Dreamer Sees Path to Escape Immigration Limbo

Jacob and Olivia watch a silly dog video at their home in San Francisco. This is one of the ways they de-stress and get away from the uncertainty surrounding Olivia's undocumented status. (Ryan Levi/KQED)

It’s a week into Donald Trump’s presidency, and Olivia is scared -- so scared that she doesn’t want to use her real name or her husband's in this story.

The 28-year-old grew up as an undocumented immigrant in San Jose and is one of hundreds of thousands protected under Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). That protection and her welcoming community used to make her feel safe.

Then Trump, who had promised to end DACA, was elected president.

“I come home, and she's just not there,” says her husband, Jacob, about arriving home the day after the election. “It just looked like she was just physically here, but her mind was just kind of gone. Like she doesn't know what to actually think or do.”

Olivia’s first concern was not for herself, but for her younger brother, also a DACA recipient.

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“I've always been kind of my brother's second mom, so when this all happened I just thought, ‘What is going to happen to [him]?’ ” she says. “I have an option that he doesn't.”

Olivia’s option

Jacob is a U.S. citizen, and through their marriage, Olivia can apply for a green card and legal status.

“I never pressured him to marry because I didn't need it,” Olivia says of their four-year courtship. DACA gave her a way to work and protection from deportation, so she felt OK. “If we were going to get married, it was going to come from him.”

Jacob proposed to Olivia last July, and the two started planning a wedding for fall 2017. They booked the Dutch Windmill in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park.

“I was finally going to have the wedding that I had always envisioned,” Olivia says, “but then Nov. 8 happened, and I panicked.”

Olivia and Jacob share a moment after their civil ceremony at the Palace of Fine Arts in December 2016. They wanted to get married and start Olivia's application for legal status before President Trump took office.
Olivia and Jacob share a moment after their civil ceremony at the Palace of Fine Arts in December 2016. They wanted to get married and start Olivia's application for legal status before President Trump took office. (Photo courtesy of Olivia)

The dream wedding went out the window, and the two eloped in a small ceremony at the Palace of Fine Arts in December. They wanted to have their marriage finalized and her legalization application submitted before Trump took office.

The rushed wedding had an added level of tension: Jacob’s family didn’t know about Olivia’s undocumented status.

“The wedding wasn't what it should have been because there was so much tension because people didn't know why they were there at the time,” Olivia says.

They didn’t tell his family until recently.

“They were very understanding and supportive,” she says. “I didn’t want them thinking that I'm only with him for that, that I'm taking advantage of the situation. They reassured me that they would never think that.”

Coming to the United States

Olivia remembers the day 20 years ago when her dad left their family home in Tepic, Mexico, to cross the border.

“He grabbed the suitcase, and I didn’t understand the magnitude of what was happening,” she says. “He walked out, and my mom started crying.”

While her dad worked in the Central Valley picking grapes and peaches, the rest of the family -- Olivia, her mom and her younger brother -- struggled to make ends meet in Mexico. Olivia remembers nights when her mom had only enough money left for the bus home from work, leaving nothing for extra food.

“It was going from bad to worse,” she says of that time.

After two years, her dad saved enough money to bring the rest of the family to the states. Olivia, then 10, and her 7-year-old brother crossed first -- without their mom -- and made it. But when their mom later made the attempt, she collapsed in the desert and was picked up by the Border Patrol.

Olivia says her mom was ready to stay in Mexico and wanted the kids to come back. But her dad convinced Olivia's mom to try again, and this time, she made it.

Olivia and Jacob walk together after their civil ceremony at the Palace of Fine Arts in December 2016.
Olivia and Jacob walk together after their civil ceremony at the Palace of Fine Arts in December 2016. (Photo courtesy of Olivia)

“I remember seeing my mom, and it was probably the best feeling,” Olivia says. “It’s been hard, but we’re together, and that’s all that matters.”

Most people in her situation -- "Dreamers" trying to become legal through marriage -- would have to leave the country for years while trying to adjust their status, but Olivia is lucky. When her father first crossed into the U.S. from Mexico 20 years ago, his sister put Olivia and her family on a waiting list to get a green card under a now-expired program.

Olivia is grandfathered into that program, meaning she can pay a $1,000 fine and process her paperwork here in the U.S.

‘There’s so much uncertainty'

Since the election, Olivia has tried to avoid the news because of the uncertainty and fear around Trump’s immigration policy. She and her husband don’t watch the news, and she does her best to stay off Facebook. She’s thrown herself into her work as a high school Spanish teacher and started working as an assistant coach for the girls' soccer team.

Olivia looks at pictures of dogs on Instagram to help her de-stress and keep her mind off of the news surrounding immigration policy.
Olivia looks at pictures of dogs on Instagram to help her destress and keep her mind off the news surrounding immigration policy. (Ryan Levi/KQED)

Most of her players are also her students, and she peppers soccer practice with bits of Spanish. Calls of “Profe!” -- the term Spanish students use to refer to their teachers -- ring out across the field. She smiles and laughs with the girls, clearly enjoying the respite from the world.

But she can never truly get away. After practice, she expresses fear after hearing about a Dreamer in Mississippi who was detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) for speaking out about her status.

“There's so much uncertainty, and it just makes you feel so helpless that you just have to sit back and wait. It's not a nice way to live,” she says. “There isn't protection for people with DACA. There just isn't.”

Looking forward

As part of her application process, in March, immigration officials fingerprinted and vetted Olivia through a system of over a hundred security checks. If everything checks out, she should get a work permit in the next several months, giving Olivia a way to work legally in the U.S. even if the administration ends DACA.

The final step is an interview in which Jacob and Olivia will be grilled on the details of their relationship to prove their marriage is legitimate.

“We have to know pretty common things or things that we would know if we lived together,” Olivia says, "but Jacob forgets things easily.”

Jacob doesn't like the idea that he has to prove his love for Olivia to someone else.

“We shouldn't have to do this,” he says. “We love each other. We take care of each other. We've been there for each other since the beginning.”

The couple's lawyer is confident Olivia's undocumented status won’t be a stumbling block.

“But that's right now,” Olivia says. “We may get our appointment for interview end of October or November. That's a long time from now."

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