By Daniela Gaona
My mother and I arrived in the United States from Colombia in the fall of 2005. We fled a country plagued by violence and corruption and were ecstatic about the opportunity to work toward the American Dream. My mother swore she would do everything she could to protect our dream; the ideals of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness that everyone across the country are in constant pursuit of. She has kept that promise to me to the best of her abilities. However, after 13 years of immigration appointments, lawyers, and thousands of dollars spent trying to legalize our family, her American dream, and a portion of my own, are coming to an abrupt end.
Before arriving to Jacksonville, Mary Cáceres was a single mother of three who often skipped dinner so she could save enough money to send her children to good schools in Colombia. She was determined to raise college-educated and successful children, an almost impossible feat in a country being torn apart by a bloody civil war. Since 1964, she watched her country slowly tear apart by communism. Her mother raised 13 children in a small one bedroom house with the guerrillas often forcing them to house and feed them by holding them at gunpoint. She slowly saw her childhood friends and neighbors disappearing as they got forced into the FARC (Revolutionary armed forces of Colombia). One of her sisters even went missing when she was a teenager. They still haven’t found her or even know if she’s alive. Sexual abuse was rampant and we were both victims of it, unfortunately.
Then in early 2005, my uncle was killed by the guerrillas—that was the last straw for my mother. She worked day and night to save enough for a visa and two plane tickets: one for herself and one for me, her youngest daughter. My two siblings were adults at this point and she knew it would be easier to bring one child until we figured out our lives in America. I was the youngest and my teachers saw potential in me, so my mom wanted my life to be different.
It was different. I grew up in sunny Florida, where my mom was eventually able to buy a small house. Things slowly fell into place for us. My mom and I made friends and became part of the community. She found a job in a nursing home and I was able to get a ballet scholarship at the Florida Ballet. We found a small multicultural parish where a few of my ballet friends and I started a dance group. She would sit with all her friends and record the dances so she could watch them later before she went to sleep.
America was a wonderful melting pot where I always felt like my small family belonged. We had a community that cared about us. I was eventually able to attend one of the best high schools in the country, Stanton College Prep, where I was lucky enough to have teachers who cared about my academic success. And yet, none of that mattered. Even though I had good grades and met all volunteer requirements to apply for scholarships, I couldn’t… because of my immigration status. I also wasn’t eligible for student loans or financial aid. This was when reality hit me: I was American in all ways but one, on paper.
The uncertainty of my immigration status subsided when DACA was introduced, around the same time that I was able to graduate from one of the best high schools in the country. Through hard work and dedication, my mother and I saved up enough money for me to attend Florida State College at Jacksonville. We both worked multiple jobs while I went to school part-time. Eventually, we both saved up enough for me to transfer to the University of North Florida where I earned my bachelor’s degree in childhood psychology. Our hard work was finally paying off, and I was so excited for the future—until the 2016 election.
Our immigration status was always in the back of my mind as a technicality that would eventually get resolved. Then the 2016 election changed everything, an administration that campaigned on a platform of xenophobia and hate was now in charge. They made it clear that the shiny beacon of hope, that American dream, was not for us. Our ambitions, plans, and lives were somehow less valid than theirs. These hateful attitudes have manifested in a number of ways. Heartbreakingly, one of those ways is a crackdown by ICE that continues to tear immigrant families away from America… away from the only life they’ve ever known.
I hoped for the best but prepared for the worst and continued to live my life as best as I could. DACA has allowed me to work as a therapist for children with autism while pursuing a graduate degree at Johns Hopkins, one of the country’s most prestigious universities. I’m pursuing a degree in school psychology because America is currently facing two epidemics that I care deeply about gun violence and mental health. My goal is to attain my PhD and work in the public school system, so I can help children like so many of my counselors and teachers helped me.
Unfortunately, for older people like my mom, their immigration status is at the forefront of their existence. Despite being granted a valid work authorization, as well as having a clean record, my mother was abruptly detained by ICE on May 21, 2018. My absolute worst fear had become a reality.
When ICE detained my mom, they initially told her she would get at least three months to get her affairs in order and say goodbye. They then turned around and arrested her the same day. My mother and I should be celebrating my acceptance into Johns Hopkins right now. Instead, she is sitting in a correctional facility and I’m sitting at home, unable to sleep or eat due to the stress of this harsh situation. We are grappling with the reality of not knowing when we will see each other next, if at all.
Between my mother facing deportation, and the uncertain future of DACA, my chances at pursuing my dream, with my mother by my side, are slipping away from me. All of the work that my mother did to give me a chance is being undone, and our worth is being judged based on where we were born, instead of what is in our hearts and what we have contributed to our community. My goals were always made possible by my mother; she gave me everything, even when she had nothing. She always found a way to work hard so that I could have a good education. She is the definition of hard work and dedication, both of which I deem very American values. If she is deported, my dreams will remain just that—dreams.
Daniela Gaona is a 22-year-old graduate student focusing on school psychology at John Hopkins University. A DACA beneficiary, she and her sister arrived to the United States at a young age with their mother, who is currently facing deportation.