One month after the twin towers fell in New York City, Quetzalli Pliego and her three younger siblings crossed the boarder of Mexico into the United States to reunite with their mother and father.
It took Quetzalli (now Quetzalli Pliego Omaña) and her siblings five tries on chilly October nights to finally meet up with her mother and father. Omaña said they were usually detained in the middle of the night by Immigration and Naturalization Services agents and sent back to the border. Finally, they were able to travel in a vehicle.
Omaña remembers leaving the vehicle, getting into a bus, and traveling to a town near the border where her mother and father were waiting for them. She hadn’t seen either of them in two years. Omaña said it took about 10 days from their first attempt to cross the border until they were finally reunited as a family.
Omaña now hears similar stories from other undocumented citizens as a bilingual paralegal at Blackford Law. She is also one of the 800,000 beneficiaries of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) immigration policy, which was announced by former Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano, at the direction of former President Barack Obama. The policy allows Omaña to continue to work in the United States, and defers any deportation action for two years (provided the recipient is not convicted of a felony or serious misdemeanors).
In September 2017, President Donald Trump moved to end DACA. However, three U.S. district courts have challenged the Trump administration’s move to end the program. Under DACA, Omaña is able to both stay in the United States and obtain a work permit. Recipients need to renew their status every two years. While those under DACA’s protections will not face deportation, the program is not a path to citizenship. Those wanting to become citizens must first apply to become a lawful permanent resident and obtain a green card.
While DACA’s fate is in the courts, people who currently have protection under DACA can apply to renew its protections, says Jacob Huju, an immigration lawyer for the Immigrant Legal Center. Huju recommends applicants contact the Nebraska Immigration Legal Assistance Hotline if they are concerned about their DACA status.
“It’s important to seek advice as soon as possible,” Huju says.
Omaña’s father, Armando Pliego, moved to Omaha in 1998. Her mother, Micaela Dominguez, came to Omaha in 1999. Armando, who was a professor in agriculture in Mexico, started bussing tables at an Omaha mall before finding a job in construction. While Armando and Micaela were establishing their roots in Omaha, Omaña and her siblings were living with her uncles and cousins in Cuernavaca, which is about 60 miles south of Mexico City. While she was away from her mother and father, Omaña said she was physically abused by some extended family members.
Unlike many undocumented citizens who come to the United States for a better life, Omaña did not want to move to the United States when she was 12. She was already in middle school and had her own group of friends.
“At the time, my friends were everything to me,” Omaña says.
Things didn’t get much better during her first years in Omaha. At the beginning of middle school, she only knew some basic words. Her mother and father took night classes to learn English, leaving Omaña to not only learn a new language, but help her siblings with their homework.
“We were just alone,” Omaña says.
Things changed when she started at North High School. Soon, she was becoming active in community groups like Omaha Together One Community. Omaña started thinking about college, but her guidance counselor said she couldn’t secure scholarships or student loans because of her status as undocumented. Still, her community activism gained the attention of the College of Saint Mary, specifically Maria Luisa Gaston, who was the admissions counselor for Latinas in 2006.
Gaston thought the College of Saint Mary needed to reach out to the Latina community. Specifically, she wanted to target undocumented high school graduates. Gaston began working on securing funding for the Misericordia scholarship, which provides tuition for high school graduates who are also undocumented. Omaña was one the scholarship’s recipients.
Gaston says at least 50 scholarships have been awarded since she began raising funds for it in 2007. According to Daniela Rojas, admissions adviser at the College of St. Mary, 36 students are currently on the scholarship. Gaston said Omaña’s leadership skills were one of the reasons why she was awarded the scholarship.
“She’s always been one of my shining stars,” Gaston says from her home in Miami, to where she retired in October 2014.
