Credit: Michael Fleshman
Simon Mendoza-Moreno’s first day on the job, serving as a physician assistant at a community clinic in Wenatchee, began uneventfully on Election Day.
At home that evening, the 25-year-old grabbed a bottle of wine and sat down to watch the election results but grew alarmed as the early numbers began rolling in. He said he went to bed that night, even before a Donald Trump victory was certain, hoping a new day would bring a different outcome.
That Mendoza-Moreno, whose parents brought him illegally to the U.S. as a baby, is able to pursue a career in medicine because of an executive order President Obama issued four years ago which President-elect Trump has said he’ll undo.
The provision, known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), protects young people like Mendoza-Moreno from the threat of deportation and gives them access to jobs previously inaccessible to them.
“DACA opened doors to a career and a new life for me,” Mendoza-Moreno said. “There would have been no other way. It gave me hope that I could pursue my dream of practicing medicine and give back to my community.”
For Mendoza-Moreno, a rare bilingual/bi-cultural health provider at Columbia Valley Community Health where more than half of the patients are Spanish-speaking migrants, Trump’s victory was like a crushing blow.
He was on the brink of tears as he walked into a staff meeting the next morning, but was immediately reassured when he saw that every face in the room mirrored the devastation he felt.
“I think you have to have certain progressive values to work in the kinda place we do and serve the community we serve,” he said.
“We all agreed we want to stay focused and strong for our patients; they are the most vulnerable, the most anxious and afraid. That’s how I was able to find strength.”
DACA was the Obama administration’s controversial anecdote to Congress’ failure to act on immigration. Over the last four years, it has ushered nearly 750,000 undocumented young people out of the shadows.
While it doesn’t lead to legal permanent residency, it allows those brought here as children before age 16 to obtain social security numbers and work permits.
It gave new hope to a generation that previously could see little future for themselves beyond high school. Without social security numbers, they couldn’t qualify for many of the scholarships that make college affordable – or even accessible.
And even with a college degree, few could ever hope to gain employment away from the fruit farms, restaurant kitchens and construction sites where their parents labored.
With DACA they could for the first time imagine professional careers and better-paying jobs as computer engineers and nurses, lawyers, school teachers and firefighters.
Young people like 25-year-old Jay Sanchez, whose DACA status helped him gain experience working in a Seattle-area bank before landing a beloved job with Apple.
His family had arrived in the U.S. from Mexico City in the mid-1990s and growing up, he said his friends were both Hispanic and “American,” many of them wealthy Bellevue kids.
He was a freshman in high school when he learned he was undocumented. When a form he was filling out requested his social security number and he asked a teacher what that meant, she whispered: “Don’t worry about it, Sweetie; if you had one, you’d know.”
Since the election, these young people and their parents have swamped attorneys’ offices with questions to which there are no clear answers.
At a series of community meetings, Northwest Immigrant Rights Project Executive Director Jorge Barón said he has tried to calm fears that the Trump administration might use information from DACA applications to round up and deport them.
He called that a “low risk” given the large number and the potential for political disfavor such an action could invite. But he also admits that none of that is known.
Trump’s action on DACA could range from leaving the program intact to ending it, and revoking the statuses of those who currently have it. In his most recent comment on the subject, he was unspecific when he said he wants to do something for the DACA recipients.
Opposition to the program has mostly focused on legal issues, and Obama’s authority to grant it in the first place. Some opponents have said the predicament these young people find themselves in are of their parents’ making and that they are free to take their education and skills back to their home countries.
Calling DACA a “moral imperative and a national necessity,” the University of Washington, Seattle University and other Washington colleges have joined 425 others nationwide in issuing a statement urging leaders to retain it.
In addition, several big-city mayors — including Seattle Mayor Ed Murray — have cited a potential loss of $9 billion in tax contributions over the next four years should DACA be ended. They have also asked Trump to retain DACA, at least until Congress is able to provide a more permanent fix.
For many of the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. such a fix is the only path they have to legal status.
