Sofia Rivera, a 20-year-old DACA student born in Mexico City, in her first visit to Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood.(Photo credit: Yoona Ha)

[A version of the story was also published in Spanish and in English on Reflejos, a weekly bilingual publication in Chicago’s suburbs.]

As far as she remembers, Sofia Rivera, a 20-year-old business student at the College of DuPage, has always taken a Do-It-Yourself approach to life. Her hands-on way of doing things ranges from dying strands of her hair a different color to filling out important school forms by herself since the age of seven. Ever since she became undocumented after her tourist visa to the U.S. from Mexico City expired, she knew there were certain aspects of her life that, like the jet black pigments of her hair, were hard to wash away. She says her undocumented status seemed like a permanent stain. She couldn’t get rid of until she found herself eligible and approved for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.

For Victor Martell, a 31-year-old entrepreneur from El Salvador, employing the adage, “when life gives you lemons, make lemonade,” has become a part of his personal and professional history. Martell now owns a food import and distribution company born out of his frustration with how his immigration status affected his work status. For the past five years after getting his degree in business administration at DeVry University, he has gone through more than twenty interviews to secure one job. Martell was granted Temporary Protected Status (TPS) in 2001, and ever since, he’s felt like he’s being held back from reaching his full potential. He says opening his own business has given him more flexibility but he worries that the viability of his business might be as temporary as his status is.

Rivera and Martell are both overachievers; neither is fully undocumented or documented. Rivera was approved for temporary legal status in November under the DACA program, and Martell received his legal status in 2001 under a program initiated that year as a response to the 2001 El Salvador earthquakes. Rivera calls herself an “in-betweener;” Martell identifies himself as an “American with an expiration date.”

Fitting in as someone other than an anchor baby

As she speaks, Rivera’s voice steadily trembles but whenever she falters, her boyfriend David, a self-proclaimed conservative Republican who “likes to help people out,” holds her trembling hand. After she takes a deep breath, she apologizes for being overly nervous. This is her first interview ever.

As David squeezes her arm to reassure her, he says dating Rivera has been life changing.

He vividly remembers the day she told him that she was undocumented. It was immediately after they started dating, and she told him she would understand if her status was a burden to him.

“I didn’t care though because the only thing between us would be my parents’ rules and not her legal status,” he says, as he grips her tighter.

Because they live 30 minutes away from each other, David has become accustomed to going the extra mile to hang out with his girlfriend. After a few trips back-and-forth and a few empty gas tanks for David, his parents noticed and tried to slow them down.

Rivera says when David accidently spilled the beans about her undocumented status to his parents, their initial reaction was less harsh than she expected.

“With my ex-boyfriend’s parents, they assumed that I was undocumented because I was Mexican and accused me of dating their son because I wanted to have an anchor baby,” she says.

Then Rivera turns and informs David that his father wasn’t much different initially.

“After dinner, he pulled me aside and questioned why I was dating his son and tried to make sure I didn’t have suspicious motives,” she says. “But after I told them I had no bad intentions, they were nice to me.”

When Rivera’s father lost his job in Mexico City and decided to look for opportunities in the United States, Rivera was a six-year-old with no say in her parent’s decision to cross the border. Throughout her life, she knew she was undocumented, and was discouraged from telling others.

She says because her parents spoke little to no English, the burden to learn and assimilate into American culture and language was daunting at first.

“When I was seven I filled out my own school forms but because my English was horrible. I read ‘foster kids’ as ‘forest kids’ and thought it meant children of the forest,” she laughs

Rivera says that once she became fluent in English, she felt a different challenge ahead of her. The pressure of assimilating and retaining her Mexican culture made her feel caught in a bind.

“Unlike my parents, I can’t call Mexico home because the U.S. is all I know,” she says.

Being lucky is being in purgatory

Rivera says that before President Obama announced the DACA program on June 15, the thought of driving or working legally seemed more like novelty than reality.

Taking her boyfriend out to dinner even if it was Panera Bread and being able to drive herself to meet him were among the simple wishes Rivera once had as an undocumented girlfriend. Both Rivera and her brother applied for DACA a few weeks after Obama’s announcement.

“Lucky” is the word she uses to describe those like her who meet all of the detailed criteria for eligibility to apply for DACA.

Her family worked with an immigration attorney to compile and fill out the necessary documents needed for their applications. Once the applications were in, she found herself glued to her computer clicking away on the button that showed the status of her application. Because of the application’s one-time-only nature, she remembers herself flipping through her materials countless times and praying that her application, randomly assigned to Texas, would land in the hands of a reviewer who was having a good day.