Omaña graduated from the College of Saint Mary in 2010 with a degree in paralegal studies. However, the degree couldn’t secure her a job because of her status. Without a Social Security card, she couldn’t find a traditional full-time job. Instead, she set up her own business, Pliego Translation Services. For a few years, she worked as a translator for a few law firms in Omaha. Then, in 2013, she applied for DACA, which grants recipients work permits.
In early 2014, she got a job as a paralegal at Peck Law Firm, where she met attorney Brian Blackford. Blackford established his own firm in October of that year, and he reached out to Omaña to take a paralegal position.
Even though Omaña still had several months left on her DACA eligibility, she applied for a renewal in May 2018. She was approved in August, and her status is now protected until August 2020. Omaña chose to proactively renew her status because she was uncertain of DACA’s fate in the courts.
“With our current president, anything could just end,” Omaña says.
Omaña’s other family members are now permanent residents—her parents are both citizens, sister Xochitl became a lawful permanent resident in November 2012, brother Armando in June 2014, and sister Citalli gained permanent resident status in July 2017 after she married a U.S. citizen.
Omaña wasn’t able to become a citizen after her parents obtained their citizenship because she was older than 21 at the time. She could have become a lawful permanent resident in the United States when her father and mother were applying for their green cards; however, while her parents were in the process of becoming permanent residents, an Omaha attorney, who Omaña refused to identify, said her father couldn’t put Omaña on his application. Omaña said the attorney later confided to her that he wished he knew the law better when he was advising her family.
“I think it was malpractice, honestly,” Omaña says. “I’ve talked to multiple attorneys now, and it’s pretty obvious what the law reads.”
Omaña has married, but the man she married is a lawful permanent resident (not a U.S. citizen). As a result, her application to obtain a visa is given a lower priority than people who marry U.S. citizens. While she waits for her resident status to improve, she plans to continue to help people in similar situations.
Asterisks (*) designate pseudonyms. Portrait subjects photographed for this article were approached by Omaha Magazine independently from the research conducted by professor Thomas Sanchez. These current, former, and would-be DACA recipients consider Omaha to be their home; they volunteered to share their stories and thoughts about the termination of DACA.
Driving through rural Nebraska, I noticed the battery gauge dropping slowly toward zero. Soon after turning from Highway 30 onto Highway 15, the engine stopped. I pulled to the side of the road. Thinking about my options, I looked in the rearview mirror and saw a sign that read “Batteries for Sale.” I scurried the quarter mile to the farmhouse and knocked on the door. An elderly gentleman answered, and we quickly proceeded to a barn filled with hay. There was an array of car batteries arranged on shelves; I chose the cheapest. We got into his pickup, drove to my car, and installed the battery. Then I drove back to the farmhouse to pay.
“Omaha is my home. I’ve been here for a while–16 years–went to high school and college, and I don’t really know any other place that I can say, ‘I know this place.’ This is my home. I know were everything is at. I fI have a problem, I know where to go to…I’m afraid of what’s going to happen. What’s next for us?” –David Islas Ramirez, 30, Works in the health care industry (Originally from Mexico, Isla is a current DACA recipient, a graduate of Benson High School and Bellevue University.)
When he looked at my check, he said, “Sanchez, you speak pretty good English.” I thought to myself, “Here we go,” but answered calmly, “I better speak pretty good English, it’s the only language I speak” (which was not completely true. I grew up speaking only English and, like many third-generation U.S. citizens, learned Spanish in college). He replied, “No, I know you speak good English, but where are you from?” I answered, “I am from Scottsbluff, way out in the western part of the state.” He said, “No, but where were you born?” I said, “I was born in Scottsbluff.” He persisted, “But where was your father born?” I replied, “My father was born in Texas.” He followed up with, “Where was his father born?” and I answered, “My grandfather was from Mexico.” He did not say anything but he gave me a sigh of satisfaction as if to say, “See, I knew you were from somewhere else.”
