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A dreamer’s reality

The story of one of Hawaiʻi’s 315 DACA recipients and his family’s struggle to thrive in America

Will Caron

The first time Elviz’s father attempted to cross the U.S.–Mexico border he was caught by immigration. He was sent back across the border, a fortified line on a political map; one our government and far too many of our people put increasing stock in. Like many lower income families in Mexico, Elviz’s mother and father struggled to find opportunities to thrive in their native country. Elviz’s father faced a choice that an increasing number of immigrants are forced to confront: remain in Mexico and continue to struggle, or cross into the United States illegally to look for work and the promise of greater opportunity.

Considering the grim reality of that choice, he attempted the crossing again just a few months after being rounded up and forced back to Mexico. This time he made it through the desert into the land of supposed opportunity. For the next two years, Elviz’s father worked in the U.S. while Elviz and his mom stayed in Mexico.

As is often the case with such illegal crossings, the original plan was for Elviz’s dad to stay in America for 3–4 years, make enough money to lift his family up to the next economic strata, and then go back. But that didn’t happen. It’s a common thread among undocumented immigrants: “It’s a lot harder to survive in the United States than I think my parents thought it would be,” says Elviz. “It was difficult for my dad to save money to send back to us.”

Once it became clear that Elviz’s father would not be able to return so soon, his mother decided that she would bring Elviz with her and cross into the United States too.

“A lot of people in Mexico, when they cross the border, they leave their kids with relatives because crossing the border is really dangerous and they don’t want their kids to have to do that,” says Elviz. “But I’m an only child, and my mom couldn’t leave me. She needed me to be with her.”

So, as a 5-year-old, Elviz made the crossing with his mother, guided by the coyotes—the men who lead immigrants through the desert. They, too, were caught once and sent to Nogales, a town on the border between Arizona and Mexico that is literally split in half by the U.S. border wall. Elviz’s father was able to make some phone calls and secure their release and, from there, the family traveled to California and bought their tickets to come straight to Hawaiʻi Island. They’ve been based there ever since.

“I arrived on the Big Island on November 25, 2004,” says Elviz. “When I got to Hawaiʻi, I didn’t know any English. I was just a little kid and I didn’t know what was going on. I didn’t know what making a life in America meant.”

Elviz speaks in a measured, thoughtful way. Although he tells me his English is not great, he has no trouble with the language; the residual accent from his youngest years spent in Mexico City is noticeable, but slight.

“In all the years I’ve lived in Hawaiʻi, I have been very lucky to have never directly encountered racist people—I think that’s one of the best things about Hawaiʻi,” Elviz continues. “After Trump won the election, I still didn’t notice negative comments towards me. But maybe other immigrants experience discrimination in Hawaiʻi. I believe it [racism] has gotten worse after Trump won the election because those kinds of people see a leader that wants immigrants out of the country and who is openly hostile against them. I think it encourages them to lash out at immigrants.”

“When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.

“It’s coming from more than Mexico. It’s coming from all over South and Latin America, and it’s coming probably—probably—from the Middle East. But we don’t know. Because we have no protection and we have no competence, we don’t know what’s happening. And it’s got to stop and it’s got to stop fast.”

With these inflammatory, misleading and confused words, Donald J. Trump announced his candidacy for the highest office in the United States government in June of 2015. And ever since then, the narrative of a growing normalcy of the type of bigoted rhetoric expressed in those sentences has unfolded. This has had a wide range of real impacts on the lives of immigrants—both documented and undocumented. It has lead to increases in violent hate crimes directed at immigrants and Muslim-Americans. It has led to a furthered divide between Americans who accept what writer and activist Junot Díaz calls the “psychic capital of whiteness” as currency and Americans who do not. And it has led to systemic backlashes—generated from within the Trump Administration and entertained by a feckless Congress dominated by Republicans—against progressive policies from the administration of former president Barack Obama.

