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Borders & Heritage

DACA: Perceptions & Realities

In Washington’s Yakima Valley, the immigration policy DACA has meant hope for young DREAMers, the children of the farmworkers whose skilled labor sustains our state’s highest producing farmlands.

About 150 miles southeast of Seattle’s urban sprawl lies the Yakima Valley. This part of Central Washington is home to an agricultural industry that fuels the local workforce and contributes billions of dollars to the state economy. The farmlands here produce 78 percent of the nation’s hop supply. More apples, cherries and pears are grown here than anywhere else in the state. With more than 19,000 acres of grapes, the Yakima Valley has the state’s highest concentration of wineries, which contribute greatly to the tourist trade. Crucial to this industry is a skilled farm labor force.

For decades, most of the farmworkers have come from Mexico. Many are undocumented, and they have brought their families with them, hoping for a better life for themselves, but especially for their children. Thousands of those children did not know that they were brought here without proper legal documentation. They are known as DREAMers, and for now they have been able to find legal protection through DACA, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. Enacted in 2012, this immigration policy provides work permits and temporary protection from deportation. Despite their legal status, most DREAMers see themselves as Americans, since this is the country they know.

A university rooted in a multicultural mission

Heritage University is located on the Yakama Indian Reservation about five miles from the small farming town of Toppenish. Its 23-acre rural campus is surrounded by hop fields and fertile farmland that produces fruit, vegetables and grain.

Unique in its location and the community it serves, Heritage University provides higher education opportunities to a low-income student population mainly from the lower Yakima Valley. Students come primarily from Latino immigrant farmworker families and the Yakama Nation. University officials do not inquire about legal status, but it is no secret the student body includes DREAMers protected under DACA.

Meet the DREAMers

In an effort to dispel misconceptions, four DACA students from the university convened to tell their stories. Children of farmworkers, they have spent most of their lives in the Yakima Valley. After excelling in high school, each of them qualified for a scholarship to pursue a bachelor’s degree at Heritage University.

Estefanía

“We are all fighting for a better future for ourselves and for our communities.”

Currently working toward a bachelor’s degree in nursing at Heritage University, Estefanía has lived in Granger, Wash. since she was brought to the United States at age 1. She excelled in high school and qualified for a full-tuition scholarship at Heritage. “Nursing has always been my calling,” she says. “I’ve always been the nurturing one taking care of [sick people in my family], so I want to do that for other people.”

Jonathan

“I want to give back because I feel like the community has given a lot to me.”

Son of migrant farmworkers, Jonathan was brought to the United States at age 9. “My first job [was] working in the fields,” Jonathan says. “I still remember waking up at 3 a.m.; I was working in the grape season, pruning grapes in Oregon.” Jonathan completed high school in Yakima and qualified for a scholarship to Heritage University. “I am pursuing my degree in business, in marketing.”

Jesus

“I was raised here in America. I know nothing but the American culture.”

Jesus was brought to America by farmworker parents at age 3. He has lived in Washington State for 17 years. He began helping in the fields when he was in middle school. “My parents instilled in me those characteristics of always working hard for what you want and that nothing comes without hard work.” Jesus is completing his bachelor’s degree in science and nursing at Heritage University.

Esmeralda

“I want to hopefully, one day, become a U.S. citizen and work for the government.”

Esmeralda was 6 years old when her mother brought her to the United States, where she began school in first grade. At Heritage University now, she is finishing her degree in criminal justice. “I feel that I’m an American because this is all I [have] known in all my life,” she says.

“Being undocumented feels like [living with] a lot of fear.”

Estefanía’s mother brought her to the United States from Mexico without legal authorization when Estefanía was just 1 year old. They came to join Estefanía’s father, who has worked the farms in Yakima for over 20 years. Estefanía has two younger siblings, both of whom are U.S.-born citizens.

Since the 1960s, multiple factors have led to the dramatic rise in unauthorized immigration to the United States from Mexico and other Central American countries.

Violence, poverty and political instability in their native countries drove people to seek security and greater opportunities for their families in the United States.

In 1964, the U.S. Congress decided to end the controversial Bracero program, which had allowed agricultural workers mainly from Mexico to legally come to and work in the United States in order to alleviate the farm labor shortage. Though the program ended, farm workers continued to come to the United States seeking employment, and farmers continued to rely on these skilled workers.