I am a light-skinned Mexican-American with a Ph.D. who speaks English with no hint of a Spanish accent. I was born and raised in the middle of the United States. I am also a tenured associate professor at the University of Nebraska-Omaha. I am the quintessential “American,” but personal experiences have demonstrated to me that many in the United States think Latinos are qualitatively different from them—that Latinos are “from somewhere else.” I do not have an immigrant experience, and I do not pretend to understand the immigrant identity. But my light skin color coupled with my upbringing in the Mexican barrio of southeast Scottsbluff has always made me fascinated with issues of ethnic and cultural identity, issues I teach about in all my classes (especially “Race and Ethnicity” for the Sociology department and others in Latino Studies).
My personal and professional interest in identity made me wonder: how do young people, who are “American” in every aspect except legal, negotiate and deal with their identity? How do they make sense of their lives when their personal history and the vast majority of their experiences have taken place in and around Omaha, Nebraska, yet the governmental authorities and the media present them as foreigners?
“DACA, to me, meant an opportunity to become a full human being in the American society…because before that, I was just a person hiding in the shadows. Through DACA, I was able to do simple things like get a drivers license and drive–obviously, once that was also available through our legislature.”–Yanira Garcia, 28, (Originally from Mexico, Garcia is a former DACA recipient who became legal U.S. permanent resident in March)
Throughout my career, most of my research has been conducted with immigrant communities in Nebraska. But my poor Spanish always made it difficult to conduct interviews (much of the consternation was mine, being embarrassed at how bad my Spanish is at times). Interviewing recipients of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (a federal program created by President Barack Obama’s executive memorandum in 2012) offered relief from my occasional language hiccups. Nebraska has about 3,000 recipients, and there are approximately 800,000 nationwide.
The catalyst for my DACA research was an announcement at a faculty meeting of the Office of Latino and Latin American Studies at UNO; private scholarship money was being designated for DACA recipients. I immediately thought that I could continue my research on “immigrants” without worrying about my inability to communicate well because most DACA recipients are in college (71.5 percent of them), and to get into college one must speak, read, and write English. A new research avenue was born.
The following semester, I was readying my application for a faculty development fellowship (formerly referred to as a sabbatical) from the College of Arts and Sciences. A colleague suggested that I get a letter of support from potential interview subjects. It was late on a Friday afternoon, but I called the Heartland Workers Center and was referred to the Young Nebraskans in Action (previously known as the Dreamers Project Coalition). The next week I met with two leaders of the group. Each agreed to write a letter of support to the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences.
“I actually had made a deal with my mom and said, ‘Well, we’re only going to go there for six months, because I didn’t want to come. I was so little. I really didn’t understand the situation or why she was making the decision. So , she agreed to six months, and now it’s going to be 18 years.”–Luisa Trujillo Estrada, 28, CHI Health & Human Resources staffer (Originally from Mexico, Trujillo is current DACA recipient engaged to a U.S. citizen).
My DACA interviews began with three in December 2015. I conducted seven more interviews in January 2017 after receiving the fellowship. All of my interview subjects were born in Latin America: seven in Mexico, two in Guatemala, and one in El Salvador. At the time of their interviews, the ages of these DACA recipients ranged from 19 to 26. Although not born in Omaha, they were all raised here or in surrounding areas. Nearly all speak English perfectly (without any trace of accent). At the time of the interviews, nine were enrolled in college and receiving above-average marks in their coursework. One had recently graduated. None of them have criminal records.
The following notes and excerpts from my 2015 and 2017 interviews provide a glimpse at the reality of DACA recipients’ existence in Nebraska using their own stories, their own words.
Each of the 10 interviewees articulated a profound love and appreciation for what the United States and Omaha have allowed them to do, the opportunities that the education system has allowed them to pursue. Most of them expressed the view that— if forced to leave their adopted city and country—they are not afraid of returning to their country of birth or to take their talents elsewhere in the world.
