Ernesto Cervantes Trejo, 23, teaches Catholic confirmation classes to teens at St. Stephen Catholic Church in Sanford, North Carolina.
Video: Roger Newton
SANFORD, North Carolina — After midnight one Saturday, Teresa Rivera and her mother Juana Capcha had just fallen asleep on the overstuffed couch in their living room in Huancayo, Peru. Suddenly they were jolted awake by the sound of a door slamming shut as Rivera’s father stormed into the house — reeking of beer. He staggered over to Rivera’s mother and began an angry tirade.
“He said she’d been out seeing other men,” Rivera said. Then he pulled Capcha’s hair and slapped her across the face.
This was one of many times Rivera saw her father abusing her mother. After years of domestic abuse, Capcha and her three children fled Peru for Edison, New Jersey. They eventually ended up resettling in Raleigh and then Holly Springs, North Carolina where the cost of living was lower.
In North Carolina, Rivera received the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals designation, or DACA, when she was 18, which allowed her to get her driver’s license and a Social Security number.
She enrolled in North Carolina’s Wake Tech Community College, where she studied for two years before transferring to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Though she was far from Peru, it was her experiences there witnessing domestic abuse that shaped the classes she chose to take and the career she ultimately wanted to pursue.
“When I experienced domestic violence I didn’t have help or anyone to talk to. I wish I had someone who’d been there for me,” she said.
Today, Rivera, now 22, is a part-time child facilitator at a nonprofit called Interact, which helps support women and children who have experienced and/or witnessed domestic violence. She’s also finishing her senior year as a psychology major at UNC and plans to pursue graduate school in social work.
She is just one of many so-called Dreamers, the name for participants in a federal Obama-era program that protects nearly 690,000 immigrants in the United States from deportation who came here illegally as minors. There are about 27,000 Dreamers who reside in North Carolina.
While some political groups have painted them as selfish — taking jobs and opportunities away from native-born citizens — many like Rivera are focused on giving back to youth in their communities, doing everything from social work to mentoring.
DACA was officially rescinded by President Donald Trump in September 2017, with renewals allowed until Oct. 5. Renewals have since been reinstated after a court order issued Jan. 9 while a lawsuit challenging the decision to end the program moves forward.
It’s not just the Dreamers who stand to lose if there are no new legislative protections put in place: It could have hefty economic consequences for states like North Carolina. Patrick McHugh, economic analyst for the progressive research and advocacy organization North Carolina Justice Center, said the Cato Institute (a libertarian think tank) predicted that ending DACA could cost North Carolina $7.8 billion in the next decade alone.
“If we don’t invest, it means that we’re going to be turning away skills and talents that we desperately need as a state still recovering from the Great Recession,” McHugh said. “We have an aging workforce without easy replacements. If we turn [Dreamers] away and send them into the periphery, we are only hurting the state economy.”
In the midst of this political turmoil around the program, Rivera is one of the few who will remain protected — but not through DACA. She recently qualified to be a U.S. resident due to unusual family circumstances. Her grandparents have been here for years. There is no legal path to citizenship through DACA.
Although her process could take about four years, her future is much more certain than those of the hundreds of thousands of other Dreamers with similar backgrounds, but without the same opportunities.
“I do have a lot of friends where DACA is the only hope they have to stay here legally,” Rivera said. “Knowing that DACA is going to end … you’re putting an expiration date on their lives.”
Zabdi Samuel Olvera, 18, like most Dreamers is living under the ticktock of a deadline. He was brought from Mexico to Charlotte, North Carolina at 6 months old. A freshman, he’s majoring in computer science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. But although that major screams stability, with DACA in flux he can’t plan his future.
He even has more financial support than many other undergraduates. DACA recipients in North Carolina don’t get in-state tuition, so paying for the cost of higher education is an insurmountable barrier for many. He won the Golden Door Scholarship, which provides a full ride in college for undocumented students, last year as a high school senior.
