The bittersweet stories of Atlanta’s DACA recipients

Uprooted as children from countries around the world, six metro Atlantans talk about their struggles, successes, and the weight of uncertainty

Atlanta Dreamers

Photographs by Fernando Decillis

Announced by then President Barack Obama in the summer of 2012, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy allows renewable two-year respite from deportation for undocumented immigrants who entered the United States before they turned 16. For thousands across Atlanta, the program brought relief and the right to legally drive and obtain Social Security numbers, but the Trump administration’s efforts to rescind DACA and resulting court battles have left recipients in a state of anxious flux.

To qualify for DACA, immigrants must be current students or have earned at least high school diplomas. Recipients cannot have been convicted of any felonies or significant misdemeanors such as DUI. Protection may also be available to veterans or those serving in the military, though there have been recent reports of quiet discharges.

According to the Migration Policy Institute, roughly 680,000 DACA recipients are scattered throughout the United States, with about 21,000 of them in Georgia. No one tracks the number of DACA recipients at county or city levels, but according to David Schaefer, the Latin American Association managing director of advocacy, it’s a safe bet more than 12,000 live in Atlanta and surrounding counties. Here, six metro Atlanta DACA recipients born in countries around the world discuss their dreams, setbacks, achievements, survival, and what it’s been like to skirt federal and state laws in pursuit of better lives in America. Comments have been edited for length and clarity. —as told to Josh Green

Atlanta Dreamers
Yehimi Cambrón

Photograph by Fernando Decillis

Yehimi Cambrón
26, Buford Highway corridor
Art teacher and artist, Cross Keys High School

One of the first things I tell my students is that I’m undocumented and I have DACA. I do that because I want them to see someone with DACA in a leadership position, with a career, and for them to be able to connect—if they’re undocumented or not. I want my students to know I am their ally.

[One day], I heard a student crying in the restroom. Another student opened the door for me, and I realized she was translating for a police officer for a family member who didn’t speak English. The officer was asking for someone with a driver’s license to go there and pick up the car because he was arresting this relative who did not have a license. She had made [an illegal] right turn. I was able to leave school to meet them. The officer was great; he gave me directions. When I arrived, the driver was already handcuffed in the back seat. I explained the impact that the arrest could have due to the danger of deportation. The officer asked a lot of questions. Then, he used his discretion to just give her a ticket. Growing up undocumented has given me these survival instincts. I am willing to take a risk to make sure that a student has their parent at home when they leave school, to make sure that they are not in survival mode so that they can learn and have access to an equitable education. It’s about humanity and equity.

“That’s where I learned to see art as a platform for change. I want to help my students find that relief that I found in art. I want to empower people.”

I was able to get special permission to visit Mexico for a teacher conference, and I was able to visit my family. And that came with its own realizations—like, whoa. I was born in a little tiny town in the mountains. My dad was working in the U.S. and returning and building a better home each time: The first house was made of this compressed cardboard; the second was made of wood; the third of concrete. I never realized why we were so poor when my dad was always working. Why did my mom sell tortillas? Why were we always eating lentils and soups? I asked my grandma to take me to the house where we grew up. And I was like, all these years of being a broken family was for this? The house was abandoned; the door was dislodged. It was heartbreaking to see so much sacrifice went into that.

Our plan was to save up and return [to Mexico] after five years. My brothers asked our cousins to take care of their bikes because we were coming back. But your children start growing up here, and they become Americans because they grow up just like the other kids. It’s not until adulthood that you transition into that illegality. We just adapted so well.

Atlanta Dreamers
Yehimi Cambrón

Photograph by Fernando Decillis

My sophomore year in high school, I entered an art contest hosted by the Georgia Commission on the Holocaust. I got third place. I went to the Georgia Capitol for an awards ceremony, where I was supposed to get, like, 50 bucks. They didn’t give me my prize because I didn’t have a Social Security number. I think that was the moment when I realized that being undocumented meant I didn’t have certain things.

My work permit expires in February 2019. I’ve applied for a renewal, but I haven’t heard back. I hate that I have to think about my time in the classroom being limited because I’ve dreamed about this for so long. My high school yearbook says, “I want to be an art teacher when I grow up.” I have this time bomb on my shoulders; I’m worried about what’s going to happen next in this limbo.

