they could find a better home.
“We all shared this one bed,” said Sarah. “I just remember being so cold. It was awful. It was like a dirty basement.”
During the day, while Sarah’s mother and father worked three jobs each and her 12-year-old sister attended school, she stayed with the woman who owned the house.
The arrangement seemed like a good idea at first – the woman babysat multiple children each day already. However, for some reason, the woman refused to feed Sarah.
“She would not feed me. I would literally be starving all day,” she said. “My parents had no idea because they would be working until late at night, and when my sister came home around three o’clock from school, then she would give me something to eat.”
Sarah said she never found out why the woman refused to feed her.
“Maybe she just didn’t care about me or my well-being, or didn’t think I was her responsibility,” she said.
A year went by before Sarah’s parents finally noticed something was wrong. Despite having very little money, the family decided to move into a share-family home in downtown Framingham. Her family shared a kitchen and bathroom with several other families.
“We lived with a bunch of strangers,” she said. “And at the time, there was a lot of drugs.”
Sarah started attending kindergarten at Woodrow Wilson, where she was placed with a Brazilian teacher who tried to teach her English.
By the end of the year, Sarah knew basic words, such as “please,” “sorry” and “bye.”
However, the language didn’t click for her until she started reading.
Her mother started taking English classes at the Framingham Public Library, and while Sarah waited for her, she would pretend the library was a castle.
As she explored her castle, the library workers would often say hi and give her pieces of candy, she said.
She would also often pick up books and try to put words together. Her favorites, she said, were the Arthur series and “The Magic School Bus.”
However, Sarah always had a preference for fantasy books, she said.
“One of my biggest accomplishments was that by third or fourth grade, I was reading the Harry Potter books,” she said.
“Reading was my escape,” she added. “I could go into a world and be anything.”
Halfway through third grade, Sarah was transferred out of ESL courses and into regular classes, where she tried to befriend her classmates.
“That was really hard. I don’t think people realize how hard it is to try to make friends when you don’t even know how to speak their language,” she said.
In Brazil, Sarah said, play dates and sleepovers were uncommon, so her parents weren’t very helpful. Additionally, her neighborhood lacked children her own age.
“So, I kind of just had my books and some of my friends from school and that was it,” she said.
As Sarah moved on to elementary school, she began to struggle with assimilating into American society.
“Brazilian culture is very different from American culture,” she said. “Not only the language, but just daily life – how people dress and how people eat.”
Her parents were still working three jobs, and weren’t around much to help Sarah with her school work. Additionally, they still weren’t fluent in English.
In the afternoons, her mother worked at a Friendly’s restaurant washing dishes. After school, Sarah would sit in a Friendly’s booth for hours, coloring and waiting for her mother to get off work.
Her parents could not afford a babysitter, and her sister was often still at school by the time Sarah’s classes were over.
However, in middle school, Sarah’s mother decided to become a babysitter, not only because the pay was better, but also because she felt she was missing out on Sarah’s childhood. Sarah’s father finally obtained a solid job as a carpenter. Sarah could now speak English fluently. The family had just moved, again, to a two-bedroom apartment, and Sarah and her sister had their own room for the first time.
Life was getting a little bit easier, said Sarah.
But she still didn’t know exactly where she fit in. All her friends at school were Brazilian, and she had a hard time relating to her American peers.
“You don’t really know your place. You don’t know where you stand,” she said. “What am I? Am I Brazilian? Am I American? Am I Brazilian American?”
Her peers at school were always quick to remind her of her differences.
“I got bullied in elementary and middle school just for having an accent, for talking funny,” she said. “I didn’t wear the same type of clothes as everyone else. It was a reason to get picked on.”
Additionally, Sarah and her family were all still undocumented immigrants, a fact that remained in the back of her head wherever she went, she said.
“Every police car my mom would see, every time any sort of authority would come in, she would be really scared, and that fear – I had that fear. Even as a child, it wasn’t like I wasn’t aware that I was different. I could see it through my parents,” she said.
As Sarah grew older, she became more aware of her family’s situation.
“Why wasn’t my mom driving? Why did she only want my dad to drive? That was so difficult,” she said.
When Sarah entered middle school, her sister enrolled at Framingham State University, and commuted every day. She was paying $20,000 a year.
“When you’re an illegal immigrant here and you want to go to college, you have to pay twice as much for tuition,” said Sarah. “And you don’t get any financial aid.”
