David Aguilar, 22, works as a legal assistant at Latino Memphis, helping lawyers screen people seeking help with civil or immigration matters. He’s a senior at LeMoyne-Owen College, finishing up his last semester for a math degree. He is clean-cut with dark-rimmed glasses; easily mistaken for a young attorney. When Aguilar leaves work, he swings his black work bag around his shoulder, gets into a dark red SUV and drives home to his family or to the men’s soccer league at Mike Rose Complex.
Aguilar’s sweet routine—his entire future—is in flux.
The work permit that allows him to have a job, the temporary driver’s license that lets him get behind the wheel are courtesy of the federal Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, instituted during the Obama administration in 2012 as an offer of prosecutorial discretion for certain undocumented individuals. Aguilar is one of an estimated 2,000 DACA recipients in Memphis, 8,000 DACA recipients in Tennessee and more than 800,000 across the nation who had been able to file for deferred action on their immigration status subject to renewal until President Donald J. Trump decided in September to end the program. DACA recipients—also called Dreamers for the DREAM Act, a failed bill designed to permanently protect them—now face the terrifying reality of being returned to countries where they were born but certainly do not call home.
Aguilar loves his job, his community and his family, which includes his 7-year-old son and his brother, Eduardo, 19, also a DACA recipient and a college student. Both came as boys to the United States from Chiapas, Mexico, following their mother, who came first to seek better pay and education for her family.
He’s active in the community, trying to spread a message others can understand. For example, Aguilar, with two friends, recently performed a spoken-word piece they wrote called “Unheard” at Latino Memphis. The poets capture the feeling of being both Mexican and American, feeling comfortable in neither culture and fearing what the future may bring.
As lawmakers are embroiled in a tug-of-war over immigration reform, Aguilar hopes for the best but is also preparing for the worst.
“No soy de aquí ni de allá [I am not from here, nor am I from there]”
(The first line of “Unheard,” which Aguilar wrote)
The moon was gigantic and bright: How the Aguilar boys landed in Memphis
Aguilar was 11 when his father brought him to the United States. His parents had separated in Chiapas after his father, who served in Mexico’s armed forces and was a police officer, lost his job, leading to a period of domestic violence that Aguilar said “is the worst memory” of his childhood.
Even then in Mexico, Aguilar took care of his younger brother, especially after their father started shifting out of their lives.
“I have to pretend I know what I’m doing,” Aguilar said, describing that period. “It was trying to pretend for him, and inside I’m scared myself.”
Because money was always scarce, Aguilar pitched in home. His mother worked nights cleaning, and her boys would often go help her.
“It was either she worked at night and we would eat, or we wouldn’t,” Aguilar said. He also would work some afternoons and weekends with his aunt to help out at home.
Eventually, Aguilar’s mother decided to come to the States and send money home, but that still was difficult, especially for the boys, who missed their mother. Aguilar said his mom came to Memphis because they already had family here. His uncles, who originally worked in agriculture in border states, moved to the Mid-South in the late 1990s when they heard of a better opportunity: Casinos.
“One of my uncles was told he could come work for the casinos here, and they would pay everything, they would pay for transportation, living, and technically, he would only have to pay for food, and they will pay him properly,” Aguilar said.
Aguilar said “somehow” they got jobs at the casinos despite their immigrant status, and the rest of his U.S.-based family started moving this way.
Meanwhile, back in Chiapas, in southeast Mexico, Aguilar and his brother were living with their maternal grandmother when their mom asked if they wanted to come be with her. The only drawback: Their father would bring them.
“I told her that if she were to let me choose, I would rather wait in Mexico for her to come back,” Aguilar recalls. “I can clearly say I hated my dad. It’s a horrible memory.”
Despite his reluctance, they agreed to go after about a month. The family, who had been separated for nine months at that point, prepared for the trip. Their mother, with whom Aguilar said he “always had a connection,” had set up to pay all the costs for the trip. During their planning, she told them they would cross a river to get to the U.S.
Aguilar, who penned the lines in the poem “I crossed the border/before I knew what ‘border’ meant,” said he didn’t grasp the severity of the situation until they actually got to the water.