When she first discovered her DACA approval letter in the mail, the things that Rivera could do with her new status seemed more apparent than what she couldn’t do.

Even though she acknowledges the uncertainty of keeping her social security number, work permit, driver’s license after her two-year deferral period, she says she tries hard to look past the unknown.

“It’s at least better than anything that I’ve been offered before and I’ve even had friends suggest that we get married just so I can become legal,” she says. “It’s illegal and was tempting because there are not many options to gaining a legal status.”

The inability to travel has also been a sensitive issue for Rivera.

She says she still has family in Mexico whom she Skypes often but feels that seeing them on a screen does not make up for seeing them in person.

Sofia Rivera stopped in front of a pro-immigrant youth-painted mural in Pilsen. As someone who had never visited Pilsen before, Sofia said she loves all the murals covering the neighborhood. This one is her favorite. (Photo caption: Yoona Ha)

“But I’m scared to travel outside the U.S. because I’m not sure if I’m able to come back even with DACA,” she says. (USCIS, which administers the program, has indicated that before someone who is DACA-approved travels outside the country, the person should apply for and receive advanced parole, a privilege that is “only granted for humanitarian reasons, educational, or employment reasons.” The process also involves a $360 fee.)

Because of her limited options, Rivera says she feels pressured to stay content with DACA but her status of being in “legal status purgatory,” as she puts it, makes her uneasy.

“It puts you in a weird spot just like your identity of not being one or the other,” she admits.

The Salvadoran lining playbook

When Hurricane Mitch struck Victor Martell’s neighborhood in 1998, it put a strain on the family, but what really took apart his homeland were the waves of earthquakes in El Salvador three years later.

Martell’s memory of his country remains fragmented and scattered. Martell recalls awakening, in the middle of the night a year after the hurricane, to the crashing noises of armed men breaking in and attempting to kidnap his little sister and father.

Shortly after the kidnap attempt, his family decided to seek refuge in the U.S. and brought 18-year-old Martell with them. The decision to leave was made frantically, and around Thanksgiving of 1999, the Martells were in Illinois on a tourist visa.

“We were terrified to the point where my parents thought living in El Salvador was not an option anymore,” he says.

Since the day of his arrival, Martell says his life has been constantly determined by the uncertainty of his immigration status.

For as long as he can remember, Martell hoped that one day he could attend the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign to study business administration, but after coming to the U.S. post-Mitch, his prospects became murkier.

Applying for admissions to Loyola University Chicago on a student visa meant that Martell was considered an international student required to pay tuition without financial aid. Without a social security number or legal status, Martell faced challenges even finding loans to help fund his education. Of all the colleges he applied for, he says DeVry University was the only institution willing to offer him a loan.

“It stresses you out having to think every minute about how you’re going to come up with the money for school,” he says.

Two years after Martell arrived, on March 9, 2001, the U.S. designated El Salvador for Temporary Protected Status (TPS) due to conditions caused by the earthquakes. Salvadorans already in the U.S. became eligible for the status, which if granted allows them to remain and work in the U.S. legally for a set period of time. The length of time is often extended, but the privilege is not a path to lawful permanent resident status or citizenship. Those on TPS can travel outside the U.S. only if given permission through an advance parole document.

Martell’s family applied for TPS status immediately after the announcement and were approved.

Since then, Martell has regularly extended his TPS every 12 to 18 months. Soon 18 months turned into 180 months.

Martell says his status really hit him hard when his grandparents passed away.

“No one could go to their funeral so they passed away without anyone there,” he says, as his voice cracks.

After a long pause, Martell looks up from his hands and says, “But what can I do about it? Nothing.”

Martell is no longer the teenager he was when he applied for TPS. In the past ten years, he has married, opened his own business and has plans to start his own family in the U.S.

“The first two years we were content but then we realized that we were in a huge prison with TPS,” he says.

Lessons from the renewable past

Victor Martell sits in the waiting room at Centro Romero on Chicago’s north side. (Photo credit: Yoona Ha)

Martell became involved with Centro Romero, a community-based organization that serves Latino immigrants and refugees on Chicago’s northeast side.

After learning about DACA earlier this year, Martell immediately thought that TPS might be the model for DACA. That concerns him. It also concerns Abel Nunez, Centro Romero’s executive director.

From his experience working with TPS designees, Nunez often thinks of the status as a form of “indentured servitude.” Salvadorans are among eight country nationals who may qualify for TPS status. The others are Haitians, Hondurans, Nicaraguans, Somalians, Sudanese, and most recently, South Sudanese and Syrians.