Sarah’s sister saved up whatever money she could, and her parents helped as much as they could. However, the strain became too much.
“For me, I was like, ‘What’s the point of me going to school, studying and working hard if I’m not going to be able to go to the college that I want and afford it?’” she said.
Sarah said her sister applied to many schools, such as UMass and Northeastern. However, because of their cost, she decided to go to Framingham State instead.
Sarah was still battling with her identity in high school, when her sister got married to an American man whom she had been dating since she was 14 years old.
Two years later, her sister became a citizen, and was able to apply for green cards for her parents. The only undocumented immigrant left in the family was Sarah.
In school, Sarah was constantly reminded of the differences between herself and her peers.
She said as an immigrant, “You’re trapped in a box – there are so many boundaries and so many limits, and things you can’t do.”
She added, “In high school, it becomes more apparent because people talk about all these things they’re doing. Traveling – all my friends would go on family vacations. They would be thinking about college. My parents never even talked to me about college.”
While her friends were taking family vacations in Hawaii, Sarah wasn’t even allowed to go back to Brazil to visit her sick grandfather.
“I didn’t even remember who my grandpa was. I didn’t remember any of my family in Brazil anymore,” she said. “He was sick, and he would call us crying and say he was going to die without seeing us.”
Sarah became angrier and angrier, and started acting out. Her guidance counselor took notice, and recommended her to Framingham High School’s Maisy program.
The program pairs students at Framingham High School with mentors from the surrounding
communities who help them set goals and stay on track to graduate.
“That changed my life,” said Sarah.
Sarah was paired with Laurie, an older woman from Marlborough who had recently lost her 18-year-old daughter.
“We kind of both needed each other to help heal and help learn. She was one of those people who accepted me despite my immigration background or my status here,” she said. “That was one of the first people that I was like, ‘OK, I can be accepted despite my status, despite what other people are saying about me on the news, despite everything that’s going on.’”
Sarah also started working under-the-table at a local Brazilian restaurant in downtown Framingham.
She hoped the job would alleviate some of her money-related stress. However, it only burdened her further.
While on the job, another immigrant worker sexually harassed her all the time.
One day, he attempted to sexually assault her when they were alone in the restaurant. Fortunately, a customer walked in at the right time, and her coworker had to walk back out to the front of the restaurant to help them.
“I remember going home that night and crying and being really angry because I couldn’t even call the cops,” she said.
Sarah feared calling the police because she was working under-the-table at the restaurant as an undocumented immigrant.
She said, “What rights did I have?”
She also refrained from telling her parents, fearing that her father would confront the man and get into trouble.
And with her family’s money problems, she couldn’t just quit her job without a valid reason.
“I still needed a job. Its not like there’s a million jobs under-the-table. I can’t tell my parents why I want to quit. I was too afraid to tell the school. There was this fear, because I’m doing something wrong, too. I’m not supposed to be working there. I was getting paid under-the-table,” she said.
So, Sarah continued working at the restaurant alongside her attacker every day.
That is, until DACA became available.
In June 2012, Sarah applied for DACA the day U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services began accepting applications.
She and her parents had saved up the money to pay for a lawyer, along with the $2,000 application fee.
In November, she was instructed to have her biometrics, such as her fingerprints, taken in Boston.
In February, she had her Social Security number. She was free to obtain a driver’s license and find a new job.
“I just turned 17,” she said. “It was right near my birthday. It was like God’s birthday gift to me.”
DACA also provided Sarah with a newfound sense of security in the country.
“I didn’t have to lie to my friends or not talk about it,” she said. “There is a lot of fear that if you talk about it, someone is going to call Immigration on you and your family, especially when you’re so young and you don’t know how to handle these things.”
Additionally, through DACA, Sarah was able to travel to Brazil this past December to visit her ill grandmother after her grandfather’s death.
“I didn’t want to not be able to remember any of my grandparents. I didn’t know my family at all. I didn’t remember anyone,” she said. “My family was my mom, my dad and my sister and that’s it. That’s all I had.”
So, Sarah wrote a letter to Immigration and applied for a travel grant. Seven months later, on a Tuesday afternoon, she received a letter granting her permission to leave the country.
She left for Brazil the following Friday.
However, while the letter granted Sarah permission to leave the country, it did not provide her a guaranteed re-entry.