Of the 10 DACA recipients interviewed, many of them were politically active and know that being prohibited from voting does not take away their constitutional rights to engage in political activities. A couple of them were timid individuals and specifically stated that agreeing to be interviewed was a political act. One admitted to being shy, saying that their condition of being in the U.S. without authorization made them eschew attention and want to blend in with others around them.
In many ways, the experiences of the Nebraska DACA recipients I interviewed are similar to what academic and other research has revealed to be experiences nationwide.
Lourdes* came to Omaha when she was 6 years old. Now a community organizer in her mid-20s, she had this to say when asked which country she belongs to: “I tell people that my blood is Mexican, but my heart is American, because the two work with each other and they would not be able to exist without one another. So, that’s the best way that I can answer that question, just because, like I said, I was raised in the U.S., with U.S. principles and morals, but my culture is Mexicana and they work together to create who I am.”
All 10 of my DACA sources speak English and Spanish. Each speaks English well, and only one did not speak Spanish well. Most of them speak Spanish with parents and elder family members but English with others, including younger siblings. Only one of the sources claimed their parents could speak English well.
“When people [say], “Oh, you know they’re here just leeching and taking U.S. citizens’ benefits,” I just want to tell them that. We’re just here working hard, and all we’re asking for is an opportunity to continue to be blessed in the greatest country in the world.”–Armando Becerril, 24, Audit associate at KPMG (Becerril is originally from Mexico).
They have internalized the Nebraskan and Midwestern culture, especially in terms of work ethic. Not only driven by the work ethic of those around them, they felt obligated to prove (to themselves, to family and friends, and to society at large) that they will be successful. They work hard at jobs, school, and in their community. While they all claimed cultural connections to their country of birth, their inability to travel outside the United States makes those connections appear to be mostly imagined. They are connected culturally in ways that a second- or third-generation Mexican-American might be connected to their ancestors’ nation of origin. Their “Latino” culture is largely a U.S. Latino culture.
The vast majority of their personal experiences have been positive in Nebraska. Aracely* says: “In one of my classes in high school, I was told that Nebraska was one of the most racist states in the United States, and I thought that was pretty funny because I myself never really…saw myself being discriminated against for being Latino or for having Hispanic descent; however, when I found out that Nebraska was the only state left that didn’t give drivers’ licenses to DACA students…I realized that there’s just, like, so much indirect racism.”
All of the interviewees shared a positive image of Omaha, and almost all of the sources had mixed feelings about the conservative politics of the state. Nelson* (who says he migrated from El Salvador when he was “1 year old, maybe less”) was active in getting legislation passed such as LB 623 (which gave them the opportunity to get a driver’s license).
“I know there are a lot of Republican senators who really care about us, but then I believe everything is just politics,” Nelson says. “Maybe they do care about us. But their constituents, they’re very hard-line anti-immigration, and because of that we’re not getting the support that we really deserve in the government. But, in that sense, I understand. But then again, I don’t think the Democrats are doing enough for us either, and so it’s really difficult, and right now I just have a very negative attitude about what the government is doing for immigrants, especially with the rhetoric that Donald Trump has been spewing all throughout his campaign and continues to do so. It just makes things worse [for everybody] and it doesn’t do anything for immigrants.”
Interviewees reported few, if any, incidents of discrimination or overt prejudice in their everyday experiences in Omaha; however, several of them shared anecdotes of close friends—citizens who happened to be darker-skinned Latinos—having more overt discriminatory experiences than they as DACA recipients did.
Some of the 10 DACA recipients had arrived in the United States a bit later in life and always knew they were not authorized to be here (the age of arrival ranges from 10 years to three months with the average being 5 years old); others had no idea of their undocumented status until later in life.
Interview subjects mentioned “shame” when discussing their parent’s feelings about being in the United States without authorization and “stigma” when discussing their own feelings; the same words were used by Leisy Abrego (a University of California-Los Angeles professor who was herself part of the wave of Salvadorian immigration to L.A. in the early 1980s) in her groundbreaking research on DACA recipients in California.
