A citizen of nowhere living in North Carolina

ASHEVILLE – The day Carolina Siliceo Perez – at the age of 15 – discovered she was as an undocumented immigrant living in the United States, she locked herself in her bedroom, threw herself on the bed and sobbed.

Later, before the long road to finishing high school, earning a college degree and finding steady work, she would scream in rage at her mother for hiding her gamble to stay in the U.S. rather than return to Mexico after her migrant visa expired.

Despite those successes and through no fault of her own, Siliceo Perez, now 24, essentially lives as a citizen of nowhere even though she has built a life for herself in Asheville.

Should the U.S. take a hard line in changing the way the nation handles illegal immigration, she risks being returned to Mexico, a country where she would have no friends, no job and no place to live.

Under immigration rules today, it would be nearly impossible for Siliceo Perez to legally re-enter the U.S. Outside of marriage, her paths to citizenship are few and wait times for some coming from Mexico have reached 20 years.

Siliceo Perez left her country of origin with her mother when she 2. Thirteen years later, when she attempted to enroll in driver’s education at East Henderson High School, the instructor told her she was ineligible.

She had no Social Security card, and North Carolina does not issue licenses to people who are in the country illegally.

It wasn’t until 2013, her junior year at Brevard College, that she received Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals status, or DACA, documentation temporarily allowing her to stay in the U.S.

“I never in a million years imagined that I was going to go through what I went through just to have a college degree,” Siliceo Perez said. “I woke up and saw social injustice every day.”

Siliceo Perez now works as a clerk at the Buncombe County Register of Deeds Office.

Her plight is hardly unique in North Carolina, which had the nation’s highest application rate to DACA during the program’s first two years.

Undocumented immigrants come to North Carolina for work and to make a better life for their families. Of those age 16 and older who are employed, 24 percent work in construction. Other popular industries include hospitality and food service, manufacturing, administration and agriculture.

An estimated more than 29,000 residents with DACA status live in North Carolina, according to the Migration Policy Institute, an independent, nonpartisan think tank in Washington.

They face a perilous future.

An executive order to end the program, which was initiated by former President Barack Obama, is waiting for action from President Donald Trump.

It isn't clear, however, what the new commander in chief intends to do.

During the campaign, Trump boasted he would dismiss DACA "day one" of taking office. The program amounted to “unconstitutional executive amnesty," he said.

The president has since eased his stance, telling reporters in February that "DACA is a very, very difficult subject” and promising to address the issue “with heart."

At least two high-profile DACA arrests since Trump’s inauguration have sparked fear among the immigrant community.

Daniel Ramirez Medina, 23, was released Wednesday after spending more than a month in federal custody for suspected gang affiliation, though he and his lawyer dispute that account.

The young father from Washington state has no criminal record. He was taken in February as federal immigration agents were arresting his dad, who had an order for deportation to Mexico. His lawyers are suing the federal government.

Daniela Vargas, 22, was briefly detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in March after the Argentinian spoke about the arrests of her father and brother.

Her DACA status had expired and she was saving money to pay a $495 renewal fee, her lawyer has said. Vargas has since been released.

Of North Carolina's estimated 338,000 undocumented immigrants, nearly 66,000 are eligible for DACA, according to the Migration Policy Institute.

Seventy-one percent of those likely to be accepted into the program come from Mexico. Many of the others were born in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala.

DACA allows certain people who came to the United States illegally as children to stay for up two years at a time subject to renewal.

Participants are given work permits and many seek employment to pay for higher education. In North Carolina, DACA allows participants to obtain a driver’s license.

To enroll, an immigrant must have come to the United States before their 16th birthday and be under 31 as of June 15, 2012. The applicant must be in school, hold a high school diploma or GED, or have been honorably discharged as a veteran of the U.S. Coast Guard or armed forces.

The program does not provide a path to citizenship, nor does it open the door to federal welfare programs or student aid. It also doesn't offer protections to a participants' parents or family.

“When I was told I was going to be granted legal presence, I thought, 'Finally, I’ll be allowed to go to grad school,” Siliceo Perez said. "'I’ll be allowed to become a psychologist or a guidance counselor, or maybe even a teacher if I wanted to,' but the realities of that weren’t as maybe we had been promised. It was kind of like the dream fell short."

Life undocumented

Siliceo Perez’s mother followed the footsteps of her brothers to Henderson County. They were a family of farmworkers, chasing the tomato crops from Western North Carolina to South Carolina, Georgia and Florida.

During a stint near Hendersonville, her mother enrolled Siliceo Perez in Head Start, a federally subsidized preschool for families who live on limited incomes. It was there that she says her journey and love for education began.

Her mother was overjoyed to see her daughter learning, and she overstayed her work visa, Siliceo Perez said.

“She was very excited with the future she thought she could provide me in this country,” she said. “Had she decided to go back home, we didn’t have a house, we didn’t have anything to go back to."