“I decided, to me, this is worth it. I have to take the risk. This is my only opportunity,” she said.
According to Sarah, her lawyer told her she had a good chance of being let back into the country because she was a good student, and had a job and family here.
However, the decision was ultimately up to the Immigration officer on duty.
“Basically, if someone looks at my face, and they don’t like my face, they can say, ‘Sorry, you have to go back to Brazil and you have to stay there,’” she said.
He warned her not to spend too much time there, and to take as many pictures with her family as possible, which could be used later on as evidence.
It was only Sarah’s second time on a plane, and she was able to make the trip from Boston to Elos, which included five different connecting flights, by herself.
“I was all by myself doing a 24-hour plane ride. I had no idea what the airports were like in Brazil, or the airports here. I was terrified,” she said.
The day of her flight, as Sarah prepared to leave the country, she recognized that it might be her last day in the United States.
“What if they don’t let me back? What am I going to do?” she said. “My whole life is here.”
Her family warned her of the violence in Brazil, and instructed her not to speak English or use her iPhone, keep her bags with her and not leave the airport.
When she finally arrived in Brazil, and her father picked her up at the airport, Sarah said she couldn’t believe she was actually in the country.
“America has been my home for so long. It was the most out-of-body experience I ever had,” she said.
Her father showed her the hospital where she was born and the first house in which they had lived.
Sarah said when she met her family members, they couldn’t stop staring at each other. They also showed her pictures and videos of herself as a baby.
“It was crazy meeting my family for the first time. It almost felt like I was adopted, and I was meeting my family for the first time,” she said. “It was unreal.”
While in Brazil, Sarah visited both her mother’s side of the family in rural Elos and her father’s side in the beach town of Brumado.
She also visited her grandfather’s grave in Brumado.
“I broke down and I cried and I cried and I cried. I know how much he would have wanted to see me, and how much I would have wanted to see him,” she said. “But, in some ways, it felt like this whole trip was his gift.”
Sarah’s father accompanied her on the trip back to the states, but when the time came to face
Immigration, she was on her own.
She waited for an hour and a half in the Immigration line in the Atlanta airport, and missed her next flight to Boston.
While waiting in line, Sarah saw many people being “taken away” by Immigration. A brother was separated from his siblings, and a mother was separated from her college-aged daughter.
Sarah said her lawyer had warned her that it’s a bad sign if officers take an immigrant into an “interview” room instead of letting them through right away.
“I saw other people being taken away and I cried for them,” she said. “I was like, ‘Don’t get emotional. Just be confident. Just be yourself. Don’t look scared because they’re going to think you did something wrong.’”
But when the time came for Sarah to hand over her papers, she was still so nervous that she visibly shook.
The officer asked her why she went to Brazil, and when she told him she went to see her grandmother, he asked her to wait in a separate room until her name was called.
There were many other immigrants waiting in the room with Sarah, one of whom was an older Brazilian woman who couldn’t speak English.
“I wanted to go over and help, but you just can’t intervene,” she said. The woman’s name was called, and she was taken into another room.
“By the time I was called, I didn’t get to see what happened,” she said. “I felt so bad.”
When Sarah’s name was Cnally called, she was met by another immigration officer who, again, asked why she had gone to Brazil.
“She was actually very nice,” said Sarah. “And she let me in.”
Immediately, Sarah started crying out of relief.
“I felt so tense. The whole time I was in Brazil, I had this in the back of my mind,” she said. “After seeing Brazil, I was like, ‘I don’t think I could ever live here. ... I want to come back and visit, but my home is in America.’”
As Sarah waited in the security line, a security officer asked her to hand over her papers.
“He was like, ‘Do you have an issue if I pat you down? What do you have in your bags?’ I was like, ‘Are you kidding me?’ I didn’t know what to say,” she said.
Sarah told the officer she had already been let through by immigration, and he gave her a “look of disgust,” according to Sarah. He let her go.
After making it through security, Sarah found her father, who started crying when he caught sight of her.
“It was very emotional,” she said.
Thankfully, Sarah was allowed back into the country – just weeks before President Donald Trump was inaugurated.
“I feel like I wouldn’t have taken this risk if he had been president when I went. I was really scared about coming back,” she said. “Now, it’s the question of what’s going to happen to me?”
Sarah said she worries about Trump’s campaign promise to repeal DACA.