One such backlash came against the Obama-era executive policy known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA)—which President Obama signed after Congress failed thrice to pass badly needed immigration reform. DACA covers some 800,000 undocumented immigrant youth, commonly referred to as “dreamers,” who entered the country illegally, but who have lived the majority of their lives in the United States, have never committed a major crime, are contributing members of society and who are both loyal to their adopted country and who consider their place in America to be of the highest privilege. Elviz is among this population of dreamers.

The DACA policy was rescinded by the Trump administration on September 5, 2017, but full implementation of the rescission was delayed six months to give Congress time to decide on how to deal with the population that was previously eligible under the policy. In Hawaiʻi, that population is relatively small, with just 315 applicants approved as of 2016.

But to those 315 dreamers and their families, the situation is far more complicated and impactful than numbers on a page can convey. For them, this is about the dream for a better future. It’s the reason Elviz and his family made the dangerous journey across the continental United States’ southern border. For families like Elviz’s, Trump’s rescission of DACA is about the calloused rejection of that dream and the cruel realization that the promise of America is, in fact, a hollow shell filled instead with paranoia, racism, hysteria, distrust and incredible hypocrisy.

If one takes the time to talk to these young people and to familiarize oneself with their struggles, their triumphs, their tragedies, their hopes and, yes, their dreams, one cannot help but be nothing short of impressed by their positive attitude and perseverance, and proud of their place among us, whether on the continental United States or here in Hawaiʻi.

American Reality

Elviz was born in Mexico City, Mexico, on December 31, 1998. After he and his mother moved to the U.S. and were finally reunited with his father, the difficulty of the whole situation began to take its toll on the family. “Once we got to Hawaiʻi, my mom and dad started having issues—they were having problems, so my mom moved out and took me with her,” Elviz recalls. “We lived at my auntie’s house for a few months until we found a small little studio for us to live in, but after three years, my dad moved back in with us.”

Elviz attended Kona Adventist Christian School. “We call it kacs,” he sounds out phonetically. “When I was little, my mom made new friends and worked really hard to put me into that school. She even converted to the same sect of Christianity to help me get into that school. I had attended a public Kindergarten in Mexico, but when I came here I took Kindergarten again because I didn’t know any English. It wasn’t that hard for me though because I had cousins going to that school already; they were born in Hawaiʻi. They would help translate things for me when I didn’t understand.”

Elviz attended KACS through eighth grade, graduating in 2013. “By this point I knew that I was undocumented and I knew that I didn’t have the same rights and privileges as other kids,” he says. “I knew the government wasn’t going to offer me the same kind of help that it would offer other students. I couldn’t get my license, or a state I.D. and other typical citizen and resident things you need to do.”

Elviz’s family found out about a school on Oʻahu called Hawaiian Mission Academy (HMA) and Elviz made it his goal to attend. “It’s a boarding school and I wanted to experience Oʻahu,” he relates. “My mom and dad were still together at the time, and thankfully my dad had found a good job that was paying him a decent wage. My mom was working at different restaurants, cooking and prepping and helping out. So because of them, I was able to move to Honolulu.”

During his last year at KACS, Elviz began filling his application for HMA. But he was worried that his undocumented status might limit his chances of entering the school. But then the family found out about DACA, and Elviz remembers excitedly filling out the paperwork that would allow him to function as a legal resident of the U.S.

“People were telling us it was really hard to get accepted into the program because a lot of people are trying to apply for their kids,” he says. “That was discouraging. But I had no police record and had never done anything illegal—except crossing the border—so thankfully I was accepted. We filled out the papers and paid the $600—it’s not cheap—and a month later I got my [employment authorization] card. I could do many things with that card. I could work legally, I could get a state I.D. and my driver’s license, which I was really happy about. It had been hard seeing my friends start preparing to get their driver’s licenses and I’m just thinking like, ‘I’ll never be able to have those experiences and those privileges.’ It was hard for me. But now I had an employment authorization card; I even had a Social Security card.”

There was one problem with his DACA card though: the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS) office misspelled his last name on the card. It can be extremely difficult to get in contact with the agency that administers the program, according to Elviz. “Every time I would try to call them I would get connected to some robot and there were dozens of options and it just gets so confusing. I tried emailing them, but I never heard a word back from them. So I just left it as is and I figured when I reapplied after two years I would make sure they spelled it right on my new card. But that never happened either.”

