Yehimi Cambron missed class this week to fight for her life.
The DeKalb County teacher was among immigrants and activists in Washington, putting a full-court press on legislators to pass the Dream Act, which would add protections for undocumented residents brought to the United States as children.
Their efforts, planned over the past few weeks, took place as the contentious national debate about whether to allow a path to legal status broke out in news headlines. It was highlighted by President Donald Trump’s highly publicized conciliatory meeting with congressional leaders to talk about a solution and promising to sign a bill they would bring him, then criticizing the compromise a bi-partisan group of them proposed. Then the whole thing went up in verbal flames with Thursday’s reporting of Trump’s use of a derogatory term to describe poor, non-white countries during further immigration discussions.
Cambron, a 25-year-old art teacher, is one of hundreds of thousands whose future depends on the outcome of those wobbly discussions — and whose parents now fear seeing their dream of a better life for their children dissolve.
Unless new legislation is enacted, Cambron and about 800,000 people like her who qualify for privileges under the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) could lose permits to work and drive and the ability to go to school. It could force them to live an undocumented existence, or be returned to a home country they don’t know.
“In a year, I won’t be able to teach anymore. In a year, I won’t be able to drive anymore,” said Cambron, whose DACA permit expires in February 2019. “I’m right at home and I can’t imagine not having the ability to do what I’m doing today, and I love what I’m doing.”
They had been shielded from deportation under DACA, which Trump decided to terminate on the self-imposed deadline of March 5. Though there were a whirl of meetings and statements from political leaders this week saying they hope to find a resolution, it’s unclear if they can cross the political fences that divide them.
In meetings early Tuesday with Democrats and Republicans, Trump said he was open to a long-term plan that would create a pathway to legal residency for undocumented residents already in the country, a contrast to the anti-immigration stance he took during his run for the White House. He has now said he wants a plan that would help Dreamers, as they are called, become legal residents. But, later in the day, he emphasized, any plan must include funding for a controversial and expensive border wall on the U.S./Mexico border that he campaigned on.
Congressional Democrats are tying legal protection for those brought here as children to a must-pass-by-Monday government funding bill. That brought stinging criticism from the White House.
Most Republicans prefer to separately pass immigration legislation, pairing those changes with Trump-backed proposals such as ending a federal visa lottery program, curtailing so-called chain migration – in which Americans sponsor their foreign relatives to bring them to the U.S., and allocating money to begin building the border wall.
Most of those demands are non-starters for Democrats.
According to the Center for American Progress, more than 10,000 DACA permit recipients have lost them since September, and another 122 more lose their protections each day.
It’s a critical moment for Cambron and approximately 21,000 other DACA recipients in Georgia.
“This is the moment we’ve been fearing since the election in November (2016),” she said. “Congress needs to act. Now is the time for us to mobilize and fight for something more stable and provide a path to citizenship … for people to really be a part of the country and be able to contribute in a really big way.”
Those against proposed changes say those in Cambron’s situation have not earned the rights of Americans.
Effective immigration enforcement is an imperative to keep the country out of disarray, said Mike Hethmon, senior counsel for the Immigration Reform Law Institute, which advocates for the legal interests of citizens and civic associations concerned with the impacts of immigration.
“The low range of the number of people that would drop everything overseas and come to the United States is 200 million,” he said. “The upper end, over half a billion people. The point being whether you have a very generous immigration system for entrance into the U.S., you have to have an effective enforcement regime. Other than that, the United States would cease to exist as we know it. The demand can never be met completely.
“Like a hospital after a hurricane, it’s triage.”
Hethmon said, “It’s just the height of hubris arrogance, it seems to me, for these people to have some legitimate claim to be part of the community of the United States. They’ve received extraordinary generous benefits from the public and the public taxpayers — education, health care, other strands in the bundle of benefits that make up lawful residency and citizenship. They’re received all of those simply by the fact their parents broke the law.
“I don’t see how that creates a standard in the United States that is acceptable.”