I studied art, and I went to Agnes Scott College on a full scholarship from the Goizueta Foundation. That’s where I learned to see art as a platform for change. I want to help my students find that relief that I found in art. I want to empower people.

[On the side of a Buford Highway restaurant] is my first mural. Half is a monarch butterfly; half is an open book. The center is a pencil, and above it, the text reads: “We are all immigrants.” The statement is meant to get people to think about this country’s history of immigration and of their own immigration story (if they have one), even if it’s generations back. As human beings, we would all migrate to other lands if it meant survival and better opportunities for those we love. I don’t think it matters if you’re undocumented, if you have DACA, if your parents are undocumented, or if you’re a fifth-generation immigrant: Everybody can connect with the symbol. It’s such a natural thing to want to bring your children to where they’re going to thrive, to have access to opportunities. I think that’s what the monarch butterfly represents. I can’t wait to paint more murals.

In fact, I was just chosen as a participating artist for Off the Wall, highlighting Atlanta’s civil rights and social justice journey, being led by WonderRoot and the Atlanta Super Bowl Host Committee. I will use this platform to elevate a narrative that the media and politicians have tried to take away from us by criminalizing our parents—the #OriginalDreamers—and many other immigrants who don’t fit the romanticized “Dreamer” narrative.

Atlanta Dreamers
Seon Ki Jo

Photograph by Fernando Decillis

Seon Ki Jo
19, Duluth
Georgia State University student, public policy major

My DACA expires in 2019. I do think about it occasionally. Once DACA expires, I won’t be able to drive, work, maybe not go to school anymore. I know I probably sound very naive in saying this, but I do have faith in this country, that this country will come together to solve this issue before my DACA expires.

Georgia State does allow DACA recipients to go to their school, but they don’t give these students in-state tuition. I am taking out loans and working to afford college.

I feel like fate is calling me to do immigration law. I do foresee myself generally working in politics. Either as a lawyer or midlevel bureaucrat, whatever works to forward the issue. I’m just starting out, and I hope my experience can highlight other young people who are doing good work, too.

“I never really thought of myself as different. I didn’t have an idea of being not American.”

I’d always dreamed, honestly, of going to UGA or Tech or something like that, but after learning about not being documented [in high school], I wondered, what’s the point of doing all the work? It weighed on me heavily. One time, my friends were going on a trip to Mexico and wondered why I couldn’t come. Having to explain why I couldn’t was a little humiliating, even though they were my close friends, telling them I’m different—maybe even lesser—than they are in this country. Not being able to go on those trips was jarring. Not too great for my young, high-school psyche, you know.

I recited the Pledge and sang “The Star-Spangled Banner” alongside everyone else. I spoke English most of my life—I’m better at English than Korean, by far. I never really thought of myself as different. I didn’t have an idea of being not American.

It’s not a minor inconvenience. It’s a pressing national issue. I think a lot of the animosity toward DACA recipients and immigration has a lot to do with a lack of information. We’re not criminals, we’re not dealing drugs, not going to prison. We go to college or high school, have jobs, pay taxes—we pretty much are the community. These are your nurses, your teachers, shop owners, friends. That’s what I think a lot of Americans don’t understand: We’re just like you.

My mom actually came on a work visa when I was three or four. She was working at a Korean restaurant—there’s a lot of those in Duluth. The growing Korean presence had a big part in bringing us to the area, and Gwinnett in general has very good education for children.

If there was a need to speak Korean, we would, but most of my friends didn’t really feel the need to connect to our cultural roots when we were younger. For the most part, I grew up in a very supportive and loving community. I never really faced racism or stereotypical discrimination, anything like that, from peers or teachers. My teachers never got my name—Seon ki—wrong because they’re so used to having Koreans in their classes. Honestly, I don’t think I could have asked for anything better.

Atlanta Dreamers
Marie Cruzado-Jeanneau

Photograph by Fernando Decillis

Marie Cruzado-Jeanneau
24, Lawrenceville
Bilingual outreach specialist, Agape Youth and Family Center

Coming to Atlanta was my first time on an airplane. I was incredibly emotional because we were leaving my extended family behind in Peru—my aunts, uncles, cousins, a full neighborhood, my pets. Latino families are pretty big, you know. I was asking my mom if we really had to do this. She said that my dad was waiting for us, that it was really important for our well-being that we did this. I moved to Gwinnett County when I was 10. I’d never been anywhere other than Lima and the market down the street, or to a town that was close. Seeing my dad after being apart was very emotional.

