“I can’t let the degree that I’ve worked so hard for go to waste”: a Tyler DACA student’s story

Flickr/Wilson Hui

The Tyler Loop is sharing stories of young undocumented East Texans who are worried about the Trump administration’s rumored plan to end DACA, the program that allows them to work legally in the U.S. If DACA ends, one estimate suggests, Texas’s economy could take a $6 billion hit each year.

Orlando, 22, is an engineering major and geology minor at Texas A&M University. He moved to Tyler when he was eight, and he crossed the border with his mom and brother when he was about four. He wants to work in the oil and gas industry as a reservoir engineer.

Orlando knows there’s a chance he might not be able to work when he graduates school next year. It all depends on what the Trump administration decides to do with DACA. He says it would be a shame if the education he’s gained in America couldn’t be used in this country, but if he has to end up moving and using his skills elsewhere, he will. “I can’t let the degree that I’ve worked so hard for go to waste,” he says.

This is Orlando’s story, the final installment of our series. 

“I study engineering at Texas A&M, in my last year as an undergrad. I also work at a geology lab on campus, where I work in a repository, a big freezer where they store rock cores so they don’t develop mold or bacteria. We cut out samples of the rock and mail them to scientists who need them for their research. This work isn’t super-closely related to my field, but it does have benefits because I’m getting a minor in geology. Eventually, I want to work as a reservoir engineer.

When I was in high school, I didn’t really think about going to college. I figured I would just get through high school and that was it. Junior year, my friends were starting to talk about what colleges they wanted to apply to. I thought about it, but I didn’t know how much it would cost, or how much money my parents made in comparison to other kids. They showed us how to apply for scholarships and tuition aid through FAFSA — one day, instead of going to English, we went to the computer lab and a teacher walked everybody through filling out the form. When we got to the point where you enter your parents’ Social Security number, I told the teacher I didn’t know my parents’ number. She told me to call them and find out. My parents told me they used fake Social Security numbers where they work. I wrote them down on the form but I told the teacher they were not valid. She told me I couldn’t use those numbers.

All I could do was sit in an empty chair in the middle of the classroom, away from the computers. I was the only one in that situation. It was pretty embarrassing. I didn’t know what to do or what to think. I wondered, “Why do all their parents have these numbers, and my parents don’t?” That’s when I started to think, “Well, it’s because I’m different from them. I’m in a different situation.” That’s when I realized that going to college or paying for it would be harder for me.

We came to the U.S. when I was four. We moved near Springfield, Illinois, because a few of my aunts already lived around there. Then, when I was eight, we moved to Tyler because my grandma lived here. I thought Texas would be like a pueblo, with people getting water out of wells and stuff. I thought we would be out in the desert without any trees. (Laughs.)

My mom told me once that the reason we came here is because she didn’t see a future in Mexico. With the way she worked and the money she made, the living conditions where we were staying, she didn’t see a future for me and my brother. She took the risk of coming here. She’s worked pretty much her whole life here in the U.S. She works at a hotel. She cooks the hotel breakfast and checks people in at night. She works holidays. She works Christmas. We always end up celebrating Christmas at 10p.m., because that’s when she gets home.

To me, home is Tyler. I haven’t been back to Mexico since I left. We do have family back there, but I don’t really know them. As for my parents, they just came here to work. As long as they can work they’re happy, to be honest.

In terms of what’s going on with DACA, I don’t actively seek out information about it. I can’t really do anything about it. It’s out of my control. Whenever I hear that something is happening, I read it and see what’s going on. If it’s good news, it cheers me up. If it’s bad, I just keep my head down and keep working. It’s always on the back of your mind that something bad could happen. But so far, it seems, no one is actively out there trying to round up as many immigrants as possible. If you commit a crime, you should face the consequences. You could even be sent back. But if you’re just here working and paying your taxes, I feel, there’s no one actively seeking to remove you.

In the next five years, the best thing that I could see happening is I will have graduated with my bachelor’s and I’d be working with my DACA work permit, hopefully starting to build up my career. I’m also thinking about going to grad school. If something were to happen with DACA, I feel like I would just finish my bachelor’s and go to Mexico to try to find a job there. Or maybe I would go to grad school, and then Mexico. I imagine I would live with family for a little bit while I searched for a place to work. Or maybe I’d go to a place where they are good jobs in my field , but I’m not super sure where that is in Mexico. 

It wouldn’t be the end of the world. I would prefer to work here, but sometimes things don’t go your way. You have to suck it up and go do what you need to do. I can’t just stay here and do nothing. I can’t let the degree that I’ve worked so hard for go to waste. I’ve heard people say, I think it was Obama or someone, “We educate all these immigrants here and we send them back to their countries. The things that we taught them get implemented in their country, instead of America.”

If I could do it again, of course I would try to come here the right way. I didn’t break the law on purpose. I was four and didn’t understand what was going on at the time. I understand that I’m not supposed to be here, but it’s not so black and white. You have to take into account the severity of the law you’re breaking. I haven’t committed any major crimes. I haven’t been arrested. I have been law-abiding. People go over the speed limit every day, but they don’t get sentenced to twenty years in prison. Having crossed the border for a better life shouldn’t be seen as a crime that’s punished by destroying your family.

A couple days before we left Mexico, it was my birthday. I had just gotten a bunch of presents I had to leave behind, everything except a pair of brand new shoes. The journey was pretty traumatic. People die out in the harsh wilderness. You’re taking a risk with the coyotes, the people who you pay to bring you over. You have to trust them with your life, but sometimes they’re not good people. They’ll leave people out in the middle of the desert if need be. By the time we got across the border, my new shoes were all battered and dirty. I had to throw them away. It made me so sad.

I’m definitely in a better place than if I had stayed in Mexico. There’s still the question of what’ll happen in the future. I look at it this way: I came here and took advantage of the opportunities. I came to a really good university and I’m studying a major I can benefit from in the future. My brother didn’t go to school after he finished high school. He just started working, but he has his own form of success. Now he’s married, with a house and a job. He’s worked hard for what he has. He would be pretty set back if he were to be sent back to Mexico.

My mom’s just spent her whole time here working. I know she says she does want to go back at some point, if she’s not able to become a resident. I think she owns property in Mexico. But she says she wants to go back in her 80s or 90s. That’s forty years from now. My dad is in the same situation as my mom, although he’s told me he will work until he dies, even if he never becomes a citizen. I think their work ethic is admirable.  My sister is a U.S. citizen. When she turns 21, she can apply for my mom to become a resident here. But that’s still eleven years from now.

Anything could happen between then and now. But for now, you just go to work and go to school and do what you can.”

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