In Southfield, Mitzi Cruz, 23, a daughter of undocumented immigrants from Mexico, is majoring in math at Lawrence Tech University. She has already co-founded a tech company.
In Lincoln Park, Juan Gonzalez, 24, a son of undocumented immigrants from Mexico, who has lived in the U.S. since he was 1, dreams of becoming an attorney. He works long hours at Quicken Loans while studying at Wayne State University.
And in Detroit, Xochitl Orcozo, 24, a daughter of undocumented immigrants, teaches history and psychology to high school students.
All three of them were able to work and study legally in the U.S. after then-President Barack Obama created the DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) program in 2012 for the children of undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children. Through DACA, they can get a driver's license, attend college, and get a job without fear of deportation for a period of two years that's renewable.
But in September, President Donald Trump announced he was ending the program, setting a March 5 deadline unless Congress passed new legislation for DACA recipients, often known as 'Dreamers' after the proposed DREAM (Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors) Act. Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions said that Obama's DACA order was unlawful, usurping the authority of Congress.
With the deadline fast approaching, DACA recipients in Michigan are anxious about their future, wondering if they will be able to remain in the U.S. after their DACA status expires. Many have never lived in the countries they left as kids, and would find themselves lost if they were forced to leave. Moreover, they and immigrant advocates argue their forced removals would be a substantial economic loss to southeastern Michigan, resulting in reduced economic activity, population growth, and less taxes.
The DACA issue has become politically contested in recent weeks, with Trump on Friday again blasting Democrats for, as he said, not helping DACA recipients. Amid the political chaos, many of the young immigrants are trying to stay focused on attaining their goals.
"I was born in Mexico, came to America at age 1," Gonzalez said on a recent night while studying in a classroom at Wayne State University. "I'm American in every way, shape, or form, except on paper. ... We want citizenship for people like me and there are millions of others that are Americans at heart, in minds, in spirits, and soul. We just want to contribute to this country."
There are anywhere from 5,400 to 6,700 DACA recipients in Michigan, out of close to 700,000 nationally, according to estimates. About 10,000 people in Michigan total would quality for DACA, out of 1.33 million nationally. In addition, there are other undocumented immigrants who may qualify to remain in the U.S. under proposed congressional legislation to legalize them, such as Jorge Garcia of Lincoln Park, who was one year too old to qualify for DACA and was deported last month to Mexico.
Losing DACA recipients would hurt Michigan, said Steve Tobocman, a former state representative in Detroit who's now director of Global Detroit, a group that says immigrants can help the local economy.
"The economics around the DACA issue suggest that it is a very positive economic benefit to the region," Tobocman said. "DACA recipients are able to come out from under the shadows and participate in the formal economy and that makes them more attractive for employers that need their skills. It enables them to start businesses and create jobs. We have evidence that that has happened, very much so."
Allowing DACA recipients and other children of undocumented immigrants to remain in the U.S. by passing the bipartisan DREAM Act, would lead to an increase of at least $197 million in Michigan's GDP (gross domestic product) annually, according to a study released last year by the Center for American Progress.
If you include the educational changes that would result, it would lead to a $657-million increase in Michigan's GDP, assuming about half of the DACA recipients pursued higher education, the study estimated. Nationally, permanently legalizing DACA recipients would add at least $281 billion to the GDP and as much as $1 trillion over the course of a decade, the study said.
About 15,000 people in Michigan would qualify under the proposed congressional legislation aimed at children of undocumented immigrants.
Since Trump announced in September that the DACA program would end, an average of 122 DACA recipients per day have been losing their status. After March 5, thousands more could lose their status every day, said David Sanchez, an immigrant organizer with Michigan United.
"There's definitely a lot of anxiety," said Gonzalez. "If the DREAM Act doesn't get passed, I would lose my jobs, can't pay my bills, can't afford school. It would really put my future in jeopardy."
When Obama created the DACA program in 2012, "it really changed my life and for my family."
Now, he fears he could be removed to a country, he knows little about.
'Break the chain of being uneducated'
Cruz, the math major at Lawrence Tech University, hasn't been to Mexico since she was 5 years old, when she was brought to the U.S.
"My Spanish is very bad," Cruz said in the university's room where the Math Club meets. "I've definitely made it a goal to speak better Spanish ... just in case" of being deported.
"It would be definitely a culture clash for me and I would have to adapt."
The story of Cruz's life reflects the hopes and fears of many like her across Michigan and the U.S. It's one of success, but also marked by family tragedy.
When she was about 3 years old, her father left Chiapas, Mexico, where he had struggled as a fisherman. At the age of 5, she was brought illegally to the U.S. by other adults, who then reunited her with her parents.
Raised in Phoenix, Cruz graduated from high school with a 3.8 and got a volleyball and academic scholarship to Lawrence Tech.
Cruz said: "As soon as I got to the U.S., my parents nailed into my head that I was going to get an education, that I was going to go to school, and I was going to break the chain of being uneducated in my family."
Cruz became active in school, was president of the university's Math Club, which participates in competitions and does outreach to the community, such as providing meals for poor people.
In 2016, her father committed suicide at the age of 40.
"I think the hardest thing was he hadn't been able to see his family for close to 20 years so that may have been an impact," said Cruz, her eyes welling up. "Also ... I know he just had gotten fired that day."
"He worked in construction for about 15 years and the only vacation he took was when he had surgery and that was it for 15 years straight," Cruz said. "Within two years of working there, he got the manager position ... he always fought for his workers."