In Peru, my dad worked at a bank. He was studying economics, but there was an economic and political crisis, so he was unable to finish his degree and he lost his job. He tried to establish his own business, but that didn’t go well, which prompted him to come to Atlanta. He’s been working at warehouses ever since he settled here. He’s always behind the curtains, you know, either packing something in a box, or carrying something, or cleaning up. It’s not the work I think any immigrant parent expects to do, but it pays the bills, provides for the family, and put me through college.

Sometimes my parents’ phones would die, and I would be waiting at home, wondering why they weren’t there yet. We would hear there was a raid going on down the street. Or that immigration was breaking down doors, taking families. In school [in Norcross], I think it was fifth grade, our counselor came in the class and said, “We know we have a lot of undocumented students here, but we want you to know if ICE ever comes to the school property, we’ll never let them take you.”

“I love Atlanta. I love how diverse it is. I love how—even though Georgia, as a whole, hasn’t been as welcoming—Atlanta has been more open to us.”

I begged my parents to go back, but that was never an option for me. I just felt really disconnected from my community, from my culture. But when I was in middle school, I started to dance folkloric dances from Peru and got involved with volunteering at elementary schools. Getting involved in my community helped me gain more of a sense of my identity. I think that’s when things changed for me a lot.

All of us had come with tourist visas, and we overstayed. My dream had been to go to UGA, but [being undocumented], I had to pursue another route. It was like a slap in the face. But teachers and mentors helped me find solutions, and I was able to attend Oglethorpe University, a private university that doesn’t follow the same procedures. Maybe halfway through my college career, I decided to really devote myself to giving back to my community, to those who have been marginalized, who didn’t have the same opportunities and tools to succeed. I wanted to be the person who would be there to help them, just like I had been guided and given opportunities when I most needed it. At Agape Youth & Family Center, I now work with about 50 students from kindergarten to fifth grade. I provide in-school and after-school support to each of them by identifying areas of growth and being the liaison between the school and the families our center supports.

I love Atlanta. I love how diverse it is. I love how—even though Georgia, as a whole, hasn’t been as welcoming—Atlanta has been more open to us. I think Atlanta provides a lot of opportunities, not only for Dreamers but for those people looking for a new life.

I haven’t been back to Peru in 14 years. I wish. I really wish. It’s very difficult because when you have family that is really close to you die, or when exciting things happen to your family, the only communication we have is through a phone. A text message or video chat is not the same as holding your family members, giving them a hug. But I think the time will come. Don’t you think?

Atlanta Dreamers
Katherine Narvaez

Photograph by Fernando Decillis

Katherine Narvaez
24, Norcross
Program coordinator for the Center for Pan Asian Community Services

Our journey to Atlanta took almost a year. I left Guatemala when I was six. I remember being in the capital city. We were doing well until my mother lost her job. Sometimes, my mom and [two] brothers and I, we would only have two eggs to eat. We’d sleep on the floor. I did come from an abusive father. And my mom was like, “Welp, we either stay here or try to get to America and hopefully have a better life.”

We trekked through Mexico by foot or by bus. We had absolutely no money and only clothes to last a week. We went from church to church, asking for shelter, for food. My mom and my brother would work in cafeterias and iron clothes for money. I remember walking through the desert for a few hours and then we got to the river. I remember a coyote [smuggler] threw a life [preserver], and we literally swam across the river. All we had in our possession was a bag, and it contained one dress for me, one for my mom, and a pair of slacks and a shirt for both my brothers. We got to this side [in Texas], and we put our good clothes on. And we walked. And walked.

My mother left my brother and me near Brownsville, in the care of a person from church that she did not know, while she traveled to Houston with my eldest brother. She came back for us later. In Houston, my mother and eldest brother worked in a shrimp factory removing heads from shrimp. They got $2 per gallon of shrimp. We used this money to travel to Georgia. My mother had friends in Atlanta. I think we just took a bus.