“It was at night, and I remember the moon was huge, and the river was within the woods, the moon was gigantic and bright, we could see far, far away by it,” Aguilar said.
Once arriving at the Rio Grande, they learned they had to shed their clothes and swim because a boat would make them visible to immigration. They came across inside a tire tube. Aguilar said his brother told him, “I thought the river wasn’t this big.”
“It wasn’t cold, we were just wearing underwear, but we were so nervous, we were shaking,” Aguilar recalled.
In fact, the large river’s strong current carried them far from where they thought they would land. When they arrived in McAllen, Texas, the boys saw for the first time a shower that was inside a bathtub. The cold, wet boys washed up and called their mother.
“We felt we had passed the greatest fear, the biggest obstacle,” Aguilar said.
Aguilar’s parents reunited when they got to Memphis, which was an adjustment, he said, but his father demonstrated he’d turned around, so he gave his dad another chance. Also, Aguilar had a lot on his plate: He knew no English, and although some of his family members were fluent, they could only help so much.
“It was one of the worst feelings ever because you were lost,” Aguilar said.
That fall, he entered the sixth grade at Kirby Middle School and enrolled in English as a Second Language (ESL) classes. Because of the language barrier, Aguilar said he felt “like the dumbest kid in school,” and at first, only did well in math, since he could learn visually. Also, he said the environment felt competitive, working alongside kids who grew up speaking English.
“If you are lucky enough, you might get a good instructor who might teach you something. How are you reading small articles or stories in this class and other classmates are trying to read Shakespeare?” Aguilar said.
‘With time, you grow and learn how to navigate things’
He took ESL for two years. At the beginning of eighth grade, Aguilar tested out and was considered fluent. Even as he was learning English, he served as a translator for his parents at only 13 or 14 years old.
“My parents needed an interpreter, and I was that interpreter,” Aguilar said. “At the bank, I would tell them, ‘Hey, I’m down here,’ because I was short, I was small, and I couldn’t reach the counter. Then we were in situations where I would create an account with MLGW, or when making a contract with the leasing companies, I would be the one interpreting or translating every single line from the contracts.
“With time, you grow and you just learn how to navigate things,” he said.
Though she never finished elementary school, their mother emphasized education, and Aguilar encouraged his brother to take courses for college credit in high school. He never lost that paternal feeling.
“He was really good at it, and it gave everyone even more hope just to see the possibilities,” Aguilar said.
In 2013, Aguilar graduated from Kirby High School and went to LeMoyne-Owen College to study mathematics. Two years later, his younger brother graduated from Kirby as salutatorian of his class, earning a full scholarship to Christian Brothers University.
“My life has brought me to a middle zone”
(A line Aguilar wrote in “Unheard”)
Aguilar’s parents are still together.
“At first, I guess those scars were so fresh, it was like ‘I hate you,’ but over time, it’s not that I forgot about it, but you kind of learn to live with it for the sake of everybody and my own sake,” Aguilar said.
But since he was old enough to remember that moonlit trip across the Rio Grande, Aguilar was always aware of his family’s status, and said over the years, the family looked at ways to become legal residents.
In 2012, after President Barack Obama introduced DACA, the boys had an opportunity. Aguilar applied for the program as a senior in high school. Although the application fee was $465 a person, his brother was able to apply at the same time thanks to their parents, who, Aguilar said, were always good at budgeting.
“They had a little money saved up, and as soon as I could apply, they helped me with that,” he said. “My brother wasn’t working at the time; it was more he has an identification now, he has an ID, he’s able to get a driver’s license, in the worse-case scenario, if he’s detained or stopped by an immigration officer, he’s technically OK to be there.”
Although they can earn scholarships and take out private loans, as DACA recipients, neither Aguilar nor his brother are able to apply for federal loans to help to pay for college (no federal assistance is provided to DACA recipients, including food stamps or government health insurance, such as Medicaid or policies found under the Affordable Care Act).
Still, Aguilar is grateful for the opportunities. The price of education was another big reason for leaving Mexico, where, as early as middle school, students have to buy supplies and textbooks, and by the time they graduate, they often can’t afford college. Mexico doesn’t have a free public education system, and that’s the main reason they have stayed, Aguilar said.
