By Jessica Colotl
Until a few weeks ago, I was working as a paralegal at an immigration law firm in a suburb of Atlanta. I was saving money for law school and hoped to practice as an immigration attorney. Then, my world came crashing down: I was told that the U.S. government revoked my status as a recipient of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), an Obama-era policy that gives work and study permits to undocumented young people who arrived in the U.S. as children. Now I can’t work or drive and I’m afraid to leave the house, because without DACA, I have no legal permission to be here.
What happened to me could happen to any one of the 750,000 young people whose entire lives depend on this lifeline the U.S. government extended us through the DACA program.
When I first came to the United States from Mexico, I was 11 years old and had no idea my family had no status. But I noticed my dad, who had been a truck driver in Mexico, was nervous about driving. Before getting into the car, he’d walk around it to check that all its lights were working, and he’d make sure that we all had our seat belts buckled—doing whatever he could to preempt any reason for being pulled over by the police. Once, when he was cited with a traffic violation, my parents were deeply upset. My siblings and I didn’t understand why; they told us it was because my dad didn’t have a Social Security number. I didn’t know what that meant, but I knew something more was wrong.
In high school, reality hit me in the face when a teacher passed around paperwork for a drivers’ education class. “Please make sure you fill out this form,” she said. The form asked for my Social Security number. I wanted to ask the school counselor for my number—maybe she knew it—but I remembered the incident with my father. If my parents didn’t have a Social Security number, it probably meant none of us did. For the first time, it dawned on me that my parents’ problem could impact me too. I wondered: Is this going to stop me from driving? What else is it going to prevent me from doing? I felt helpless, like no amount of hard work could fix this.
After a day of worrying, I went to the high school’s guidance counselor, who told me just to write down my student ID number. But from then on, I felt anxious all the time. As my siblings and I grew up, we were facing more and more paperwork of adulthood. I knew my student ID number couldn’t fill in forever. I had the sense that my future was suddenly on a different path than my friends’, that the steps that everybody else was taking toward adulthood might not work for me.
My parents worked nights, cleaning empty office buildings from 5 p.m. to 5 a.m. They always told me that education would bring a better life. I took Advanced Placement classes, joined the French club and dreamed of being the first in my family to finish high school and go to college.
But my missing Social Security number kept coming up. Unlike my friends, I couldn’t take my driving test or get a license. In school, a teacher said we’d need our Social Security numbers to take the practice SAT—later, she told me privately just to write in my student ID number, and I took the test. Then at a college fair, recruiters wanted my Social Security number, too. I was devastated and worried I couldn’t make college happen. Education, the path that my parents had promised could lead to a better life, looked like an impossibility for me.
The next year, my junior year, a Latina recruiter invited me to attend a college fair for Latino students, and I started to wonder if college might be possible after all. I got up my courage and decided to ask one of the recruiters, “What about students who don’t have a Social Security number?” After I said it, I thought, Oh my God, did I just really ask that? I just revealed myself! But he told me undocumented students can attend college. I wanted to cry, not only because my world suddenly felt full of possibility, but because he had given a word to my family’s situation: undocumented. Hearing that word made me feel I was part of something larger; there were others like me.
Now that I had a word for my status and the hope that it wouldn’t prevent me from pursuing my education, I had a plan for what I’d do after graduating from high school: I’d go to college. At Kennesaw State University, I worked hard and often fell asleep studying on my living room floor. Initially, I felt like my responsibilities left little time for a social life. But after a while, I made friends. I met people like me—others who were the first in their families to go to college, people who wanted to make a difference in the world. I became a founding member of our school’s chapter of the Lambda Theta Alpha Latin sorority. School suddenly seemed fun, and I began to feel like I had a place.
That all changed in a single day during my senior year in 2010. I was parking a car and a campus security officer said I was obstructing traffic. He asked for my driver’s license, and I didn’t have one to give him.
I was arrested and taken to a holding cell in the Cobb County jail, a big room with bunks all around it full of women. The next day, Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents arrived to ask me a bunch of questions, and within a few hours they said they were going to deport me to Mexico. Suddenly, all my hard work meant nothing. Whatever else I was, I was undocumented. The word that had once seemed to offer possibility now became a sentence.