“We were uprooted from the country we were born in, planted ourselves in this soil, and America has fed and watered us for decades now…It’s harsh to send us back when our roots are so deep.”

In elementary school, people thought I was dumb because I didn’t respond. I remember I was getting bullied, and I couldn’t say the word “stop.” I knew that I was undocumented, but I didn’t really know what that meant. It wasn’t until I was in high school, and I enrolled in the [U.S. Navy] JROTC program, and I was the top cadet not only at my school but in the Southeast. And my area commander tells me, “If you apply for the Naval scholarship, I will give it to you.” I was really excited—it was a full ride! Then, I started looking at the application. I realized you had to be an American citizen. That’s when it finally hit me. And it was like this ball that just kept hitting me in the face. I started looking [at colleges] outside of Georgia.

Growing up here, I watched my mom struggle to keep afloat. She’d work three or four jobs, cleaning houses, working at Value City and as a bell ringer for Salvation Army. Sometimes, she’d leave for three or four days so she could go clean up fairs. It forced my brothers and me to grow up quickly; we didn’t really enjoy our childhood. I was the youngest, and I think my family just wanted me to make it, you know, to go to college.

I got a full-ride academic scholarship to Mary Baldwin University in Virginia. I double-majored in biomedical sciences and business administration and double-minored in Spanish and leadership studies. I took the MCAT to go to medical school. I’m looking at Emory.

I want to be a reconstructive surgeon but kind of a missionary as well. I want to focus on cranial-facial surgery, so I can help kids born with genetic disorders. Or burn victims.

People are always like, “Why don’t you apply [for citizenship] like everybody else?” It’s really hard. We have people waiting years before they can even submit an application, or they submit an application and wait years to hear back.

With DACA recipients, you are honestly getting the best of the best. No criminal record, kids who are educated, working hard. We’ve been here the majority of our lives. We were uprooted from the country we were born in, planted ourselves in this soil, and America has fed and watered us for decades now. You’ve invested so much in us and allowed us to bloom and flourish. We went through your schools. We work at your nonprofits, alongside you. It’s harsh to send us back when our roots are so deep.

Atlanta Dreamers
Raymond Partolan

Photograph by Fernando Decillis

Raymond Partolan
25, Atlanta
Immigration paralegal with Kuck Baxter Immigration

I came to the United States when I was 15 months old, and I have absolutely no recollection of the Philippines. When I was 10, growing up in Macon, our applications for permanent residency, or a green card, were denied. We became undocumented, and I remember my mother telling me we’d just become illegal aliens and that I couldn’t share that with anyone because we could be deported. Being the kid that I was, I went up to my best friend in elementary school and told him I’m an illegal alien. And he just laughed. He said I can’t be because I’m not green and from outer space. I remember thinking that this can’t be that bad.

It wasn’t until I got to high school that I started realizing the implications. When your friends start getting driver’s licenses and jobs and preparing for college, you start to understand what it is to be undocumented. I was at the top of my class, had a 4.0 GPA, graduated as the salutatorian, and spoke at my graduation with thousands of people there. Yet I knew that no matter how hard I worked, there was still this very likely chance that I wasn’t going to be able to go to college. That hung over my head for so long, it just led to my deterioration emotionally.

I actually tried to take my own life because I thought there was no way I was going to be able to accomplish what I wanted. This was the fall of 2009, in my junior year of high school. I swallowed a whole bunch of Tylenol. I had written a suicide note that apologized to my parents and siblings for what I had decided to do. I was lying on the bathroom floor of my parents’ house, and I just thought to myself, Why am I doing this? I have so much to offer. I ran downstairs and told my parents what I had done. They were astounded. They called the Poison Control Center and [got me to vomit] all of the Tylenol. When I survived, that’s when I had my birth as an activist for the immigrant community. I didn’t want anyone else in my situation to feel as alone or trapped as I did. But that suicide attempt actually precluded me from being able to enlist in the U.S. Army, years later. In 2015, they were allowing DACA recipients with certain special skills and language abilities to enlist, but I was barred. There was a questionnaire, and I answered the questions truthfully, not thinking it would be an issue. So, the reason I tried to take my life is I didn’t have a pathway to citizenship, but when I eventually did, I wasn’t able to take that path.