Fortunately, it didn’t seem to matter within the context of Elviz’s daily life. He moved to Honolulu and began his first year at HMA. “That first year as a freshman was the hardest year,” he says. “We were still having family problems and my mom and dad decided to separate again shortly after I moved to Oʻahu. My mom was living alone; she had no one because I was on Oʻahu, and that was really hard for her; it really hurt her heart. It was sad for me too and I couldn’t really concentrate in school.”

When he was little, and his parents were together, he remembers that his mom and dad would fight frequently: “My dad would drink and come home late and we would hit my mom in front of me when I was six or seven. It was hard for me and it definitely had an impact on me growing up.” Elviz believes that the stresses of being undocumented and of living in a state of constant uncertainty changed his mother and father and made them less kind to one another and less able to cope with work and with life in general. “When you’re constantly wondering if everything you’ve worked so hard to build will be taken away from you in the blink of an eye, the stress will get to you,” he says.

That stress affected Elviz in school. It made it difficult for him to focus. “The way we had to sort of patch together a life, and the way our family was eventually broken apart by what we had to do to survive definitely took a toll on all of us,” Elviz says. What might his family be like today if they hadn’t had to work around the system, but if they could have participated in it fully? Would his mother and father still be together? Would he have done better in school? Would rent be less of a concern? Certainly, his mother would not have been living alone while Elviz was at HMA.

“At the same time though, I believe I’ve become stronger because of all that,” Elviz says. Despite the difficulties, Elviz managed to pass most of his classes. He did fail Algebra, but he retook the class in summer school and worked hard to make sure he passed. “I realized my parents were working so hard for me to be able to go to a good, Christian school. So I knew I had to work harder and do my best to honor their sacrifices.”

Elviz started doing better in school. “I wasn’t a straight-A student, but I had mostly As and Bs and I never failed another class.”

The Crash

During his sophomore year, Elviz got a phone call while in Spanish class telling him to report to the office. “I was really scared because I had never gotten in trouble or suspended or anything,” says Elviz. “I was thinking, ‘Oh my God what did I do?’ I get to the office and the principal wants to see me. I remember having a lot of mixed emotions: I was scared because I thought it could be my immigration status.”

Elviz met with the principal and the dorm head dean, who was the principal’s wife, and they close the door behind him. But what they told him had nothing to do with his immigration status. “They told me that my mom had been in a serious car crash,” says Elviz. “She was coming home from work at around 10 p.m. the night before. She was turning to make a left and a drunk driver in a truck smashed into her car. She broke her collarbone and suffered a head concussion and lost a lot of blood.”

The paramedics had sent her to the hospital in Kona, but her injuries were too serious for that facility so she was sent to Oʻahu in a helicopter.

“I remember feeling sad and scared,” Elviz says. “I wanted to see her, so they took me to the hospital. My mom was in bed with a bunch of plugs and wires coming out of her.”

There are other cases of undocumented people like Elviz’s mom being hurt by someone like a drunk driver or through other kinds of negligence. In a lot of those cases, undocumented immigrants can’t get the justice they deserve because they are afraid the justice system will favor the person at fault—who happens to have been born within the borders of the U.S. Even though undocumented immigrants can file personal injury claims, the fear of interacting within the justice system prevents many from doing so.

“Fortunately, my mom has a lot of friends who came forward to help,” Elviz says. “There was a lawyer who is a member of the same church, but a different congregation, who was willing to take her case. The case is still open. My mom is supposed to get a settlement of around $100 thousand, but most of that will go to paying her bills for the ambulance ride, the hospital in Kona, the helicopter ride and the hospital in Honolulu. She’ll probably end up with just a small amount left.”

But besides her getting hurt, which was obviously the worst part of it, a week before the accident Elviz’s mother lost her car insurance coverage, so she was uninsured when she was hit. Since she has no insurance to replace her vehicle, getting another car has been difficult. Again, she has been lucky and was able to get another car for relatively cheap, but the little things add up to make an already difficult situation all the more stressful.

