Victor Guzman: "DACA has given me the opportunity to fight in the United States for my people"
CHICAGO, Illinois -- Three weeks ago, Victor Guzman was riding his gray bicycle, when he happened to pass by a gang fight. As police arrived to control the incident, he became nervous and decided to take refuge in a park in south Chicago.
For half an hour, he waited with his bike, which has a sticker on the front that reads "F*** immigration agents." He prayed that no one would approach him to question him as a witness.
Just a few days earlier, his DACA permit had expired and, ever since, he says he has been "spooked" that any possible involvement with the authorities could trigger his deportation.
Guzman could have renewed his DACA status. But he chose not to, mainly because he did not have the $ 495 for the application fee. "I am low-income, I earn the minimum wage, I pay for my own studies, so I had run out of money," he said.
Besides, he considered it pointless to renew his status in a program that President Donald Trump has threatened to eliminate anyway. Trump has vowed to reverse the executive order of the Obama administration known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). The order gave temporary protection and work rights to immigrants who had initially entered the country as children illegally.
"We did not know if I was going to get DACA or not. For me, it didn’t make sense to apply to a program that was going out of existence. I did not want to give my money to someone to use it for who knows what, or even to deport more people. Why should I use my hard-earned money for that? That's why I decided to wait, "said Guzman, 24. Some of his friends took the same decision, he added.
There are organizations like United We Dream that say, although they qualify, some immigrants have not renewed their status because they are afraid their confidentiality will not be violated and they could end up exposing their families to scrutiny.
On September 5, the Trump administration announced that immigrants with work permits that expired between that day and March 5, 2018, could renew their DACA application for two years if they submitted their paperwork by October 5.
Guzman missed out
The specified dates mean only 154,000 people are eligible for renewal out of the 800,000 who have benefited from the deportation protection since 2012. Guzman does not qualify. The news depressed him for a couple of days, he said. Still, he then made the decision to fill out his application anyway and he is now waiting for financial help from the Paso organization so that he can mail it in. He says he would prefer to be rejected than to wait around doing nothing.
"It makes me a little sad that many organizations are talking about protection for all, but actually people like me are overlooked. They are not putting people whose DACA expired as a priority in need of help. My DACA may have expired but I am part of the DACA family. But I also feel I am part of the undocumented community, too. I am in between -- in one group on one side and with another group on the other side," he said.
DACA – a path to savings and university
As a child Guzman was poor, picking fruit and collecting vegetables to sell in the market of Morelos in Mexico. He lived with his grandmother and a sister a year younger than him. They had stayed in Mexico because their parents did not have enough money to pay for their trip to the United States when they themselves made the journey north. Their father also thought it was more dangerous to emigrate with young children.
But when he was 10 years old his father returned for him to take him to join up with his mother in the United States -- "to have a better life" and take advantage of his talents. It was November and it was cold. That is the first thing Guzman remembers about the day he crossed the desert. He also recalled that the geography was similar to where he had grown up, when he used to trek through the hills of Iguala. "When I crossed the border, for me it was the same thing. It was just like any other day -- desert, walk, see nothing." But it took him and his father 12 days and two attempts to cross the desert and eventually reach Chicago. On the first trip, border agents pointed guns at them and forced them to turn back to Mexico. One the second attempt, Guzman had to give up all his belongings, except for the photo of his grandmother. He also spent a night in a tunnel, hidden, trembling in his father's arms.
Once he reached Chicago, the culture shock hit him. He failed to recognize his mother who had straightened her hair and dyed it blond, and now wore makeup. The cheese in Chicago did not taste like cheese and he did not know any English. "It was like another world to me, and I realized that I was not in Mexico anymore."
But gradually, he adapted to life in his new country and went on to graduate from high school. That is when he first realized what it meant to be without legal immigrant papers. "My parents never talked to me and they certainly did not say: look we're going to a place where we are not wanted," he said. With no financial support to study in college and with no legal labor permit, he began working in a frozen hamburger factory. For two years, he would wake up at 3 a.m. to be able to go to Itasca, a suburb of Illinois an hour outside Chicago, where he would join the factory production line. "It was difficult. They made us work very hard, with exaggerated production targets. The production belt sometimes ran very fast. My job was to lay down the bread and my co-worker would put the meat on," he recalled.
That changed with DACA in 2012, when he was 20. Guzman was able to secure work at McDonald's in downtown Chicago with better hours and conditions. "My dad was very proud that I had a job in the city. He went out and told all his friends and family who were used to working in factories that I wasn’t going to have to go through the same."
That is what DACA has meant for most of its beneficiaries: a first legal job, with better pay and conditions, and aligned with their education, training and long-term career goals. An estimated 5.5% of beneficiaries have started their own businesses and 87% are employed, according to a recent survey by the Center for American Progress.
Through his new job, Guzman was able to save and enter Harold Washington College to study English. He still has one year to graduate, because he has interrupted his study several times for economic reasons. He wants to specialize later in psychology and literature. "Going to college has been very difficult. There have been times that I cried because I have had to pay thousands of dollars to the school and, sometimes, in order to pay, I have gone without eating,” he said.
DACA also allowed Guzman to become an activist with "the privilege of being able to fight" for his community. Initially, he became involved with leaders and organizations advocating for better working conditions for immigrants, including a campaign for a minimum wage of $ 15 an hour. Later, he lobbied for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer rights (LGBTQ).
Guzman has even been arrested three times during public protests. In June, he was part of a group of 40 people who disrupted a pride parade. He wanted to draw attention, he said, to the fact that the march is becoming increasingly co-opted by a kind of white man’s gentrification. His face even appeared in several magazines and national publications such as Teen Vogue.
One in ten DACA recipients identify themselves as queer, according to the Center for American Progress. "It's a term used to refer to a person who does not simply identify himself as gay. I can be gay, I can be more than gay, but more than anything, I am a person," Guzman said.
In hindsight, he believes he has come out of the closet twice – as LGBTQ and as an undocumented immigrant. "I think both are difficult. The first a little more so because you have the rejection of the family to deal. With the second, as somebody undocumented, you do not have so much rejection because the family understands that fight," he said.
"Not having DACA takes me back to where I started," he said. Losing the ability to work legally means for him, as for 450,000 others, losing access to health insurance and other benefits offered by employers, according to the National Immigration Law Center. A further 290,000 beneficiaries may also lose their eligibility for state-subsidized health coverage when their protection expires. Guzman currently takes prep to protect himself from HIV through a community clinic. But he is afraid of what will happen when members of his community lose DACA.
"We have to make sure our LGBTQ community is not forgotten, that those still in the ‘undocumented closet’ are safe, that the most marginalized people in our community are not forgotten, that undocumented trans and queer people are part of the conversation,” he said.
He does not want to return to the shadows. He wants to remain an activist, but now he is afraid. He has not stopped organizing and attending demonstrations, talks and meetings against the elimination of DACA in his city -- but he feels far more vulnerable than before.
"I think taking away DACA is maybe going to take away the privilege of protesting. Maybe they'll shut me up a little, because, now that I do not have a DACA, I'm going to have that fear of being arrested," he said. "I'm terrified of being caught. Having to go through the process of going to a detention center to be marked as a criminal. The crime I am supposed to have committed is simply to be here. Really, I feel that myonly ‘crime’ is that I fight for a better city for everyone here in Chicago, for everyone who lives here. A better place for everyone."