Cruz said her father's untimely death won't deter her from her plans. Her DACA status expired in October and she's reapplied to renew it.
"I can't make any more excuses," she said. "After my dad's funeral, I got back a week later and I was at work. And I was going back at it. I'm not here to live in sorrow. My dad made his decision. I have to move on forward."
Cruz is focused now on graduating from college with a degree in math and she hopes to get a master's degree in financial mathematics.The company she co-founded, knoME, seeks to help companies retain young talent.
'You just feel as someone less'
Born in Guanajuato, Mexico, Jose Rodriguez was brought to Detroit at the age of 5.
He attended Detroit public schools and didn't realize he was undocumented until he was in high school and tried to get a driver's license.
"It's when I learned that, unfortunately, I couldn't even apply to get a license," said Rodriguez, today 24. "Looking for a job was also difficult, and I couldn't apply for a job. I couldn't get hired anywhere. Those types of things that just makes you feel like alienated from everybody else. You don't feel like the rest of your friends. ... You just feel as someone less."
Being undocumented, he also couldn't apply for financial aid and loans, but he was able to get a private scholarship to attend Western Michigan University in Traverse City, earning a degree in mechanical engineering.
The DACA program allowed him to finally study and live without fear.
"Fortunately, with DACA, I was able to get a driver's license and worked through college and paid for my books, something that my scholarship wouldn't cover."
Today, he's a project development engineer working in metro Detroit.
The skills of people like Rodriguez are needed in metro Detroit, which has faced challenges with population growth and attracting skilled workers, experts say.
A report last month by the Brookings Institution on immigrants and Rust Belt states like Michigan said the loss of DACA recipients and other "Dreamers would undercut the Midwest’s continuing efforts to transform itself into a more vibrant knowledge economy," costing the region about $2.8 billion in economic activity.
The vast majority of DACA recipients are from Latin countries, with more than 79% of them from Mexico, according to United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) statistics.
Political fight for legal status
Orcozo, a schoolteacher, was born in Jalisco, Mexico, but moved to southwest Detroit with her family when she was 2 years old.
Getting DACA status in 2013 "was a huge relief ... because there's no public reliable transportation in Detroit and I have to get to school," she said. "It was very stressful every day just getting behind the wheel. That was the biggest relief for me just being able to drive and have peace of mind.
"At the same time, it was never a full peace of mind because I knew this was something that could be easily taken away."
Two federal court decisions this year, by judges in New York and San Francisco, that blocked Trump's ending of DACA have brought some hope, but there's concern they could be overturned by the Supreme Court.
Orcozo and others have been rallying in Detroit in recent weeks, holding protests outside the offices of U.S. Sens. Debbie Stabenow and Gary Peters, saying the two Democrats from Michigan have not been strong advocates for DACA legislation. They're also upset with the Trump administration's opposition to bipartisan DACA solutions.
"We expect certain things from a conservative Republican officials," Sanchez said. "But we weren't really expecting the Democrats not to stand up for undocumented youth, we weren't expecting them not to stand up for DACA recipients and the Dreamers. It seems like they say one thing and they do another."
In a statement in response to criticism of her stance, Stabenow said: “It was wrong for the administration to pull the rug out from young people brought to this country as children. I strongly support passing the DREAM Act to fully address the crisis that has been created for the young people I have met in Michigan who are working hard, going to school and serving in our military. Our country needs to keep its promise to them.”
Peters said in a statement: “Michigan Dreamers are active members of our community: They attend our schools, serve in our nation’s military and work in businesses across our state. America is the only home that many of these young men and women have ever known. I have appreciated hearing firsthand from Michigan Dreamers about their stories. ... I am proud to have voted in favor of the DREAM Act previously, and believe Congress must take action to swiftly pass the DREAM Act.”
'I have a vision'
Gonzalez of Lincoln Park is majoring in sociology at Wayne State and plans to take the LSATs in the fall as he hopes to attend law school.
That depends, though, if his DACA protections remain with him. At Quicken Loans, where has worked for four years, there are more than 20 other DACA recipients, he said.
"Little by little, I started coming forward with different people, different leaders in the company," about my DACA status, he said. "They've all been very welcoming, very open. They've done everything they could help me out. ... I felt welcome."
Without DACA, Gonzalez fears being sent back into a world where his rights and life will be at stake.
Growing up, he remembers his parents cautioning him against revealing his undocumented status in public. "They wanted me to beware, be careful of who I spoke to, to never bring it up," he recalled.
When he was 16 years old, Gonzalez remembers being denied a job as a dishwasher at a restaurant because he was undocumented and lacked a Social Security card.
"That's when it hit me: I won't be able to work, won't be able to go to school. I was depressed a little, but still had a dream of going to college," he said.
He was interested in joining the Marines, as a way to serve and to obtain a path to citizenship, but a recruiter told him that could not be guaranteed. He said he was detained by police when he was 18 for not having a driver's license, which can't be obtained in Michigan by undocumented immigrants.
After becoming a DACA recipient, Gonzalez worked at State Farm Insurance, GM, and now at Quicken Loans in downtown Detroit. While he's worried about his DACA status, he doesn't have time to fret too much about the political drama swirling around him.
"I'm pretty much busy all weekend and all week long," Gonzalez said. "I get no breaks. I have something in my mind. I have a vision, a way to where I'm going."
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