Observatory Podcast No. 4: Living Undocumented

When the DACA Act was implemented, 24-year-old Victor Erives was able to legally live, work and attend school in the country he calls home. Now a Supreme Court ruling could jeopardize those same opportunities for millions of others.

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Victor Erives: If only this piece of paper that I don’t have didn’t separate me from the rest, then I would be working as a sign language interpreter and going to school and make a living and just try to make it in life.

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Jen Reel: From the Texas Observer, I’m Jen Reel and you’re listening to Observatory; true stories of life in Texas. Each month, we bring you personal stories told by the people who live in the Lone Star State. Stories about love and addiction, murder, forgiveness, and in this episode, living undocumented. Our intern, Lorenzo Holt, recently spoke with a 24-year-old undocumented immigrant living in El Paso whose life was changed by immigration reform introduced by the Obama administration. A case is being brought to the Supreme Court this month challenging the expansion of that reform.

Lorenzo Holt: On April 18, the Supreme Court will rule on the case of United States v. Texas, in which Texas and 25 other states challenge president Obama’s constitutional authority to implement immigration reform. The reforms in question are the DACA Act, which is the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, and the DAPA Act, which is the Deferred Action for Parents of Americans. Both reforms allow for undocumented immigrants who fall under these categories to apply for renewable work permits and temporary exemption from deportation.  

VICTOR: The original plan was for me to be born here.

That’s Victor Erives. He is currently working under DACA. He was born to deaf parents who feared that if Victor inherited this trait, he would suffer the same stigma they endured in Mexico.

VICTOR: My mom was pregnant with me but the thing was that I was a premature baby, so I was born at 7 months instead of nine. Nonetheless I was born in Juarez with the intention of being born here. When I reached the age of one my father saw his first opportunity to bring me over.

So his father turned to his friend Hector to help him get Victor into the United States. Hector had papers and was living in El Paso, and as luck would have it, he had a child who was about the same age as Victor. So the two men devised a plan for Hector to carry Victor across using his son’s paperwork.

VICTOR: So as I was brought over the border, what the immigration officer did was just kinda, just questioned me and asked me what my name was, you know, just to make sure it was me the one who was on the birth certificate. Since I was young I wasn’t really aware what was going on, I just kept mentioning that my name was Victor and there was another name mentioned on the birth certificate, so, the immigration officer had actually told us to go ahead and wait in the lobby and we were going to be questioned and whatnot, but what Hector ended up doing is he brought me into a restroom, just kinda, as if we were taking a restroom break, and as soon as he saw the immigration officer walk past us and into his office, that’s when he sees the opportunity and uhm, nonetheless brought me over.

VICTOR: The American dream to my father was have a good upbringing for his family, since he suffered firsthand experience of being disabled in his home country of Mexico. So my father grew up without an education simply because he couldn’t hear or talk, the teachers just didn’t want to hassle with him, so they said you know what they put him out into the labor force and he was weaving baskets at the age of 7-8. So for him the American dream was school. Education.

Victor Erives looking out onto his native home of Ciudad Juarez from El Paso. For the Observatory podcast.
Victor Erives looking out onto his native home of Ciudad Juarez from El Paso.  Lorenzo Holt

Victor grew up attending school from elementary to high school. However, it didn’t take too long for him to realize that for him, things worked differently. One day when he was around 8 he saw his friend being bullied during recess. Victor decided to step in and protect his friend, confronting the bully and exchanging blows.

VICTOR: When this happened we were escorted to the principal’s office and nonetheless you know there was disciplinary action and whatnot, my parents were called, my dad had actually been called out of work to come and pick me up since I was suspended for the rest of the day. You know he told me he said, “Look, you’re young but you need to know now that what you do now will forever dictate the rest of your life, you don’t have papers.” And at the time papers to me it was like well… it was just a word, I didn’t know what he meant by that, so he went on to explain that I was born in Juarez and that I don’t have the same rights as my other classmates do. And so that moment in my life was when I realized that you know, life was pretty fragile for me.

This constant threat hovered over him all throughout high school and developed into a real roadblock for his future.

VICTOR: I had spoke to a counselor and that was pretty much my first experience and just the first time telling someone else within the educational system that I was undocumented. And so the behavior that I received after I told the counselor that was more like, “Well, there’s not much we can do for you,” you know? He had mentioned that financial aid, and these federal grants, and scholarships were more geared towards people who had a social security number – a valid social security number – and were residents or citizens of the United States. And I was neither of the above. Once I graduated to me it was almost like, that was it. The American dream had stopped, there was nothing for me to pursue, so I got into construction.

VICTOR: The base was $40 a day, under the table, you know no matter if it was sunrise to sunset or whether … no matter how many hours, we’d still be paid $40 a day. I had to kind of you know support my family as well, my dad was the only breadwinner so I just kind of alleviated the expenses, I just kind of pitched in on the rent, the bills, utilities, etc. but it was pretty tough man, I’m not gonna lie, but nonetheless it taught me a lot so it taught me the value of a dollar for sure.

Victor would probably still be working construction illegally today if it wasn’t for a man named Rodolfo Benavides, a paralegal working in Dallas who specializes in immigration law. Benavides has a deaf daughter, and because Victor and his parents were very involved in the deaf community the two made friends and one day Victor confided in her his difficult situation.

VICTOR: So Diana was pretty excited to tell me that her father was an attorney, or paralegal I should say, and that he had specialized in immigration law. He explained to me that I was able to pretty much obtain a legal status and be deferred from deportation, have the authorization to work, go to school, so when he told me that it was kind of like my life had you know just been shocked back to life, you know it was a resurrection you know, so I was ecstatic you know, it almost brought me to tears to know that there was something that could be done about my situation, even for the time being, even though this is a temporary executive order. So when DACA was put into effect I was able to get a job as a sign-language interpreter within months.  I was able to save up enough money to pay for my tuition, I recently graduated with an associate’s this past year, and all paid out of my pocket you know? And so a lot of people have the misconception that us immigrants, we just kind of feed off the taxpayers’ money. On the contrary, I mean look at myself: I have no personal assistance, and I pay taxes. And I’m not even a citizen.

Victor now works full time and takes a reduced class load to be able to pay for his schooling. His parents are eligible for DAPA, which is one of the executive orders now enjoined by the court case. Since the original DACA Act was implemented in 2011, over 1,000,000 people have applied and the vast majority — 95 percent — have been found eligible. A study by the National Immigration Law Center that polled DACA recipients showed that 96 percent of respondents were either employed or in school. Although the ruling won’t affect Victor’s status under DACA because it won’t change the current Act even if the courts rule against the expansion, millions of other undocumented children won’t have the opportunity Victor was given.

 Victor Erives in front of his parents' home in El Paso. For the Observatory podcast.
Victor Erives in front of his parents’ home in El Paso.  Lorenzo Holt

VICTOR: Right now I’m a biochemistry major, so basically i’m a pre medicine major with the hopes of one day becoming a doctor, so, I just hope that my story can serve other people who can’t really speak out for themselves, if we could give them DACA, and let them work, and be able to just become an essential part of the economy, the society, the community, then it’s just much much better, you know what I’m saying?  DACA is just an opportunity for younger individuals like myself to just kind of, just make an honest living.

Jen Reel: Observatory was produced this month by Lorenzo Holt and edited by me, Jen Reel. Anthony Barilla composed our theme and other music in this episode, with additional music by Kevin McLeod. Keep up with us by subscribing to our show on iTunes or Stitcher, and check out our show page at texasobserver.org/observatory. Thanks for listening.