Valeria Sanchez, a college student and Catholic Charities volunteer, helps her younger sister Ibeth with reading and vocabulary practice. Sanchez, who has lived in the U.S. since she was 2 years old, is currently protected from deportation through the federal DACA program. Her parents are still undocumented, while her three younger siblings were born here and are American citizens. Photos by Theresa Laurence
In the Madison home where she lives with her parents and three younger siblings, Valeria Sanchez, 21, sits at the kitchen table underneath a gold-framed print of da Vinci’s “Last Supper,” helping her 6-year-old sister Ibeth read a book. When they finish that, Valeria pulls out a stack of vocabulary flash cards and quizzes her sister, beaming with a mother’s pride at every word the kindergartener gets right.
Valeria, a student at Trevecca Nazarene University who was born in Mexico and brought to the U.S. by her parents when she was 2 years old, is currently one of about 750,000 young adult immigrants protected from deportation through the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA. Her younger siblings, who were born here, are U.S. citizens, fluent in English and fully immersed in American culture. “The younger ones will have more opportunity than me,” Valeria says. “I just want everyone to thrive and do their best.”
Valeria’s parents, who attend church at Sagrado Corazon, currently have no path available to gain legal status if they stay here; they are among the estimated 3.7 million undocumented immigrants living in the U.S. with American-born children, continuing to live under a shadow of uncertainty as they work to carve out a better life for their families.
That uncertainty has grown since the election of President Donald Trump, who made immigration enforcement one of the cornerstones of his campaign and has expanded efforts to deport non-violent, unauthorized immigrants in recent months.
This family, like the millions of other immigrant households with parents and children of mixed legal status, are apprehensive about life under the new administration. “I’m really feeling kind of anxious and sad that all my hard work might be thrown away,” Valeria said, speaking about concerns that the DACA program could be halted, and, worst case scenario, she and her parents could face deportation. “I think everybody in the Hispanic community is scared.”
|Valeria Sanchez, a college student and volunteer with Catholic Charities, is protected from deportation through the DACA program, and is concerned about the future of U.S. immigration policies under the Trump administration. Her parents are still undocumented, while her younger siblings are U.S. citizens.|
Last month, the Department of Homeland Security issued a memo that outlined a policy of enhanced enforcement of existing immigration laws. The memo directs Immigration and Customs Enforcement to hire 10,000 agents, and expands priorities for deportation beyond those convicted of a violent criminal offense.
The expanded priorities include: those who are charged but not convicted of a crime; have misrepresented themselves in any official matter before a governmental agency or engaged in fraud; abused any public benefit program; are subject to a deportation order but have not left the country; or pose a risk to public safety in the judgment of an immigration officer.
Trump and his supporters who are in favor of tougher enforcement of U.S. immigration laws say that undocumented immigrants fill jobs that American citizens could have, and hold down wages for all workers.
Trump, who continues to advocate building a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, has often pointed to criminal acts committed by undocumented immigrants, including drunk driving, rape and gang activity. The Migration Policy Institute has estimated that about 820,000 of the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. have criminal convictions; about 300,000 were felonies.
The vast majority of undocumented immigrants, even if they broke the law by entering the country illegally, strive to stay out of trouble once they are here.
The U.S. bishops in a pastoral reflection released March 22 called all Catholics to do what they can “to accompany migrants and refugees who seek a better life in the United States.”
Titled “Living as a People of God in Unsettled Times,” the reflection urged Catholics to pray for an end to the root causes of violence and other circumstances forcing families to flee their homeland to find a better life; to meet with newcomers in their parishes and “listen to their story, and share your own”; and to call, write or visit their elected representatives to ask them to fix our broken immigration system” in a way that would safeguard the country’s security and “our humanity through a generous opportunity for legal immigration.”
‘Everybody’s just scared’
Some unauthorized immigrants, already used to staying below the radar, are now taking extra precautions to avoid detention.
“Scared is the biggest thing people are feeling right now,” said Donna Gann, Program Coordinator for Catholic Charities of Tennessee’s Immigration Services Department. Calls to Gann’s office have risen about 20 percent in recent months, with immigrants from a number of countries inquiring about how to get their documents in order to prove legal status, and how to qualify for citizenship. Some are immigrants who have lived in the U.S. for many years legally, Gann said, but have never felt the need to pursue citizenship until now.
“I’ve had families in here crying,” she said from her office at the Catholic Pastoral Center. “Everybody’s just scared.”
Gann’s office can only assist immigrants who came to the U.S. legally or who fall under a protected status, but she gets calls from people in all kinds of situations. She tries to walk them through their options, or perhaps their lack of options, in an honest way. “I don’t sugarcoat things or give them false hope,” she said.
One thing Gann can do is point inquirers to the free immigration legal clinics sponsored by Catholic Charities and held at the South Nashville Family Resource Center once a month. During the clinics, immigrants can meet privately with volunteer attorneys from local law firms who can give them sound legal advice on their individual situations.
The clinics are in high demand and fill up quickly; last month attorneys advised 13 people from five different countries. “We’re here to help people who can’t afford a high cost attorney,” Gann said.
Willing to work hard
Valeria, a hardworking and wise-beyond-her-years college junior, volunteers at the Resource Center every week as part of her major in social work. She packs emergency food boxes for people in need, sorts donations, helps with intake interviews and translation, “whatever’s needed,” she said.
She also works in the university library to help pay for her tuition, maintains a 4.0 GPA, and makes sure to help her siblings, ages 12, 8 and 6, with their homework every school night. “You have to show people you’re willing to put in the hard work to get out of that system of poverty,” she said.
For nearly two decades, Valeria’s family has been struggling to live out the mythic American Dream, sometimes unable to put food on the table or pay the rent, other times fearing deportation as the blue lights of a police car summoned them to the side of the road. Such are the risks for living in the U.S. without legal status. But for them, the fears and risks have been worth it; they can see that in the success of their oldest daughter.
Valeria’s parents, who had her when they were teenagers, younger than she is now, were living in what seemed like inescapable poverty in Puebla, Mexico, when they decided to risk everything and illegally cross into the United States in search of a better life for themselves and their 2-year-old daughter. Immigrants from Mexico, like the Sanchezes, make up about 6.2 million of the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the U.S. today.
“Yes, it was a crime,” the way Valeria and her parents entered the United States, she said. “Give us a fine and we’ll pay it.” If they had a way to enter the country legally, they would have, she said.
Valeria, her father, a self-employed painter, and her mother, a stay-at-home mom, would now give anything for a path to become long-term lawful U.S. residents. “All I want is to go to school and see my family,” Valeria said.
Valeria hasn’t seen her grandparents or other family members in Mexico since she was a baby. Thanks to video technology, the family is able to stay in touch, but it’s not the same as in-person visits, she said. Her 12- and 8-year-old siblings traveled to Mexico alone last October to meet their grandparents for the first time. Valeria wanted to visit this summer, “but it’s too much to risk,” she said. “Now we’re afraid to travel.”
While the Sanchez family and millions more like them are concerned about what the future holds for immigrants in the United States, they remain optimistic about their lives here and have no plans to leave. With their strong Catholic faith, they believe God will protect them. “We want to follow the rules and do everything right,” said Valeria. “We want people to see that we’re working as a family to progress.”