Worried about Republican efforts to eliminate a program that protects people who were brought into the country illegally at a young age, Itzel Guillen struggled to control her nerves as she recently sat in a car waiting to cross back into the U.S. from Mexico.
Guillen, a San Diego resident who first came to the U.S. without authorization at age 5 from Mexico City with her family, is a beneficiary of former President Obama’s program called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA.
Though she had permission to leave the U.S. for a short work trip to Tijuana, Guillen knew that she still risked being turned away if border officials did not find her trip credible. She took that risk, she said, because with the DACA program in limbo, Guillen hoped that her journey would shed light on the kinds of opportunities that it has given to people like her.
“The DACA program works,” she said. “This is giving me a light to where my roots are. It grounds me.”
DACA does not give Guillen legal status in the U.S., but it does give her work authorization and a promise from the federal government that she won’t be deported as long as she is part of the program.
When President Trump was on the campaign trail last year, he promised that he would end the DACA program. He later seemed to change his mind.
Some news agencies reported that White House officials intend to use the program as a bargaining chip to get Congress to pass legislation funding Trump’s other immigration proposals such as a border wall or additional deportation officers. Rumors began to circulate last week that Trump is leaning toward ending the program this week.
In late June, a coalition led by Texas Atty. Gen. Ken Paxton informed the Trump administration that it would have to get rid of DACA or the 10 Republican-led states involved would pursue a lawsuit challenging the program. The coalition’s letter gave Trump until Sept. 5 to decide. Attorneys general of several Southern states as well as Idaho signed the letter. California is not one of the states pushing to end the program.
“I feel like I cannot make a decision about my life because it could go either way,” Guillen said. “It’s difficult to live in that uncertainty every day.”
DACA does not enable recipients to come back to the U.S. if they leave. They can apply before they travel for permission to reenter the U.S. through another legal process called advance parole. The federal government grants advance parole in a handful of circumstances — humanitarian reasons such as getting medical treatment or going to a family member’s funeral, educational reasons such as study abroad programs or work-related reasons including conferences or meeting with overseas clients.
Guillen, who, as an activist and organizer at Alliance San Diego, specializes in issues in San Diego’s immigrant communities, got advance parole to meet with community leaders at migrant shelters in Tijuana. She also attended a conference for a study abroad program that caters to dreamers with advance parole.
Children in Mexico working as street vendors made her realize what her life could have been like, she said.
“Seeing the children working, trying to make a living, it makes me feel privileged,” Guillen said. “I understand why my family made the decision to come to the U.S.”
During her trip, she reunited with Sergio Rene, a cousin who is like an older brother to her, and met his two children, ages 6 and 4, for the first time. The differences in opportunity that Rene and Guillen have had in life illustrate the importance of the DACA program, Guillen said.
They crossed the border together in 1999 and were raised together until Rene graduated from high school and realized that as an unauthorized immigrant, he wouldn’t be able to go to college in the U.S.
He moved back to Mexico when Guillen was 15. He went to a university for a while, he said, and now works in Mexico City’s tourism industry.
One of their last memories together is dancing a tango at Guillen’s quinceañera. Rene, now 34, still keeps a photo of the moment on his phone.
Right after Guillen graduated from high school in 2012, Obama introduced the DACA program. With the ability to work legally to pay for her education, Guillen, now 23, recently graduated with a bachelor’s degree from San Diego State.
Had he stayed in the U.S., Rene would have qualified for DACA as well, Guillen said.
“I think that mostly sucks,” Guillen said. “The opportunities that were given to me were not given to him. I know we had the same potential.”
When he looks at his cousin’s life, Rene said, he feels proud.
“I never thought I would see her doing what she’s doing,” he said.
The most important thing Guillen gained from the trip, she said, was a fuller sense of self. Before her journey, she felt disconnected from Mexico, an important part of her identity.
“What resonates most is to embrace the fact that I am from both,” Guillen said. “I am binational. I am bicultural.”
Growing up in San Diego, she said, she avoided going too far south for fear of making a wrong turn and ending up on the other side of a line she could not recross. When she passed the “Last USA exit” sign on purpose last week, she said, reality hit her.
On Monday morning, as she ate her last meal in Mexico, chilaquiles with salsa verde, Guillen’s nerves took away her appetite.
Christian Ramirez and Andrea Guerrero, who both work with Guillen at Alliance San Diego, accompanied her across the border. Ramirez made jokes to distract her and took her through deep-breathing exercises as they waited for about an hour and 45 minutes to get to the front of the line. Because of Guillen’s advance parole, a border official sent the car to secondary inspection, where Guillen was taken inside a building for questioning.
While she was inside, another official searched the hood and trunk of Ramirez’s car. He rapped his knuckles against the doors to listen for signs that something might be stashed there.
When Guillen returned about 15 minutes later, she was glowing with happiness and relief. As Ramirez drove his car toward San Diego, Guillen called her mother to tell her that she was home.
She hopes that one day she will be able to visit Mexico again, as long as she can still come back.