But for Mendoza-Moreno it was different. Not long after his parents arrived in the U.S. more than 20 years ago, his U.S. citizen uncle petitioned for permanent legal residency, or green cards, for the newly arriving family.
Sibling petitions for immigrants from countries such as Mexico, China, and India can take decades. And in a cruel twist of fate, Mendoza-Moreno, whose lifelong dream was to be a doctor, turned 21 and aged out of eligibility in 2012, just as green cards became available for his parents.
“I had all my hopes set on that and it all came crashing down…,” he said.
Compounding his devastation was the fact that the University of Washington, where he was a student at the time, didn’t accept undocumented immigrant students into their medical school. Neither did any other U.S. medical school.
Loyola University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine began allowing DACA students shortly after the program was created. In 2014, the UW changed its policy to allow DACA students following pressure from students who knew Mendoza-Moreno’s story.
The UW’s Physician Assistant program is a rigorous two-year classroom and laboratory training program, including clinical rotations.
Mendoza-Moreno, who grew up in the small Grant County town of Royal City, graduated in August, four months after accepting a job as a PA and signing a contract with Columbia Valley to work at its Wenatchee clinic.
He calls it his dream job, working in an underserved community. Less than a month into it, his schedule is so full patients can’t get an appointment with him, he said. He enjoys a strong connection with them and believes he is able to earn their trust because of the shared language and culture.
“I’m able to understand some of the cultural and traditional practices that are common the Hispanic community,” he said.
“They are willing to talk to me about alternative treatments they may have sought because I have an understanding of that. It’s everything I’ve ever dreamed of.”
But while the hope of a green card always loomed for Mendoza-Moreno, Sanchez, the DACA recipient from Bellevue, said “everything changed” once he realized his undocumented status.
He lost interest in school and his grades began to suffer, he said. He dropped out of Henry M. Jackson High School in Mill Creek just a few credits short of a diploma and took a job in the kitchen of a golf club, where relatives worked.
“I looked around at my cousins and uncles washing dishes and I saw my future,” Sanchez said.
It scared him enough that he enrolled in an educational program at Edmonds Community College, where he earned his high school diploma and enough credits for a certificate in business administration.
In his first college quarter, he earned a 4.0, he said. Eventually he went back to earn his associate degree.
While working at the Apple store in Lynnwood, Sanchez is also studying computer science at Edmonds, he said, so he can keep pace in the fast-changing field.
“I want to go beyond this,” he said. “I really want to do some good in the world. And I want to stay and do it here. This is my home.”
NWIRP’s Barón said he’s been encouraged by the courageousness of these young people, despite the looming cloud.
“A lot of DACA folks are feeling energized and defiant in some ways because even though there’s uncertainty, they feel they won’t go back into the shadows,” Barón said. “They are prepared to fight for this.”
These young people include folks like Ana Andrade Lara, who knew early on that picking apples was not in her future. Her parents would take her and her siblings with them to the fields when they were smaller, she said, as a deterrent.
“They wanted a better life for us,” she said. “It’s why they came to the U.S. They showed us the ultimate sacrifice.”
Andrade was brought to the U.S. when she was five. She was in the 11th grade when she learned he was undocumented and realized right away how severely it limited her options.
So she began sharing her story — with teachers, other students, school board members. It led her to find a mentor who became a wonderful guide as she moved through high school and later college, blazing a trail as the first in her family to do so.
Andrade yearned to attend a four-year college, but the scholarships she could qualify for weren’t enough to pay the tuition. She enrolled instead in Walla Walla Community College.
It was the advocacy of students like her, telling their stories to policymakers, which led the Washington State Legislature in 2014 to pass a measure allowing DACA students to qualify for state financial aid.
Such assistance made it possible for her to transfer to Washington State University, graduating in May and landing a job as a facilities coordinator at MOD Pizza’s corporate office in Bellevue.
“I love my job and I know I wouldn’t have had it without the connections I made in sharing my story, taking risks and trying to do better for my parents,” she said.
“Because of DACA, we can repay our parents,” she said. “This is more than just the papers for us.”