But if DACA is abolished, Olvera won’t be able to work in this country, even with a degree.
“It’s hard to say. I don’t know what I’ll do if there’s no DACA. I guess I’ll have to go back to living in the shadows,” he said.
And he knows exactly what that looks like: His dad is undocumented, and he’s watched him live his life in fear.
“Once my dad called me downstairs and he said he wanted to talk. He told me not to open the door for anybody regardless. And when I looked at him in his eyes you could tell the fear he had. And that’s just not how somebody should live — every day in fear,” Olvera said.
Crimmigration is when vulnerable undocumented youth are caught between immigration and the criminal justice system. They are put at risk and punished for being brought to the U.S. by their parents. After being detained, children are put through criminal procedures and then face immigration services, an experience that some worry will increase with DACA in jeopardy.
Video: Lauren Floyd
His passion is to provide hope for young people, something he can’t do living in the shadows. He developed that goal in high school when he worked at the nonprofit Urban Promise, where he took on the role of teacher, brother and friend to children in south Charlotte.
“I really didn’t have that much of an easy childhood. And I know kids in south Charlotte usually come home to broken homes,” Olvera said.
His father had a drinking problem and his parents split when he was young. When he was 8 years old, his mother died, unbeknownst to the rest of his family. He was taken to an orphanage for a week.
His grandfather eventually found out he was at the orphanage and contacted his father to pick him up, but that experience of being alone right after his mother’s sudden death never left him. And helping young people became a driving force in Olvera’s life — a force strengthened by coaches and career counselors who saw his potential and encouraged him to apply for the Golden Door Scholarship.
Now his dream is to give other undocumented students the same opportunity those career counselors gave him.
“The college process is really difficult when you’re undocumented because you don’t get federal or state aid,” Olvera said. “That’s the barrier that prevents them from going to college.” He wants to create a computer application that acts like an on-call college advisor to help connect undocumented students with the resources and opportunities available to them.
For now, he is connecting young Latinos to college resources the old-fashioned way — in person. He volunteers weekly as a peer mentor to two Latino high school students through North Carolina’s Scholar Latino Initiative (N.C. Sli).
One of those students, Daniel Gonzalez, 17, is a Dreamer from Mexico. A junior at Chapel Hill High School, in North Carolina, he aspires to be the first in his family to go to college in the United States. He says Olvera is an inspiration because he was the first member of his family in the U.S. to attend college.
“He gives me hope for my future and going to college and stuff like that. Seeing him and how he made it into college makes me more confident that I can too,” Gonzalez said. “Because if he can do it I can do it.”
But it’s not just hope that Olvera shares with Gonzalez. Olvera was a high school wrestler and Gonzalez is too. As a varsity-level high school athlete, Olvera has shared with his mentee the nitty-gritty of how to stay on top both athletically and academically — to be as competitive as possible for the scholarships Gonzalez is going to need.
“One time he came to practice and I was stressing about keeping up with homework and dealing with wrestling practice after school. He said when he was in the same situation as a senior, he would stay up until 4 a.m. because he had to do his AP [advanced placement] classes and do wrestling some nights,” Gonzalez said. “He said that it’s hard at first but you learn to manage your time.”
Gonzalez said Olvera hammered home that to be successful in both arenas, Gonzalez would have to be productive during any pocket of free time he had — including lunch.
While Olvera has helped Gonzalez with factors in his life that remain somewhat in his control, like athletics and academics, they haven’t touched on the issue that could decide both of their futures: the fate of DACA.
“I don’t like to talk about it,” said Gonzalez who wants to either be a lawyer or a veterinarian. “School here isn’t like school there [in Mexico]. I worry that my level of education won’t be the same and that my opportunities won’t be the same.”
And he wants those opportunities so he can give back to others the way that Olvera gave back to him.
“One of the goals of life is to help other undocumented Latino students. It’s a support system,” Gonzalez said.