“There are a lot of customs in Colombia that I am no longer familiar with. I am an Omahan. I am part of the city, and I want to see it succeed…If I were to go back to Colombia and start my life over there. I don’t even know where to begin.”–Daniela Roja, 24, Admissions counselor at College of Saint Mary (Rojas applied for DACA and was rejected due to her U.S. arrival date. She has lived in Omaha for 10 years and is now a legal resident.)
Some did not find out they were unauthorized—or they did not realize how it would affect them—until their junior or senior year in high school, when they began to fill out college and scholarship applications and were asked for a social security number.
All of them learned of the severity of what it really meant to be unauthorized when they could not get a driver’s license, even after they received DACA. All feel, to one degree or another, they missed out on that and other rituals associated with being a kid or “growing up.”
As young children and teenagers, they were unaware of the consequences: both the social stigma and the legal pitfalls. They had been protected from the vagaries of their undocumented legal status—by teachers, counselors, churches, and other well-meaning adults and institutions.
Many of my interview subjects used terms like “coming out” for disclosing their unauthorized status. The phrasing seems to contradict previous assertions of “no shame.” But it could be that their general feelings simply changed from when they were younger and they did not see the effects as readily. As they grew older, the negative consequences of the same undocumented status became more acute and meaningful in their lives. The driver’s license issue is just one glaring example (one for which Nebraska gained notoriety in nationwide immigrant advocate and anti-immigration circles).
Due to a fear of immigration and law enforcement authorities, none of the people I interviewed had traveled much, if at all, outside the Omaha area. Some of them had been to Lincoln (on recruitment visits to UNL) and a few had traveled once or twice to Iowa or Wisconsin to visit family. Many admit that they love Omaha, they love Nebraska (even though they had not been anywhere in Nebraska outside of Omaha), and that they desire and plan to stay in the Midwest region of the country. Most want to stay in Nebraska and/or the Midwest in order to pay back those communities for the opportunities that they have been able to access.
In terms of social connections, about half of the interview subjects reported having mostly white friends or friends who are a mix of different races and ethnicities; the other half have friends who are mostly Latino. More than one of them mentioned the difficulty of meeting new people, especially in the romantic realm, and not knowing what or when to tell them about their immigration status. One respondent stated that they were afraid to tell a new dating partner about their status for fear that the other person would wonder if they were just dating them so they could marry and get their immigration papers fixed. Another spoke of being in a long-term relationship with a person who still does not know that they do not have government authorization to be in the United States.
When I began these interviews, I was interested in the question of criminalization. How did undocumented youths see their own “criminalization” in light of what labels have been placed upon them by some elements of society?
The research question turned out to be of little concern to my sources, with eight respondents emphatically stating “no” when asked whether or not they felt like criminals. Two others were not sure or had felt like criminals at some point in their life but changed their mind as they had matured. Almost all had mixed family statuses with little brothers and sisters who were citizens and parents who were unauthorized. At least two had fathers who had been deported.
Although born in foreign countries, their hearts and souls are firmly rooted in the United States, a country that officially rejects but tolerates them. Lourdes, the community organizer, says: “I do plan on staying in Nebraska…my skin and bones are still getting used to this weather, but beyond that, absolutely. I love Nebraska, and the fact that we are helping change the political landscape and [making] it be a place that welcomes is very enriching, and I’m beyond glad that I’m able to be a part of that with dedicated individuals. So as hard as it is knowing that we are going to be at the forefront of what’s happening and the change for our future families and friends… It’s of course [worth it]…and I love Nebraska and Omaha in general…I don’t ever take for granted what I do. And I feel like that journey wouldn’t have been possible had I not had the [immigration] status that I did. So it just enables me, helps me appreciate and really understand the significance of what I’m doing for myself and for my community.”
I came away from the interviews with a sense of awe.