As the family moved to follow the crops and Siliceo Perez changed schools, she kept her eye on college admission. She wanted to be a teacher. “I wanted to make a difference in my community that way,” she said.

When the North Carolina Community College System approved a policy in 2008 that would make it more difficult for undocumented students to enroll, Siliceo Perez left the state for Florida, thinking it might be easier to continue her studies there.

She graduated from Immokalee High School in Collier County in 2010, after having spent three and half years at East Henderson High. The Florida school was almost exclusively migrant students.

Siliceo Perez couldn’t secure financial aid in the Sunshine State. Since she lacked citizenship, most public universities would charge her for out-of-state tuition.

“It became this very complex journey of figuring out where I could go to college and what to study because a lot of people said there was no point in going to college if you are going to graduate and not be employable,” she said. "I didn’t listen to anybody.”

Siliceo Perez returned to Hendersonville after learning North Carolina had eased roadblocks to higher education for undocumented students living in the U.S.

Because of the changes, she could enroll at Blue Ridge Community College if she paid out-of-state tuition and registered for classes after everyone else enrolled. She calls it her Rosa Parks moment.

“I was paying a lot more for the passage to be in these classes, and yet I was only allowed to register until every seat was filled by students, whom I guess, in legislative terms, deserved it more, had a right to be there more.

"That was incredibly difficult,” she said. “I was working two jobs to try to pay what at the time was $800 a month in tuition.”

She transferred her junior year to Brevard College, where her tuition was $2,000 a month. At Blue Ridge she could never get a spot in the math and science classes she needed to graduate, and Brevard College was the only other school within commuting distance that she could afford, she said. The small liberal arts institution offered to cut her tuition in half.

Siliceo Perez worked full time as a waitress. She would drive 45 minutes twice a day, to Brevard and back. She never had time to go to an athletic event. She didn't drink, attend parties or join her classmates for gatherings after school. She was constantly working, studying or sleeping.

Nearing graduation, Siliceo Perez dropped her education major and focused on the humanities. DACA was so new at the time, it was unclear whether she would be allowed to take the Praxis, North Carolina’s Pre-Professional Skills Test for aspiring educators.

She graduated in 2014 with an English degree and went to work for the nonprofit Hispanics in Philanthropy. She later was hired by a law firm and was recently employed by the county.

Siliceo Perez is now focused on social policy and hopes to attend graduate school soon. She is exploring universities that will accept students with DACA status and looking for financial aid.

"I want to understand how policy can shape and change people's lives for the better," she said. "I'm tired. I'm feeling suppressed and oppressed by the system."

The DACA promise

Initially, DACA was set up to be a stopgap as people worked toward passage of The DREAM Act, Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors.

Congress failed to pass the legislative proposal, which would have allowed a process toward permanent legal residency for the undocumented population brought to the U.S. illegally as children.

DACA was instituted as an executive order, said Ignacia Rodriguez, an immigration policy advocate at the National Immigration Law Center. That means as quickly as it was implemented, it could also be taken away.

It's now marked by uncertainty, she said.

"Before, people knew that there was a possibility the program would end, but they were more focused on what opportunities the program would provide. Now it's shifted. Now there are different plans that people have to create for themselves for each type of scenario."

Through June 2016, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services has granted DACA to nearly 741,500 people, according to the 2016 report, "Money on the Table: The Economic Cost of Ending DACA" produced by the Immigrant Legal Resource Center. The San Francisco-based organization works to improve law and policy and advance immigrant rights.

Eighty percent, or 645,100 DACA recipients, are employed with businesses in the United States and the program continues to grow, the report states.

"The costs of ending DACA are immense, not only the personal costs to nearly 1 million individuals and their families, but also to our country's economic engine," the report says.

If North Carolina were to deport all its undocumented immigrants, the state would suffer a loss of some $14.5 billion in economic activity, $6.4 billion in gross state product and approximately 101,400 jobs, according to the American Immigration Council.

Undocumented immigrants pay an estimated $253 million in state and local taxes, it says in a 2015 report.

For most DACA recipients, the U.S. is the only home they know, said Irena Como, a staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina.

Families are at risk of being torn apart, she said.

"It is just very scary that they may now be targeted by the administration," Como said.

The reality is that the U.S. government has a database of youths who have been granted DACA status, she added. They know their names. They know where they live. They know they came here illegally.

"Hard-working, law-abiding families that have been part of our communities for decades now are being deported without due process," Como said. "Obama deported a lot of people during the eight years he was president as well. This was happening all along. It's just that we are now talking about much higher numbers."

Trump in January signed two executive orders: "Enhancing Public Safety in the Interior of the United States" and "Border Security and Immigration Enforcement Improvements." The documents expand the pool of immigrants here illegally who can be prioritized for deportation and empower state and local law enforcement agencies to perform the functions of immigration agents.

They call for the hiring of 10,000 more immigration officers and 5,000 more border patrol agents and direct federal funding to construct a wall along the Mexico-U.S. border and build more detention facilities there.