I was moved to another jail, and then, about a week after my initial arrest, transferred to Etowah County Detention Center in Gadsden, Alabama, a deteriorating building in the middle of nowhere. Five of us were admitted at the same time, and the officers told us to strip naked and get in the shower together. They brought out a thin hose attached to a machine and sprayed us with some kind of chemical. They took away our clothes and gave us emerald-green uniforms. There are moments that are so degrading, they’re seared on you forever. For me, this was one of them.
Weeks later, there was a pro-immigration rally in Atlanta, and my sorority sisters went, wearing shirts with our Greek letters and carrying signs that said “Todos Somos Jessica”—we are all Jessica. Soon my story was on CNN. I had reached the national news.
Thirty-seven days after my arrest, one of the officers came into my cell. “Jessica, pack your stuff,” she said. “You’re going home.” They were sending me back to Atlanta and releasing me.
After my release, a reporter tried to contact me at the home address a police officer had copied from my ID card during my arrest, but while I was in detention, my parents had moved to a new place in Atlanta out of fear they’d be arrested too. The local sheriff got wind of this and apparently assumed I had given law enforcement a fake address, and nine days after I was released, he charged me with a felony: giving false information to a police officer. Even though I hadn’t done anything wrong, and I pleaded not guilty, I wound up doing community service in a diversion program and the charge was dismissed.
I was both excited and terrified to go back to college. I didn’t know how my classmates would react to me now that I’d become the center of a debate on immigration. Would people would look down on me? Bully me? Would I be able to continue going to school? To my surprise, most people acted the same as usual, and some were especially kind. Some classmates came to talk to me to say, “I don’t really understand what’s going on, but I wish you the best.”
The federal government granted me deferred action, meaning I had permission to go to school and drive and work and continue pursuing my dreams of becoming an immigration attorney, and I wouldn’t be deported. I graduated from college on May 11, 2011. It was the happiest day of my life.
In 2012, when President Barack Obama created the DACA program, finally making the deferred action I received available to hundreds of thousands of Americans. I was elated. The program granted young people whose parents brought them undocumented to the United States as children and who met certain conditions temporary permission to stay in this country and work or study. I felt safe.
In July 2013, the government approved me for DACA, and renewed my status in 2015.
Early last month, I again applied to renew my DACA application, and submitted all the same information about my legal issues as I had the first two times. On May 8, I was told that my DACA had been revoked because of my “criminal history.” Nothing about my legal situation has changed for the past seven years; officials said my “criminal history” was because I was guilty of a felony even though that whole charge was based on a misunderstanding, I pleaded not guilty and it was dismissed. At the end of May, the Department of Homeland Security even admitted in a legal brief that I never had a felony conviction. But they still want to revoke my DACA. My lawyers are asking a judge in an Atlanta court on Thursday to order the government to reconsider my DACA application.
There are 750,000 DACA recipients. We don’t yet know how many of them might be vulnerable to what happened to me. I am lucky to have private lawyers and the ACLU working on my case, but if it hadn’t been for their intervention, officials may never have felt the need to tell me why the government revoked my status. Others in similar situations may not be so lucky.
Last December, then-President-elect Trump said that he want to make Dreamers like me “happy.” “We’re going to work something out,” he promised. “They got brought here at a very young age, they’ve worked here, they’ve gone to school here. Some were good students. Some have wonderful jobs. And they’re in never-never land because they don’t know what’s going to happen.”
We still don’t know what’s going to happen—both to me, and to all the other Dreamers. But if it’s true that Trump wants us to feel “happy” and “proud,” then his administration should at minimum make sure that they are considering our cases fairly.
We do know there are hundreds of thousands of other young Americans who, like me, have stories of struggling parents who came to this country because of the hope it offered. If we are deported, who benefits? Is our country really the better for it?
As I write this in Atlanta, I’m afraid that in a few weeks, I’ll get notice that the government wants to deport me—send me to a country I’ve never known as an adult and force me to start my life over.
DACA helped me to make a life in the community I grew up in and call home. It allowed me to plan for the future—a future that my parents and I have worked so hard to make real. All I want is the opportunity to continue working for that future.