Roughly 2800 immigrants living in Iowa who were brought to the U.S. as children are now participating in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals or DACA program.
Under the program, they are freed from the threat of deportation, and granted work permits and other privileges.
Now DACA is threatened by an order from President Trump.
Two Iowa sisters wonder how their lives might be changed.
Five years ago, Monica Reyes, 22, and her sister Nilvea, 21, were living with their mother in New Hampton.
Both undocumented, they’d been working long hours at any jobs they could get that didn’t demand papers, dropping in and out of college as they struggled to pay tuition.
They described how thrilled they were that they’d just been approved for DACA.
“The first thing that came to mind is that I would finally be able to work somewhere better, better-paying,” Monica said. “I was extremely happy.”
“That same day we rushed down to our local Social Security office to apply for a Social Security number,” Nilvia added.
Driver’s licenses soon followed. With papers in hand, the sisters have thrived.
Nilvia lives in a one-story home near a pretty park in Waterloo. She’s married now with a daughter, and she and her husband bought the house last year with the help of her better-paying job.
“Five years ago with the announcement of DACA, it was monumental for my sister and I,” Nilvia said. “We were able to start working in places we were qualified for and could make more money and continue going to school that way.”
Nilvia worked her way up to a position in customer service at a mortgage company in Waterloo.
“Right now the job that I’ve been working at I’ve been at for 3 1/2 years, and I continue to move up and up within that company,” she said. “It’s a job that I would never have been able to do before I had a work permit,” she added.
Nilvia is also enrolled at UNI, and is one semester away from finishing her degree.
But the family’s well-laid plan may soon go awry.
Nilvia is preparing for losing her job if DACA is rescinded. The family is pinching pennies, and she’s dropping out of school to save money:
“It’s a really big decision and it’s frustrating especially now that I'm so close,” Nilvia said. “But if I had to go back to another job that pays significantly less we would need all the savings we could get right now.”
Monica is married now, too, and a homeowner living and working in Des Moines.
When she was approved for DACA, like Nilvia, she got a better job.
“So that within a year I was able to buy a house,” Monica said. “I worked my butt off and saved all I could so I could reach the American dream of owning a home.
“Once I accomplished that goal I stopped working 75 hours a week,” she added with a laugh. “I went back to school, to focus on my school and my career.”
First she worked her way up from teller to loan officer at a bank.
“In the financial world, the first thing they’ll do is verify that you can legally work,” she said.
Now she has what she calls her dream job at a mortgage company processing loans for immigrant families.
It wasn’t exactly a surprise when President Trump announced that DACA will end unless Congress acts.
“The moment I sent my application the first time I knew that at any moment even the president who implemented it could take it away,” she said.
So Monica is preparing to not be able to legally work in January of 2019 when her DACA permit expires.
“I’m preparing a plan B on how to work and still make a living in a more undocumented way,” she said.
Advocates for Iowa’s DACA recipients say the sisters are not alone in worrying about jobs, bills and mortgages.
“That’s typical across the state,” said Erica Johnson at the American Friends Service Committee.
DACA recipients are sometimes referred to as Dreamers, named for the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act introduced in Congress in 2001.
Johnson works with Dreamers all over Iowa.
“When people were granted a work permit and a driver license they were able to get higher paying jobs so many have careers, including Monica and Nilvia,” Johnson said. “These are folks who have grown up, they've made investments, made families so the prospect of that uncertainty and how I’m going to provide for my family that's a scary moment.”
Johnson says in other ways the Reyes sisters are not typical. They have been some of the most vocal advocates for other Dreamers, founding an alliance called Dream Iowa, and speaking out on immigration issues.
Talking to the Reyes women, it appears that not being able to pay their bills if DACA goes away worries them at least as much as the threat of deportation.
“The deportation thing?” Monica said. “That’s the reality I lived in since I was three.”
The sisters say before DACA, they tended to hide their immigration status. Childhood friends knew them for years before they found out they were undocumented. And even after DACA, at first when they talked
to the media it was with assumed names.
Now they can’t imagine going back to that.
“If DACA is taken away and I am not allowed any legal protection from deportation, yeah, I'll have that cloud hanging over me again,” Monica said. “But I won't let it affect me.”
“I’ve told many people if DACA is rescinded I refuse to go back into the shadows,” Nilvia added.
Nilva says when she imagines being deported, it’s being sent to Mexico with Monica and their mom as part of a mass deportation.
“If it were to come down to that, no amount of preparation would be enough so I just prepare for losing my job,” she said.