“Our education was the most impactful event, I guess you could say, that kept us here because we wanted to go to school and they wanted us to go school,” he said.
Also, Aguilar said in Mexico, citizens can’t rely on help from government entities. He said from birth, life is more difficult there.
“Once your kid is born, you have to go yourself and register him; here, you do that automatically,” he said. “There are people that are technically not living in Mexico; How is that possible?” he asked, adding that in Mexico, parents don’t get in trouble if their kids don’t go to school.
“How do you expect them to take a test if they don’t know how to read? Instead of helping, they are just making it a worse situation,” Aguilar said. “My uncles who just came over said it really hasn’t changed at all.”
Aguilar hopes he can help others, especially at his job, where often, he said, the stories of others hit him hard because he can empathize. Still, he stays focused — he has a job to do. But when he can, he says, he shares his story. He’s always been cognizant of the struggles they have endured, unlike some other Dreamers, who didn’t find out their status until they applied for a driver’s license or applied to go to college — but couldn’t.
“I feel like in my personal life it was a thing that my parents never hid from us,” Aguilar said. “Some people, their parents kept it from them. They feel lost.”
He said he’s never had a problem when people ask about his background.
“I was always aware of how we got here, how difficult it was, to get a visa, and like everybody or like most of us, I don’t think staying was the plan,” he said. “It was the plan to come work, save money, and take it back to Mexico and try to live somehow from there. But of course, life happens.”
“No papers, no fear
I want to see my family
I want the American Dream
I want to succeed” (The final lines from “Unheard”)
Feeling like it’s ‘all over’
Aguilar said because Trump played up immigration on the campaign trail, as soon he won the presidency, he and his family felt like it was “all over.” Like that night a younger Aguilar swam to the U.S., he felt again that sense of total uncertainty.
When U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced Trump was terminating the DACA program March 6, 2018 unless Congress came up with a legislative fix, Aguilar felt torn apart.
“It was like someone had died at home. My mom was crying, my dad was devastated, too because they see what we’re going through, to try to fight this and try to be able to become somebody,” he said.
He said feels safe because of his work permit, but his uncles and mother could get deported.
Aguilar, one of two DACA recipients working at Latino Memphis, had no hesitation when asked what would happen if Congress offered no replacement for DACA: He will stay with his family, whether they stay or have to go.
“If you have to go back to Mexico, I’ll go with you,” is what Eduardo told his older brother.
But economic pressures are still a reality, Aguilar said.
“Here, even if you get paid minimum wage, you can sort of live here, you can go to the store and you can buy canned foods, things like that,” Aguilar said. “Back in Mexico, you get paid like 100, 120 pesos a day, which comes to be around $6 a day. If you try to buy a kilogram of meat for your family of four that’s 60 pesos. That’s half of what you just earned, and then other things, and it’s gone. It’s very hard.”
He and his family have “brainstormed” other options. Since they’re bilingual, they’ve considered going to a tourist city and working as interpreters. They’ve even talked a little about going to Canada. But Aguilar said the only thing they know for sure is they will stay together.
He’s hopeful Congress will pass a clean DREAM Act, with no other immigration issues tied to it: “We’re not asking much. We just want to have this opportunity.”
Meanwhile, the conversation about DACA opens up a candid talk about immigration reform, which he said should be addressed separately from Dreamers.
“I don’t think a lot of people know what happens in immigration,” Aguilar said. “Because so many people think someone from Mexico just walks up to the border and becomes a citizen, just like that. No, it’s not easy. It can take years or decades to become a citizen.”
He understands immigration reform may mean some people in his community would have to leave because “just like everything, it has to have boundaries,” he said. But Aguilar hopes the children who were brought here, like himself and his brother, will be given a chance and their parents won’t be penalized.
“It takes a lot of courage to come to the States,” he said of his parents and others like them. “They are Dreamers, too. Their dream was to give us something better.”
Coming soon: The story of another Dreamer whose DACA status is at risk. In the meantime, catch up on MLK50 coverage of DACA and the Wednesday night panel discussion at Latino Memphis.
This report is brought to you by MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, a nonprofit reporting project on economic justice in Memphis. Support independent journalism by making a tax-deductible donation today.