Cambron has always known she wasn’t born here. Her parents came to the United States from Mexico in 2002 with three children, leaving behind a culture, dozens of extended family members and a home they’d worked hard to build. Cambron said her father crossed the border when she was young to earn wages he couldn’t find in Mexico.
“I grew up aware I was undocumented, just not realizing exactly what that could mean,” she said.
It became painstakingly clear in high school.
At 15, she won third place in an art competition, but couldn’t collect the $50 prize without a Social Security number.
“Even though I spent hours and hours and hours working on this after school on top of all my school assignments, not having these numbers meant I didn’t deserve to be rewarded for my work,” Cambron said. “That’s also the messaging that comes across when we can’t apply for scholarships when we’re banned from the top five universities in the state that we call home. When we’re told we can’t drive legally and we can’t do basic things like go to a doctor’s appointment of dentist appointment because we don’t have a license.”
Once teachers started encouraging her to pick a college to continue her studies, she learned undocumented students can’t get into every school, and they pay more for tuition, a rule battled unsuccessfully in Georgia courts. Undocumented residents also aren’t eligible for federal student aid.
“When I started driving, you’re conditioned to stay low and stay in the shadows. Seeing a cop made my heart drop. My legs would get numb. The fear that would run through me,” she said.
DACA opened doors previously padlocked. Being verified in national clearinghouses, she could get a license to drive, go to college and get a job in her preferred field. Cambron graduated from Agnes Scott College in 2014 with a bachelor’s degree in studio art and joined Teach For America.
In her teaching job at Cross Keys, “I’m in a place where I can empower my students to turn their fears into artwork.”
After the Trump administration announced it would phase out DACA, Cambron’s mother, Maria Estela Alvarez, apologized to her for bringing her into the United States as a little girl.
Alvarez said, however, it was a sacrifice she would make over with no hesitation, given the opportunities her children have.
“It’s really hard to talk about (DACA),” she said through her daughter. “Depression came from it. It’s really hard … because they’re taking away the opportunity (my children) have.”
Alvarez said she has not returned to Mexico since leaving, and little remains to go back to. But the possibility of being deported is worse for her children.
“For (my children) it’s harder because they didn’t grow up there. They don’t know the country. DACA is a big opportunity … that’s allowed them to drive and work. Without it, it’s going to be very difficult to live … like normal people should live.
“If I have to leave, I leave. But my life is here, with them.”
Cambron expressed concern with the possibility of returning to a country she barely knows.
“I don’t know any of my relatives there,” she said.
It’s not an existence she’ll resign herself to, not without a fight.
About 86 percent of Cambron’s students are Hispanic or Latino, with parents who mostly speak English as a second language, if at all. Many of those students arrived in the United States as babies and young children
After the Trump decision, Cambron and America Flores, a senior at Cross Keys who also has a DACA permit, started the CK Monarchs, a club to support DACA recipients and immigrant students. More than 50 people joined immediately. America, 17, said it gives students an outlet to discuss how the current political landscape affects them.
Cambron’s words helped her. “With all the stress being a high school senior, when I heard about the decision, it felt like it was too much. When she told me to try not to worry about it too much, it helped me focus on school only.”
America said she’s found out many more of her friends have received temporary legal status through DACA than she realized.
Rebekah Morris, a former Cross Keys teacher, said students see Cambron as a living, breathing example of the lesson many of the teachers try to impart: Go out and be successful.
“The fact that Yehimi has come back to Cross Keys after being successful … has been super inspiring to the students to understand they, too, can achieve these dreams that they have,” she said. “We encourage kids from backgrounds that are not highly resourced … to go out and go be successful somewhere else. This really challenges that — go out, be successful and come back and reinvest those skills and those gifts and that passion in the same community you came up in.
“I think that’s a powerful narrative that we need to encourage people toward being successful and coming back to their communities.”
Staff writer Tamar Hallerman contributed to this report