They also strip federal money given to "sanctuary" cities, municipalities that have vowed to protect those who are undocumented.

There were some 22,100 foreign-born people living in Buncombe and Henderson counties in 2015. Those are the only counties in the region for which the U.S. Census' American Community Survey collects data on citizenship.

Only 38 percent, or some 8,400 people, were naturalized U.S. citizens.

People of Hispanic or Latino origin made up 60 percent of the population not holding U.S. citizenship in Buncombe County and 82 percent of those in Henderson County, according to the five-year estimate.

North Carolina is home to some 749,400 immigrants, according to the 2015 data compiled by the American Immigration Council, a Washington-based nonprofit that promotes laws, policies and attitudes that honor the United States’ history as a nation of immigrants.

Just near 32 percent are naturalized U.S. citizens.

A doctor in training

For Melvis Madrigal, a senior at Warren Wilson College, that is a status likely out of reach unless immigration law changes or he marries a U.S. citizen.

After securing DACA while at Roberson High, the 22-year-old biochemistry major is set to become the first university graduate in his family when he walks past the podium during the school’s commencement this spring.

He dreams of becoming an emergency room doctor. His parents dropped out of middle school in Mexico before making their way to the United States.

They had planned to earn money and return home to make a better life for their family there. Instead, they decided to stay.

Madrigal was 3 at the time. He was left behind with his grandmother as his parents sought financial security. Three years later his dad would return to Mexico City and bring his son to Western North Carolina.

"They came because they wanted a better future, primarily for me, but also because they wanted a better lifestyle for the rest of the family," Madrigal said.

Madrigal is the only child in his family born in Mexico and the only one to lack documentation in the United States.

Unlike Siliceo Perez, he said he never had an epiphany moment. He always knew that he wasn't able to do the same things as his peers. He remembers not going to the doctor's office unless it was an emergency because without insurance the fee would be huge.

Having spent most of his formative years in Mexico, his reading and writing, in both English and Spanish, suffered. Kids would make fun of him for his accent in middle school.

In high school, he went through driver's education, but when the teacher told him he had to bring his certificate of completion to the Department of Motor Vehicles, he knew he couldn't take that risk.

His parents had factory jobs and the family was better off here. During the harvest, they could make extra money in agriculture.

Parents of undocumented immigrants often decide living here is worth the risk because the potential for their children is limitless, Madrigal said.

He hadn't planned to go to college, but during an internship as a high school senior at Mountain Area Health Education Center, his mentors, staff at Mission Hospital and the medical training school, pushed him to achieve more.

They hired a counselor to help him navigate the higher education system. They encouraged him to get a lawyer and apply for DACA. They wrote letters to schools on his behalf to find out who would accept him and who could provide him with financial aid.

Warren Wilson College opened its doors, offering to pay the majority of his tuition. Madrigal lives on campus and participates in work study where he mentors younger Hispanic youths.

Getting DACA was surreal, Madrigal said. The emotions were mixed. He was ecstatic about being able to pursue higher education, but disappointed that others in the undocumented Hispanic community were being left behind.

Things are unpredictable today, said Madrigal, who plans to take a year off to earn money for medical school. His focus now is on crossing the college finish line. If he looks much further, the future becomes hazy, he said.

It’s unclear whether he will be allowed to practice medicine, he said. It is also more difficult for DACA students to find financial aid for graduate school since they are more reliant on public institutions, many of which will charge them out-of-state tuition.

"I'm definitely looking forward to graduation from college and being the first person in my family to do that," Madrigal said.

Madrigal said he can't imagine going back to Mexico, a country he hasn't visited since he left. He was raised here. He said he sees and interacts with the world as an American, using the same lens as most of his peers. The only difference is he was born in Mexico.

He compares his life to that of the Pachucos, mixed race people living near the Mexican-American border during the turn of the century.

"I'm kind of in between," he said. "I'm not really from Mexico and I'm not really from here. I was born there and I have that heritage, and I was raised here and I have this culture. So, yeah, it's complicated."

On edge

Life has been complicated, too, for Siliceo Perez and her family, she said.

They are more careful about where they go in public. They must think about the grocery stores they chose to shop at and the restaurants where they eat.

"(President Trump) can't protect us from the hate and racism that he's inciting," she said. "If he cares for my well-being, then he needs to be more careful with the rhetoric he chooses to use."

Siliceo Perez often wonders what will happen if her family is separated. What if she gets sent back to Mexico? Her best friend was deported her junior year in high school and Siliceo Perez hasn't been to her country of origin since she was a toddler.

If DACA is rescinded, how will she drive? How will she work?  Will she ever be able to travel? If she leaves the United States, it is unlikely she will ever be able to return.

“The reality is that (President Trump) can do whatever he wants, and he has shown us that he will,” she said. “I have to have more faith now in my community in that they will stand for what is right.”

"The power is not with somebody sitting in the White House," she added. "The power is with each one of us."

© 2017 WCNC.COM


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