Immigration

Houston's Dreamers in the eye of the storm: Hurricane Harvey and the uncertain future of DACA

Three dreamers from Houston recount how they set aside concerns over their immigration status to face the tragedy of a hurricane that devastated their city.

HOUSTON, Texas - Jesus, Carolina and Karla are barely recovering from the devastation of Hurricane Harvey.

Now they are dreading a new catastrophe: the possible cancellation of the federal program known as DACA, which protects undocumented immigrants who arrived in the country illegally as children.

On Thursday, news reports emerged that DACA - the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals - program was politically doomed. Social networks erupted, uncertainty spiraled and the White House eventually set a date to announce its decision: next Tuesday, Sept. 5.

Despite the anxiety, several Houston Dreamers plucked up the courage and determination last week to attend to the victims of the worst hurricane to hit U.S. soil for at least a decade.

The state of Texas houses 271,000 eligible DACA beneficiaries, with 68,000 of them located in Harris County, which is home to Houston, according to the Migration Policy Institute.

Here are three of their stories:

A FIREFIGHTER WHO SAVED LIVES

Jesus Manuel Ortiz has not left the fire station in over a week, when rains from Hurricane Harvey began flooding the streets of New Caney, a city 38 miles from downtown Houston. He has been helping with logistics, making sure that uniforms are ready for rescue teams, preparing beds and food to deal with the emergency, and identifying the worst impacted areas.

He could have returned home, but he chose to stay. "The only reason I haven’t left is because I don’t want to go see the damage," he explains. "It's not because of my job, it's because I am afraid to see that everything that we have worked to build was lost in a few days to the flood."

Ortiz has worked at the New Caney Fire Department since 2014, when he first volunteered. He remembers how excited he was every time he sped off on a firetruck. "I liked it because I could go change someone's life."

This 22-year-old Mexican has been a beneficiary of DACA since 2012, shortly after the policy was implemented. The program gave him temporary residence in the United States and a work permit, which meant the Fire Department was able to offer him a full-time job.

"DACA meant that I could help my family with a little more money and that I could make sure they had everything they needed," says Ortiz, the only member of a family of five who has a driver's license. His parents are undocumented and his brothers - American citizens - are still just 14 and 16 years old.

Although he tries not to think about what his life would be like without DACA, he is aware of the news. Politics doesn't interest him. However, the threat that the program may end has led his family to consider various scenarios. Whenever news shows discuss the possible end of DACA and deportations that would ensue, the five talk about the issue with more concern than than they have in years.

"If they deport my parents, I will stay with my brothers ... And if they deport me, the next person they would come for would be my uncle. That’s what I understand."

Jesus Manuel says he is not afraid. Mexico, he says, holds no future for him. It is a country of relatives he barely knows. He says he likes the food there, but he prefers the offerings on this side of the border: "I like barbecues, the ribs, the shrimp, country music, country bars, everything country."

He thinks in English and says his friends and neighbors consider him American. "They don’t think I'm Mexican," he says.

SHE ANSWERED CALLS FROM IMMIGRANTS WHO LOST THEIR HOMES

Carolina Ramirez, 28, dedicated last Thursday to answering calls from people full of questions and uncertainty: What help is available? What if my house is gone? Where can I find a food bank? Which areas are still flooded?

She and her DACA colleagues, part of the Houston chapter of the organization United We Dream, are volunteers on a Spanish language telephone helpline for Harvey.

"We have been called by families, many of them undocumented, saying their houses are ruined. They want to know where to go. Or they can’t leave yet because they are surrounded by water, or they don’t know where to get food ... ", says Ramírez .

These Dreamers set out to work from day one, when they realized that Harvey was not just another tropical storm. After checking on each other, the group organized a call to develop responses to the disaster. They were isolated in their neighborhoods, with no possibility of going outside due to the flood.

They began translating practical information about the hurricane into Spanish and distributed it on social networks to Houston's huge immigrant community. They did so in the midst of their own intense personal anxiety: the SB4 law in Texas against undocumented immigrants was about to enter into force, and rumors were mounting that the Trump administration would eliminate DACA.

But Ramirez says that DACA beneficiaries know only one way to respond – with hard work. "A dreamer is a person who sees a big challenge and does not stand around with their arms crossed. On the contrary, they seek out the community and try to face that challenge together," says this Mexican woman who arrived in the United States when she was four.

She created a group of undocumented students at her university and joined the national movement that got President Barack Obama to pass DACA.

If DACA were to be eliminated, Ramírez says she would be "super-angry" but she would not consider returning to Mexico, where her parents live. "I've been in Texas for over 20 years. I grew up here, this is where I have friends and I got my education."

SHE ATTENDED TO A SHELTER EVACUEE

Since Donald Trump became president, the topic of conversation between Karla Perez and her family has taken a 180-degree turn. The 24-year-old dreamer talked to her partner and parents about what would happen if DACA ended.

"There are definitely feelings of anxiety because DACA is something that has given us stability and has allowed us to take each step forward in our lives with a little more confidence," says the student, who wants to be an immigration lawyer. "I am applying to certain positions with organizations that help the immigrant community, but they will not hire me if the immigration decision is canceled."

Her fight goes further. During Harvey, she was in one of the largest shelters in south Houston, where she says she attended to an elderly woman in a wheelchair who was rescued by boat and was alone: "I was with her all day. I helped her when she wanted to eat, when she needed to go to the bathroom or when she wanted to go out. "

"It has been very hard and very difficult to see our city suffer so much and especially for the immigrant community,” she said. “This has been a week of great anxiety because unfortunately anti-immigrant politicians have continued their attacks while we are living through a tragedy," she said.

She referred to the debate around the controversial SB4. "Fortunately, the most anti-immigrant law we've seen has been blocked in the courts and we expect it to stay that way. It was like a sigh of relief."

(If you are a dreamer with DACA and helped during Harvey, you can share your story via email to dbonmati@univision.net.)