Esperanza can still remember the time in the desert when she briefly lost her mother and little sister. It was the middle of the night, and she remembers pulling cactus spines out of the sides of her shoes and hearing coyotes howling in the distance. She was 8.
That it was in 2001, when Esperanza, her sister and mother finally crossed the border after several tries to reunite with her father in New York. He had arrived earlier in search of work and better circumstances for his family.
Esperanza, now 27, has spent most of her life in New York and is the mother of two U.S.-born children, 7 and 2.
Because Esperanza and her younger sister Malena — both of whom did not give their real names to protect their identities — were under 16 when they entered the U.S., they were eligible years later for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, the Obama-era program that allowed around 700,000 young immigrants known as “Dreamers” to study and work in the U.S. without fear of deportation.
The Supreme Court recently heard oral arguments in a case that challenges the Trump administration’s decision to end DACA in 2017. Court watchers say questions from justices who are part of the court’s conservative majority indicate they may allow the administration to go ahead and end the program.
Hoping for "some good changes"
“I just put my hope and faith in God that one day there could be some good changes,” said Esperanza. “But honestly there’s not much that we can do at this point.”
The uncertainty spotlighted by the Supreme Court case has been a constant theme in the lives of mixed-status U.S. immigrant families for decades — families like those of Esperanza and Malena. The two sisters have DACA status and their parents are undocumented, but the sisters have a younger sister, now 14, who was born in the U.S., and therefore is a U.S. citizen, like Esperanza's daughters.
Mixed-status households live with the uncertainty of the least-secure family member. There are 16.7 million people living in mixed-status households, according to a report by the Center for American Progress, a public policy research and advocacy organization. About 1.2 million New York state residents live with at least one undocumented family member.
Esperanza graduated from high school in 2011, the year before DACA was enacted. Unable to apply for a federal loan, she heard about a scholarship offered by Verizon through her high school that could have helped her pay for college. She remembers asking if she might be eligible and being told that she would need a green card to apply.
“That discouraged me so bad," Esperanza said. She couldn't afford college without a scholarship and without a Social Security number, she couldn’t legally work. She was 19, and months later, pregnant with her first daughter, she found her priorities changing.
By contrast, Malena had DACA status by the time she graduated high school, and her prospects were significantly better. She won a scholarship designed for DACA recipients by an organization called TheDream.US.
Now 23, Malena studies health-service administration at Lehman College and is interested in working with people with disabilities.
But even though Malena has a college degree, her fate depends on whether the Supreme Court allows DACA to continue or sides with the administration's efforts to end the program — or whether Congress passes legislation that would create a legal pathway for young undocumented immigrants like her.
“I think we’re going to get our citizenship one day. And I need to believe that,” she said. “I don’t care what administration does it at this point. Somebody just do it.”
The fate of young immigrants has long been a point of political contention. The first federal Dream Act — an acronym for Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors — was introduced in Congress in 2001. Since the DACA program was put in place in 2012 as an executive order, recipients have had to renew their status every two years with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
"They just go on"
With their current DACA status, Esperanza and Malena are free to work and travel within the U.S. Their mother, however, doesn't have a state ID, so she cannot board a plane, and without a driver’s license, she cannot drive legally. Even as a passenger, getting stopped at a checkpoint could be a ticket back to Mexico.
“We wish we could travel as a family,” Esperanza said. "We never travel."
Leaving the U.S. is not a problem for Esperanza and Malena's younger sister who was born in New York.
Last summer, the younger sister did something for the first time that the rest of the family remains unable to do. She visited Mexico.
For their mother, 47, visiting her father back home — even on his death bed — was an impossibility. “I told him forgive me, but I can’t come,” she said in Spanish, remembering the difficult decision. “If I couldn’t see you in life, there’s no way I’m coming just to see you dead,” she recalled telling him on the phone.
She said not being present for the death of her father disturbed her to the point that she spoke about it with one of the pastors from the Church of Our Savior in the Bronx. One of the church's other pastors, Rev. Tulio Ramirez, said he's seen more fear among the many mixed-status families in his church since President Donald Trump was elected.
In less than a month, Malena will be graduating from college, the first in the family to do so. Esperanza works as a bookkeeper in her father’s construction company, where she has worked since she was 13.
Next year, Esperanza will be 28, the age her mother was when she made the trip from Mexico to the U.S., and her two young daughters will be the ages that she and her sister were when they got lost in the desert.
Their American story has become generational.
“In the blink of an eye,” Esperanza said, “we are no longer little girls.”
As families wait for the Supreme Court's decision on DACA, expected next year, Ramirez said he's seen more fear among church members, but "at the same time a sense of resilience."
For the families, it's like, "‘OK, just another problem, another government policy, and at the end of the day, we are invisible and let us do our invisible things — hopefully nobody catches us,’” Ramirez said. “They just go on.”