DACA’s uncertain future: Concern in Crete, Nebraska

Story and visuals by Bree Samani, NewsNetNebraska

In September, the Trump Administration announced the phase out of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program unless Congress passed its own immigration reform laws by March of 2018.

Better known as DACA, the program has protected about 800,000 young undocumented immigrants from deportation since former President Barack Obama created it with an executive order in 2012.

Those undocumented immigrants came to the United States as children with their parents. Many live in Crete, Nebraska, and are increasingly concerned and fearful as Trump’s DACA deadline approaches.

“It would be like a tornado that came through and lifted people out of the community and just left empty houses, empty rental properties, empty apartments, and broken families and everything else that would go along with that,” Crete Mayor Roger Foster said. 

A welcoming community

Since its founding in 1871, Crete has been home to immigrants from around the world. They came willing to work hard and embrace the American Dream. Foster said Crete owes its past and present to immigrants. “You know after WWI and WW2 we had quite a bit of influx of a Czech population, German and Irish,” Foster said. “And the community has always welcomed them much like they are with the Hispanic and Latino community.” 

Uncertainty in Crete

A third of Crete’s 7,000 residents are Latino or Hispanic according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Many are young DACA recipients like Crete High School senior Meylin Espinoza whose DACA status ends next October. “I don’t know what my future is going to look like after that,” Espinoza said. She hopes to attend the University of Nebraska–Lincoln next fall. “How am I going to continue my future after they take it (DACA) off? What’s going to be left?”

Crete High School junior Jose Cardoso is also a DACA recipient. He moved to the United States from Mexico with his family as an infant. Cardoso worries about what will happen to him if he is deported to Mexico. “Like my mom says I don’t have any family in Mexico,” Cardoso said. “So I would go to a place with no family. I wouldn’t be able to recognize anything. And I don’t have no choice” Cardoso said. “I kinda feel overwhelmed and hopeless.”

The end of DACA

Nebraska Attorney General Doug Peterson is one of 10 state attorneys general who threatened legal action this year unless DACA was ended. Peterson believes Obama’s presidential order establishing DACA was unconstitutional and set a dangerous precedent. “Because of that danger, I as attorney general swore to uphold the constitution,” Peterson said. “And when I see that (Obama) executive order start to be used by presidents, whoever the president is, it expands laws. Then we have to step in and say, ‘Wait a minute,’” Peterson said.

The Importance of ‘Dreamers’ in Crete

Crete’s mayor said his city relies heavily on DACA recipients, also referred to as ‘Dreamers,’ for economic growth and stability. “I don’t know if there was a lot of thought of what it (DACA’s elimination) would do to communities like Crete,” Foster said. “I don’t know if the Congress has thought about the economic impacts. It’s become pretty political. It’s more politically motivated than I think practical.”

A Dreamer’s story

Crete High School counselor Joel Lemus has worked closely with many DACA students and worries about losing the relationships he’s built with them. “I like to think that I have helped students. A lot of students have helped me too,” Lemus said. “They have changed the perspective on how I look at things and have changed my heart.”

There’s another reason the 31-year-old Lemus closely identifies with the DACA students he counsels. He too is a DACA recipient, a “Dreamer,” who has used his story to counsel and encourage his students.  

Joel Lemus migrated to America from Mexico with his parents when he was 6-years-old.

Lemus and his family moved to America from Monterrey, Mexico when he was 6-years-old. He said he regularly struggles with his immigration status. “When you want to continually prove that you’re just as American as anybody else, that you’re just as determined, and you want to better other people, and you want to better your community, and because of a piece of paper you’re not allowed to do that.”

After graduating high school, Lemus earned a bachelor’s degree in teaching at the University of Nebraska–Kearney. Because Lemus was undocumented he could not get a teaching job. “That summer I went back, to work with my dad at the meat packing plant and thought well okay, that was a nice little run, but now we are back to square one,” Lemus said.

A glimpse of hope

Lemus didn’t give up his dream of living and working in America. He returned to UNK to earn a master’s degree in counseling.

Three years later, DACA was established so he applied for the program. Lemus was accepted as a DACA recipient and a new door opened. Lemus was hired as a student counselor at Crete High School. “DACA has allowed me the opportunity to be here,” Lemus said. “DACA has allowed me to build the relationships and help the students and families that I like to think that I am doing good here.” 

Lemus stands with his father after graduating from the University of Nebraska-Kearney with a Master’s degree in counseling.

No place to call home

Lemus said he spent 25-years building his version of the American Dream. Now, with the threatened elimination of DACA, Lemus feels like he has no place to call home. “I think because of my immigration situation, I sometimes say this is not my home, because you can’t help but feel like you’re not wanted here,” Lemus said.

Approaching the deadline

Lemus’ DACA status is set to end on August 25, 2018. He fears he could be deported to a country he hasn’t lived in since he was 6-years-old.  “You know those lily pads in the lake or the mossy water where they have roots but they’re not connected to anything? That’s kind of what I feel like sometimes,” Lemus said.

If he’s deported. Lemus also worries he will lose the student relationships he created as a Crete High School counselor. “I like to think that I have helped students, but a lot of students have helped me too.”  Many of Lemus’ students agree. “It really breaks my heart because Mr. Lemus is a really important person here at our high school,” Espinoza said. “He’s just been really helpful,” Cardoso said. “I consider him a friend, a good friend. It would kinda be like losing a friend.”

Hope for the future

Despite the possible deportations of many Crete residents if the DACA program ends, Crete’s mayor hopes something positive will happen. “My hope is that it doesn’t impact us at all, that Congress comes up with a solution, and not just with a DACA program, but some comprehensive immigration reform,” Foster said.

Joel Lemus is hopeful too. “The hope is that something will happen between now and then, otherwise this will be my last year here in Crete.”   


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