Nunez points to the fees – $470 or more – that must be paid every 18 months for renewal of TPS status, and the need to submit to regular background checks and keep the government current with address changes and other information.

More than 217,000 Salvadorans like Martell have been in the program, according to the Congressional Research Service 2011 Report on Temporary Protected Status in 2011. Countries hit by earthquakes or hurricanes, such as Haiti, Honduras and Nicaragua, have collectively had more than 117,000 immigrant nationals receive TPS.

“DACA, like TPS, was never meant to be a gateway for permanency and is not a pathway to citizenship,” says Nunez.

Immigration attorney Charles Wintersteen, who represents TPS clients, agrees that TPS and DACA are similar in their implications to those who qualify for the programs.

“You have a well-behaved group of people who are the model citizens that you aren’t aware of,” he says. “But since there’s no guarantee that these folks both under TPS and DACA will get their status renewed, they’re put in this constant state of limbo,” says Wintersteen.

TPS is a status that Congress authorized the executive branch to give any national humanitarian aid through granting of TPS that expires in 18 months but provides a driver’s license, work permit and social security number to those who cannot be deported because of natural or manmade disasters.

Like TPS, DACA envisions for each individual a deferral from deportation (for two years in contrast to TPS, which for Salvadorans is six months shorter, though renewable), a work permit, a social security number and authorization to obtain a state’s driver’s license.

Justin Cox, a staff attorney with the ACLU’s Immigrant’s Rights Project, points out that although DACA may seem like a new policy it has been designated to a few number of people in the past before President Obama announced it for a broader and larger number of young immigrants.

TPS and DACA recipients who wish to travel outside the U.S. must get advanced parole permission if they plan to return to the U.S. and remain in the program they’re in.

Nunez says historically TPS recipients have been wary about returning to their homeland to visit because even if permission to leave allows them to return to the U.S., by leaving the country, they may no longer qualify for their TPS renewal because they were not in the U.S. continuously. He notes that with a recent court decision in Matter of Arrabally Yerrabelly, the courts may be more inclined to see permission by the U.S. government to travel out the country as recognition that the person may also continue in the program – TPS or DACA – when they return. Wintersteen agrees.

Even with the legal concerns allayed, Martell says there is still the cost, of travel and of paying fees to get the government’s permission to travel.

Rivera agrees. “Knowing that I will be able to come back to the U.S. safely with advanced parole does make me feel better, but it’s still unlikely I will travel because it’s so expensive,” she says.

As he speaks about his childhood, Victor Martell revisits his childhood memories through the artwork of children on the wall.(Photo credit: Yoona Ha)

Can’t live like this forever

Rivera says when she received her approved DACA form in the mail, she leaped with joy that she could finally get a job and be able to drive, but her happiness was fleeting.

“It scares me to hear and see what has happened with people with TPS and what will happen if we end up the same way.” she wonders. “There must be something more than this because we can’t live like this forever.”

Wintersteen suggests that unless there is a comprehensive immigration policy reform that offers permanency to DACA eligible students, they would most likely become like the folks with TPS caught in a socioeconomic and developmental limbo.

“It is expected that both policies will be extended regardless of who’s in office,” he adds, looking far beyond the 2012 election.

Nunez notes that organized activism is the approach he plans to take to urge legislators to give temporary status holders a pathway to permanent residency.

A national campaign, Earned Permanent Residency for Central Americans, was launched a year ago to argue for a path to permanent residency and citizenship.

“We started this campaign to request Congress to give TPS holders path to permanency we have been patiently waiting for more than ten years,” says Jose Artiga, executive director of Share El Salvador, a non-profit organization supporting Salvadoran communities,

Because a request for comprehensive reform has failed many times, Artiga says many groups, including DREAMers and TPS holders, shifted their approach from seeking comprehensive reform to piecemeal reform.

The Earned Permanent Residency campaign is planning a nationwide conference in March to pull the activists back together.

“We’ve done everything that was asked of us, and for me it’s been more than ten years and for DACA students it has just begun,” says Martell.

For those like Rivera and Martell, their futures are uncertain. Their goal is to be able to plan their lives beyond two-year intervals of legal residency.

“America is the only place I can call home,” says Rivera. “I’m not a foreigner and knowing that someone could make me go to Mexico to become one is a cruel and overwhelming thought.”

When Martell contemplates the idea of going back to El Salvador once TPS for Salvadorans is over, he says he draws a blank.

“I have a wife and these relationships with people that I can’t simply just abandon,” he says. “I have a life here and don’t want to end it.”