This article first appeared in the Sept. 9, 2017 issue of The Washington Post, written by Jessica Contrera with the headline “Ending DACA will change thousands of lives. Here’s how it already upended one.” Tony Solis is a junior at Davidson College.
He was the first in his family to travel outside of North America, so Tony Solis wanted to see everything. The Eiffel Tower, by day and night. Notre Dame’s gargoyles and Mona Lisa’s smile. He was learning the street names and where the cheap baguettes were sold, and when locals asked where he was from, he would answer with perfect pronunciation, “les États-Unis,” the United States, not thinking of the Mexican passport back at his hostel.
Tony had lived in the United States since he was 6. Now at 20, he felt just as much an American in Paris as any other study-abroad student.
Then came the day his class visited a castle. It was Aug. 29, and Tony was admiring the way the sunlight streamed through stained-glass windows when he heard his name called. His program director looked distressed.
“Have you checked your email?” he asked.
Tony opened his inbox. “Urgent update — please read” was the subject line. It would be the first of many emails from school lawyers in the coming days, all with the same warning: President Trump was on the verge of eliminating the program that had given Tony a Social Security number, a work permit and relief from deportation — all the things that had enabled him to be standing at this moment in this castle in France.
A week later, after Trump’s decision became public, much attention would be paid to a six-month “reprieve” the president has extended to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program — and the hope it might yet hold for more than 700,000 “dreamers” brought to this country illegally by their immigrant parents.
Congress could still vote to save the controversial Obama-era policy. Trump has even hinted he could revisit it himself.
Yet even while DACA still exists in part for now, the uncertainty of its future has already upended lives, and many of the young people who used its protections to grasp some of the comforts and norms of the American middle class are already losing out on cherished opportunities.
DACA was supposed to allow Tony to exit and reenter the United States, with a permit known as “advance parole.” But if the program was rescinded while he was in France, his attorneys warned, there was no guarantee that border agents would allow him to return.
He wanted to stay in Paris. He was only two weeks into a semester that already had been paid for, thanks to a full-ride scholarship from Davidson College. He was eager to master the French language and perhaps some French wines, and to experience a side of life his undocumented parents back in Chicago had never dared imagine. He had never admitted to them why France, of all places, was where he wanted to travel most.
But this was his choice: Come home to the United States ahead of Trump’s announcement — or risk not being able to come home at all.
So on Tuesday, Sept. 5, Tony woke up in his parents’ house in Chicago. He came downstairs, sat at the dining room table and opened his laptop.
“What time is it on again?” he asked his father. He typed, “Jeff Sessions announcement” into Google. Eleven a.m. Eastern time, it said. Ten a.m. Central.
Tony checked his watch. It was still set to Paris time.
Should he have stayed? The question had stuck in his mind since the moment he hit “purchase” on a $2,213 flight. When his plane touched down at O’Hare airport Sept. 3, he had $13.64 left in his bank account.
Even if he could afford it, he couldn’t go back to France: As a DACA participant, his advance parole permit allowed only one reentry into the United States. He couldn’t go back to school at Davidson, either: It was too late to enroll for the semester.
“Channel 11,” his father said in Spanish, flipping to Univision on their living room TV. A reporter was standing in front of the White House. The words across the screen read, “El Futuro de DACA.”
What if there was no future for DACA? Reports by then were emerging that Trump had decided to end it after six months. What if that meant his family could be deported in six months? The government knew his name, his address and where he went to school. He had read promises that they wouldn’t use that information against him, but what if that changed, too?
All of these what ifs — that’s what DACA had spared him from. His parents had lived with worry every day since moving with their five sons from Guerrero, one of the most dangerous states in Mexico, to Chicago 13 years ago. They made a living selling fruit on the city’s corners, always wondering what if that police officer was coming toward them, what if he wanted trouble, what if he tried to arrest them, what if, what if, what if.
Tony’s only memory of coming to the United States was of his parents waking him early, putting him in a car with his brothers and offering him orange juice. He remembers learning English by naming objects in picture books at school. But after that, his life began to resemble those of his classmates: leveraging his straight A’s to get a Nintendo DS, getting his picture in the paper when his soccer team won the city championship, asking the cute girl at his lunch table on a date to see “Divergent.” He never told his friends he was undocumented; it never came up.
DACA was enacted the year before Tony turned 16. He and his older brothers each submitted applications. Then he could get a driver’s license and travel out of the state for college visits. He wasn’t eligible for federal financial aid — but his counselor nominated him for a privately funded full-ride scholarship to Davidson, in North Carolina. Soon he was making friends, studying political science and education, and applying to study abroad.