As I interviewed each of the 10 young people, I had the sense that each person will not only be successful; they will be high-achieving contributors to the nation’s society and economy. Rather than being afraid for themselves, their worries overwhelmingly focused on the future well-being of their parents, siblings, friends, other family members, and people in situations like theirs who may have not had the tools, skills, or maybe just the proper connections to navigate the educational system.
I often wonder why anti-immigration advocates seem determined to cast out those who would otherwise be helping to pay for Social Security. In the end, it is not about their contributions to the economy, it is about what kind of society we choose for ourselves and the people we welcome into that society.
This article was printed in the November/December edition of Omaha Magazine.
View the condensed version of Omaha Magazine‘s video interviews with DACA current, former, and would-be DACA recipients:
Find the full interviews for the portrait subjects here:
“Chuck Hagel supported the war. His brother hated it. And in the jungles of Vietnam each was destined to save the other’s life.” The text blurb appears on the front cover of a new book by Daniel P. Bolger, Our Year of War: Two Brothers, Vietnam, and a Nation Divided.
An advance copy arrived in the mail while Omaha Magazine was deep in production on our November/December issue. A note from the publishing house explained that the book would be published on Nov. 7, in time for Veterans Day (Nov. 11).
Veterans Day was also the motivation for several military and veteran-themed stories in the full city edition of our latest issue. One of those stories is an artist profile about one of the Hagel brothers. But we didn’t write about the two highlighted in Bolger’s new book.
In 1968, Tom and Chuck Hagel fought the Tet Offensive, battled snipers in Saigon, and chased the enemy through the jungle. Years later, Tom became a law professor at the University of Dayton in Ohio. Chuck went on to represent Nebraska in the U.S. Senate for 12 years before serving as U.S. Defense Secretary from 2013 until 2015 under President Barrack Obama.
Their younger brother, Mike Hagel, was too young to serve in Vietnam. He would grow up to be a successful artist working in advertising and fine art. A portrait that he painted of his older brother now hangs in the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. Our latest issue features Mike’s story, titled “Nebraska’s Painter in the Pentagon.”
Another military-focused article about local art is the story of the New Century Art Guild. The nonprofit is dedicated to helping veterans cope with post-traumatic stress disorder through artwork. The guild has a gallery displaying artworks at City Hall, organizes veteran art exhibitions around town, and also hosts workshops and classes. Twice a month, they even offer art classes to incarcerated vets suffering from PTSD.
Joyce Winfield, Ph.D., writes about the philanthropic work of Bill and Evonne Williams. The Williamses coordinated 11 honor flights from Nebraska (taking 3,235 veterans to the nation’s capital), culminating in The Final Mission. Joyce had previously written the cover story of Omaha Magazine’sMay/June issue (excerpted from her book, Forever Heroes: A Collection of World War II Stories from Nebraska Veterans). Her husband, Doug, served in Vietnam and participated in The Final Mission. Her in-depth article in this issue explores the trip from the vantage of other Omaha-area Vietnam vets, and she explains the next phase of the Williamses’ efforts to memorialize members of the U.S. Armed Forces who sacrificed their lives in the years and wars following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Aside from these military stories, the November/December issue’s other major article addresses Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals from the perspective of the local youths. University of Nebraska-Omaha professor Thomas Sanchez, Ph.D., interviewed 10 anonymous DACA recipients, and Omaha Magazine reached out to five additional current, former, and would-be DACA recipients (who volunteered to support the story with their faces, names, and video interviews).
The story of DACA recipients relates back to Chuck Hagel’s time in the U.S. Senate. He was the first Republican co-sponsor of the DREAM Act, a bipartisan bill that addressed the status of undocumented youths who grew up in the U.S. (aka “dreamers”). The DREAM Act never became law, which led to the policy of “deferred action” under Obama, and current uncertainty facing the youths in the wake of President Donald Trump’s announcement to terminate DACA.
This letter was printed in the November/December edition of Omaha Magazine.