“Here I’ve been working really hard at school – I pay $12,000 a year here by myself just to go to school here, and here’s this chance where someone might take all of that away. Where does that leave me?
“It’s not like I want to get married at 21 years old and I don’t want to make my boyfriend do that. So what happens to me? And you’re also in the system through DACA, so they can find you,” she said.
“But I have lots of hope. I hope people won’t allow him to take DACA away. I hope people will hear stories like mine, and I hope people are willing to talk more about immigration and understand that I was only five when I came here. I’m the one now who is stuck in the worst situation possible.”
Sarah said one of the worst myths surrounding DACA is the idea that immigrants are “taking someone else’s place” in a job or college.
“I don’t think some people even see us as deserving,” she said.
Sarah added while DACA is “great,” it is unrealistic to expect recipients to be able to agord college without financial aid or other resources.
“You expect us to do well and go out and get jobs when some jobs won’t even hire you because you don’t have a green card,” she said. “So we have all these expectations of us, yet we’re so limited in what we can do.”
However, Sarah is still grateful for the opportunities DACA has afforded her.
“At least I have some sort of protection. I don’t have to worry that I’m going to be, as of right now, deported. What if I didn’t have this? I wouldn’t be able to be at school. I wouldn’t be here, or be able to drive or get a job,” she said. “What would my life be like without this?”
Life as a DACA college student
Sarah credits the college center at her high school for her decision to enroll in college. The center stag kept her on track with SATs and college applications.
Additionally, Sarah received a lot of support from her boyfriend, who was in his first year at Tufts University.
He helped her fill out the applications and write her essays, she said.
During her first semester, Sarah commuted to Bridgewater State every day. However, her experience at the school was not what she expected.
“I cried that whole semester. I had thought college was going to be this whole different thing. I was going to meet all new people, and I was going to love going to college. It was going to be amazing,” she said.
But making friends proved harder than she had initially thought, and she was spending four hours a day driving to and from her classes.
Every day, Sarah would wake up at 5 a.m., drive to her classes, sit through lectures, and then drive to the Wellesley Country Club, where she would waitress until 10 p.m.
Then, she would drive home, do homework and wake up at 5 a.m. again the next morning.
“I wanted to do well, and I made it work,” she said. “But I just knew that Framingham State would be a better fit for me.”
When she first enrolled at FSU, Sarah said she was an education and sociology major. However, after taking more classes and meeting some key professors – such as Ira Silver – she decided to drop education to focus more on sociology.
According to Sarah, Silver encouraged her to take on a major that she loved, instead of a major that would earn her a well-paying job after college.
She said immigrant parents often push their children to pursue more practical careers.
“They just want you to have a better future, and have a safe job – a job where you don’t have to worry about money,” she said.
Silver showed her there were many opportunities within the field of sociology, said Sarah, and told her if she were passionate about it, she should go for it.
She added, “He made me realize that I’m really good at this, and I should pursue it if it’s something I really love.”
“I’m one of those people who was never really great at something,” she said. “I feel like sociology is the only thing I’m really, really good at.”
When she graduates, Sarah is interested in working with immigrants and refugees.
“It’s something that’s really needed right now,” she said.
She is also thinking about attending law school.
“That’s something that I just decided – if I really want to help these people, really make a change, then law school would be a really great step toward this,” she said.
Sarah continued working 50-hour weeks while attending Framingham State to pay for her tuition until last year, when she found a nannying job that paid better. She was able to reduce her hours to 20 per week.
Now, a typical schedule for Sarah includes back-to-back classes and 3-4 hours of nannying a day.
Sarah said in six years, her parents will become citizens. However, because of the age limit, they will not be able to apply for Sarah’s green card or citizenship.
“I’m kind of stuck,” she said. “There isn’t much that I can do ... unless I get married. But who wants to do that?”
Her immigration status forces Sarah to be realistic about her dreams and plans for the future, she said.
“Law school, graduate school, it’s all really expensive,” she said. “I’m not quite sure I’ll be able to afford it. Right now, I’m just focusing on getting good grades and hoping that something will open up.”
She added, “If worse comes to worst, I’ll pay little by little.”
However, no matter how many degrees Sarah obtains, she will never have the upper hand. While DACA gives her the right to work and study in this country temporarily, she could still be deported at any time.
And for Sarah, Brazil is not her home, and it never was.
“I feel like America is my home. This is where I grew up,” she said. “I’m more American than anything.”