Shortly afterwards, the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act was passed. While ending race-based discrimination in American immigration policy, the act introduced caps on immigration from the western hemisphere — as well as other parts of the world. Prior to the 1965 act, there were no limits on immigration within the Americas. With the new limits, many who would previously have been free to come to the United States for work suddenly became illegal immigrants.

There are over 11.3 million undocumented immigrants in the United States, representing 3.4 percent of the population. As of 2014, undocumented immigrants comprised about 5 percent of the workforce.

“DACA has meant hope.”

To date, the DACA program has enabled nearly 800,000 DREAMers nationwide to legally work, study and contribute to the American economy. More than 16,000 DREAMers live in Washington State.

“These students are the children of parents [who] work in our fields.”

“The major misconception about DACA students is that they are here to take advantage of benefits of this nation without contributing anything — and it’s exactly the opposite.”

“If I could talk to Donald Trump…”

Created through a 2012 executive order during the Obama administration, the DACA program is fiercely debated and remains a political tug-of-war over our nation’s challenged immigration system.

During his presidential campaign and since taking office, President Donald Trump has repeatedly threatened to end the DACA program, despite his statements to “show great heart” to young people impacted by the legislation. The Trump administration announced its intentions to “wind down” the DACA program in September 2017, granting Congress six months to come up with a fix.

An uncertain future and a hope for change

The future for DREAMers is in limbo as they find themselves caught between the aisles in a political tussle over immigration policy in America. Still, they cling to hope as the legal fight continues over the fate of DACA.

In February 2018, a federal court issued an injunction blocking the Trump administration from ending DACA. On April 24, another federal judge blocked the Trump administration from ending DACA, giving them 90 days to present valid reasoning for ending the program.

“For me, my hope is to be able to live here with my family,” Estefanía says. Jesus is staying hopeful that the situation will change for the better for the DREAMers. Esmeralda hopes to one day work in government. After completing his bachelor’s degree, Jonathan hopes to continue on to a master’s program.

Even as they plan their futures, there is an ever-present underlying fear stemming from their uncertain status in this country. “We are standing on glass,” Jonathan says, “and we don’t know if it’s going to break or when it’s going to break.”

Credits

Producers: Enrique Cerna, Laila Kazmi
Interactive Producers: Joseph Liu, Sion Park
Photographer: Greg Davis
Video Editors: Laila Kazmi, Amy Mahardy
Community Engagement Manager: Andrea O’Meara
Social Media: Hanna Welch, Caroline Gerdes
Digital Director: Patty Lindley

Laila Kazmi

@Lailakaz — Laila Kazmi is a Northwest Emmy award-winning senior producer and writer at KCTS 9. Her first love is discovering and telling stories of diverse people, places and history. She has lived in Karachi, Bahrain, Chicago, and Seattle. At KCTS 9, Laila produces the series Borders & Heritage, featuring stories of immigrant and refugee experiences in the Pacific Northwest and has produced Reel NW, featuring independent films from and about the Pacific Northwest. Her video-stories have appeared on KCTS 9PBS NewsHour Art Beat, World Channel at WGBH, and KPBS in San Diego. Her articles have been published in PBS NewsHour Art BeatThe Seattle Times, Seattle PI, COLORLINES and Pakistan’s daily Dawn. Laila has a Master of Communication from the University of Washington.

More stories by Laila Kazmi

Enrique Cerna

The son of Mexican immigrants, Enrique Cerna was born and raised in the Yakima Valley.  Enrique joined KCTS 9 in January, 1995. He has anchored current affairs programs, moderated statewide political debates, produced and reported stories for national PBS programs in addition to local documentaries on social and juvenile justice, the environment and Latinos in Washington State.

Enrique has earned nine Northwest Emmy Awards and numerous other honors. In June, 2013, he was inducted into the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences Northwest Chapter’s Silver Circle for his work as a television professional.

More stories by Enrique Cerna

Joseph Liu

Joseph Liu is a hybrid journalist and developer, and uses the internet to tell stories. By using infographics, data visualizations and games, he brings a new dimension to video and text.  Before coming to KCTS 9, Joseph Liu worked at the Pew Research Center and the Washington Post.

More stories by Joseph Liu