“It’s in 10 minutes,” he called to his mother in Spanish. She came out of the kitchen and pulled up a stool beside Tony’s father and brother Louis.
Tony carried his laptop to the couch. On his screen were dozens of responses to an email he had sent to his professors and college friends when he had realized he would need to make fresh plans for his semester. Any ideas, he’d asked — internships, volunteer work, jobs?
“My energy levels reached an all-time low yesterday (hard to believe for those who know me),” he had written. “My emotional levels are off the walls. My determination is nothing but strong. I am not giving up.”
He scanned the replies.
“Hey Tony, sorry to hear that abroad didn’t work out for you,” a friend wrote.
“I want you to know I am on your side,” another said.
“I hope you know you are loved by many and hopefully that can help you get through the day.”
“Keep staying strong my friend.”
Jeff Sessions appeared on the TV, looking into the camera and seemingly into their living room, which was cluttered with the toys of Sophie, Tony’s 3-year-old niece. She was born in Chicago, the only member of their family they knew would be safe.
“Good morning,” Sessions said, his words translated by Univision into Spanish. “I am here today to announce that the program known as DACA that was effectuated under the Obama administration is being rescinded.”
After his mother stopped crying, after he pored over the details of the Justice Department memo, after reading more texts from friends who were just so sorry, Tony got off his couch and rode the train downtown.
“This must be it,” he said when he arrived at Federal Plaza, where a crowd of people was gathered with banners and signs. Tony had read about this pro-DACA rally on Facebook. He didn’t think it would change anything, but it might make him feel better than sitting at home.
He felt like punching something. It turned out that, with the six-month delay, he probably could have stayed in Paris. Now he was out $2,213, on top of an incredible educational opportunity. He wasn’t actually going to punch anything — but here, at least, in this chanting and cheering crowd, he could scream.
Onstage, a college student was speaking. “They said DACA was going to keep us safe,” he told the crowd. “But look at where we are now.”
“We are resilient,” the next speaker declared. “We will get through this.”
Then a 32-year-old immigration activist took the mic. “I am here to tell Trump,” she yelled, “that I refuse to go back in the shadows!”
Tony howled and clapped, but thinking of the shadows made him think of Paris again and the moment back in high school when, really, all of this had started.
He was taking French classes, because there was no point in taking Spanish, and he picked up this third language so quickly that his teacher recommended he skip two levels and go straight into Advanced Placement. She also told him to join the school’s French exchange trip.
He thanked her but politely declined. He’d had his DACA status for only a few months and didn’t yet realize it might be possible for him to travel abroad. The long-unspoken understanding in his family was that they must never leave the country.
She asked again, and he said “I can’t” again. And then a few weeks later, she pulled him aside. She had secured for him a grant to cover his entire trip — assuming that cost was the only thing in his way.
“I know how much you’ll get out of it,” she said.
And that was the first time he had to explain to someone that his parents had brought him to the United States illegally.
Soon the ralliers were marching down the street with their banners and signs toward the city’s federal immigration building. Tony followed them, shouting their chants but being careful to walk only on the sidewalk, so as not to cause any trouble.
In the noise of the crowd, he heard his phone ring. His oldest brother, Javier, said he was headed to their parents’ house. He had been at work during the Sessions announcement and wanted Tony to explain it to him.
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“Okay, I’m coming,” Tony said in Spanish, then hung up and headed to the train.
Javier had recently submitted the application to renew his DACA status, and from what Tony understood, it would still be granted, covering him until fall of 2019. But one of their other brothers already had let his permit expire, because he had been advised to wait until Trump’s announcement to reapply. Now they weren’t sure if he would be able to renew. And their youngest brother, Moises, still a year too young to apply for DACA, would certainly be out of luck. No new applications were being accepted.
Tony wanted to believe Congress would agree to salvage the DACA program. And that if they didn’t, Trump might change his mind.
He stepped onto a train car, where the sunset streamed through dirty windows. The next day, he would receive a call from his dean at Davidson, informing him that they would let him enroll late for the semester, and he would rush to pack his bags and find a flight to North Carolina, worrying about all he would have to do to catch up.
But for now, he was thinking only of the conversations he would have with his brothers about the future. Unless something changed, his own DACA protections would expire March 2, 2019, two months before he is slated to graduate from college and right when he planned to look for jobs. He walked past open seats to stand near the back, grabbed a pole and checked his watch. It was nearly 2 a.m. in Paris. The doors closed, and the train carried him toward home.