“When I survived, that’s when I had my birth as an activist for the immigrant community. I didn’t want anyone else in my situation to feel as alone or trapped as I did.”

We entered the United States on a skilled worker visa. For my father’s profession at the time—he was a physical therapist—it was required for him to pass a series of English exams in order to qualify for a green card. He passed the reading, writing, and listening sections with flying colors, but the speaking section, he just could not pass, no matter how many times he took it. He would come within mere points of passing, but because he couldn’t, the federal government would no longer allow him to practice physical therapy.

He lost his license to practice physical therapy, and so he was unemployed. My mom had to pick up four jobs to support our family of five. She went from being a paralegal in the Philippines to working at Chick-fil-A and Golden Corral and cleaning hotel rooms and houses. Eventually, my dad found work down in Macon. He went from caring for his patients to moving boxes and loading trucks in a warehouse. We explored [returning to the Philippines] or immigrating to somewhere like Canada, but we decided to stay because this is where we’d begun to build our foundation. My two younger brothers have never been anywhere else. And it was always my parents’ dream to come to the United States and make a life for themselves.

I look at my life, and [after graduating from Mercer University], I work at one of the nation’s best immigration law firms, and I’m a consultant for a national voting rights organization for Asian Americans, and actually, last summer, I was named [by the Georgia Asian Times] one of the top 25 most influential Asian Americans in Georgia. None of this would have been possible if it weren’t for my parents’ sacrifice. I try to remember that every single day. I call them the Original Dreamers.

Atlanta Dreamers
Rigo Rivera

Photograph by Fernando Decillis

Rigo Rivera
28, Roswell
Restaurant employee, student organizer with Georgia Undocumented Youth Alliance

I started going to college back in 2009, to Georgia Perimeter. But I couldn’t continue my studies because of the cost. I was a low-income student, and [undocumented students] pay out-of-state tuition. I had to help my family with debts and bills, so I had to drop out and continue to work. And I haven’t finished. Currently, no, I’m not taking classes. I hope to study law one day. Right now, I help my parents with a cleaning company, and I work at a restaurant. I’m a prep [cook].

Before DACA, [we only drove] out of necessity. Sometimes I would take a taxi, or I’d carpool with friends. I would avoid driving at night, at all costs. There are more roadblocks, et cetera. Back then, I was thinking if I did any infraction, no matter how small it was, I could end up in deportation proceedings. That was always in my mind. I could have ended up in deportation proceedings for anything—even just calling police to report a crime.

I received DACA in 2013. It was a big relief for me and my family. Here in Georgia, it’s very difficult to live without a Social Security number, driver’s license, or work permit. Getting credit is one of the main things I use my Social Security number for. Another is setting up utilities and many services that are needed just to survive. Even getting an apartment was hard before. Just small things make an immigrant’s life harder.

“I just hope that we can touch [Americans’] hearts and have their opinions change because of the hard work we do here in the state and in the U.S.”

We have been here since we were young, and we don’t know any other countries. And we’re not taking [Americans’] benefits because we don’t qualify, and we’re taking jobs many of them don’t want. We pay our taxes. We don’t have criminal records, because criminals aren’t able to get DACA. We’re paying into Social Security, but we’re not getting any of the money back, ever. We’re actually helping the economy. I just hope that we can touch [Americans’] hearts and have their opinions change because of the hard work we do here in the state and in the U.S.

I was in Tampico, Mexico, until I was nine years old. We were a low-income family. First, my dad immigrated to Chicago back in 1994. When I was nine years old, my parents decided to move to the U.S., to Atlanta. And they left me with my grandma back in Mexico. I stayed until they sent for me. I came with a family member, and I crossed legally, but it wasn’t with my [correct] documents. Back on December 27, 1999, that’s when I crossed the border. That was exactly on my birthday.

From Brownsville, [Texas], we took a Greyhound into Houston. I couldn’t actually believe it, that I was coming to meet my parents. I got to Houston and saw all the buildings—I’d never seen that. Everything was new to me. I saw so many people not like us. It was a big change. Everything was strange to me. The first thing that I had for lunch was McDonald’s. I’d seen commercials about it, and I was like, “Wow, it’s just like on the TV!”

This article appears in our October 2018 issue.