DACA Program's End Leaves Oregon College Graduate on Edge: 'This Is My Home'
Ricardo Lujan-Valerio came to the United States from Mexico at age 9. His DACA doesn't expire until 2019, but he worries the Department of Justice's DACA decision will put his life dreams, including going to law school, on hold.Courtesy Ricardo Lujan-Valerio
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For Ricardo Lujan-Valerio, Oregon is home. The 22-year-old recently graduated from college with honors, and now works for a nonprofit.
But Lujan-Valerio is undocumented. He fled to the United States at age 9 with his family from a drug-ridden community in rural Mexico — and with the announcement Tuesday that the Deferred Acton for Childhood Arrivals program, also known as DACA, will be winding down, Lujan-Valerio fears the life he has built here could be imperiled.
"I've been a contributing member of my community since I moved to the United States. I consider myself an Oregonian first and foremost," Lujan-Valerio said. "No rescinding of DACA is going to change that."
Like many of the nearly 800,000 so-called Dreamers — who are living in the U.S. under an Obama-era order that allows undocumented immigrants who came here as children to remain — Lujan-Valerio doesn't know of a life in his native country. Most of what he remembers from Guanajuato in central Mexico is the constant blare of police sirens and finding bags of drugs on street corners.
The widely anticipated announcement gives Congress a six-month window to legislate a solution; otherwise, people who have DACA work permits will be able to stay only until those permits expire. Those who have permits expiring before March 5, 2018, can apply for a two-year renewal, but need to submit an application by Oct. 5.
Lujan-Valerio called Sessions' announcement "vague" and said he worried about how the government would use the information he provided to apply for DACA relief, which he received in 2013. His permit is set to expire at the beginning of 2019.
"I think that's the fear that's on everybody's minds right now. What is the administration going to do with the information that we've given them? They know everything about us," he said. "Are you going to use my information against me or against my family?"
Lujan-Valerio said he felt uncomfortable about his status for years.
"As a kid, it's embarrassing to say, 'I can't get my driver's license because I'm undocumented,'" he said. "As a teenager, it was very difficult for me to have an identity, to be safe in my own skin. I was ashamed of being brown, ashamed of having an accent."
He joined the ROTC in the conservative community he grew up in outside of San Bernardino, California, and was "as patriotic as possible."
But after meeting some local activists, Lujan-Valerio said he got fed up with feeling like he had to hide. He became an avid immigration activist himself, testifying in the Oregon state legislature for immigration rights, and he now works as the legal director of the Oregon Student Association, a nonprofit devoted to making higher education more affordable and accessible.
His work was inspired by his older sister, a star student who received acceptance letters from prestigious colleges but couldn't attend any of them because she was unable to qualify for financial aid due to the family's immigration status.
"Are you going to use my information against me or against my family?"
"We fought so hard to get to the place where we are today. We've seen so much pain in our journey, that it's disheartening to see an administration that doesn't understand what we've been through," Lujan-Valerio said.
He dismissed criticism that undocumented immigrants take from this country without giving anything back.
"I'm paying taxes to a system that I will never be able to get money back from. I'm volunteering my time as much as I can, and I devote myself to organizations," he said. "It's very disheartening to hear people saying we're reaping benefits."
Lujan-Valerio has dreams of going to law school in the U.S. one day. He is galvanizing with other activists to get action taken on Capitol Hill so he and other undocumented immigrants who haven't committed any offenses can stay.
"If it ever came to the point where we get taken back to Mexico, it's really, really worrisome, because that's not home," he said "That's where my roots are, that's my culture, but at the end of the day, this is my home."
Elizabeth Chuck is a reporter for NBC News.
Suzanne Gamboa is a national reporter for NBC Latino and NBCNews.com