“She is doing a lot better now, and that really makes me happy,” says Elviz. “Not just that she is going to get the money, but that there are still people out there that are willing help undocumented people; who treat us like humans and don’t care where we were born.”

The Dream

When Elviz moved to Oʻahu, his dad bought him a GoPro as a congratulatory gift. Elviz started using it all the time and fell in love with filming and editing videos. In his junior year, he joined the journalism club so that he could use the filming equipment the school had, and was put in charge of producing school news segments.

“I’m not sure if you’re familiar with the PBS high school film program HIKI NŌ, but some of my friends and I made a documentary about Mary Kawena Pukui, who was famous for translating the English dictionary into the Hawaiian dictionary,” says Elviz. “She also graduated from our school. We did a documentary about her and her grandson, who is still alive, and we interviewed him about her and about what he is doing to continue her legacy. The video aired on PBS and I was so excited to see it on T.V. After that, I knew that was what I wanted to do.”

In his senior year, he was able to take film class and, as a final project, the class submitted a video into the Sunscreen Film Festival in California. “It was so cool to meet kids from so many other schools, including college students too. We got second place for our first film and I got an award back at school for my editing work on the project,” Elviz beams. “That was very exciting for me.”

Elviz worked all summer going into his senior year, walking door to door as a salesman selling books and asking people to buy them to help support him in his film endeavors. He eventually made enough money to buy a MacBook Pro and began experimenting with Final Cut Pro and Adobe Premier. “Right now I don’t have access to those programs anymore. They’re pretty expensive, and I had been using my teacher’s login, but I don’t want to have to keep asking her for it. Once I get enough money, I want to buy Final Cut Pro, for now, and some camera equipment.” Camera equipment isn’t cheap, but Elviz is determined to work hard so he can start making high quality videos again and jump start a career in filmmaking.

“Filming is what I love. I’m not the best with academics, but filming is creative and I love the art of it,” Elviz says. “One of my goals is to make biopic about my life.”

I ask Elviz what he thinks other immigrants might think about a film detailing his life’s story, and what they might learn from his struggles. His answer is indicative of the kind of humble attitude he wears on his sleeve: “I’m not sure what other immigrants might think about that movie, because I definitely did not have the worst experience. There are other immigrants with way harder lives and more tragic stories. Some of them experience death during the crossing; many of them have even less than I do, or get trapped in gangs and end up falling into drugs.

“I’m not here to judge; it’s incredibly hard to come here as an undocumented immigrant and to try and survive. I’m very lucky in many ways. Each immigrant has their own story. But I would want them to watch it.”

The Struggle Continues

Today, Elviz’s parents are still separated. Elviz just graduated from high school a few months ago. He wasn’t in honors, but he did receive an honorable mention. “I’ve come through a rough part of my life with so much going on and so much to try and deal with: my parents, our family problems—sometimes my dad couldn’t afford to pay my full tuition because private school is expensive, plus I was staying in the dorm. I am so thankful to my parents for doing everything they could to make this work, but it was not easy for me at all,” says Elviz.

Elviz, like most of his classmates from HMA, had plans to attend college but has not applied or enrolled so far. Instead he’s working as a dishwasher in a restaurant. Over the summer, when he was still planning on enrolling in a public university, he went to a community college to take the placement test, social security and employment card in his wallet. He was also in the process of getting all the papers together to go to the DMV and get his driver’s license. “I don’t know what happened, but with everything going on, somehow I took my eyes off my wallet for a second and it was gone,” says Elviz. “My social security card, my employment card—everything I needed—gone.”

Elviz filed for a replacement card on August 7 and got an email back saying USCIS would get back to him by August 29. He had applied to work at Macy’s as a salesman to support himself while going to school, and management at the department store had told him they would hire him. But now, with the DACA card lost, they have told Elviz they cannot hire him. “Without that card, my life is once again extremely hard,” he laments.

“Right now, I’m lucky enough to have found a job anyway though,” he says indefatigably. “I am working as a dishwasher. The owner is very kind. I told her about my situation and she said that as long as I know my social security number, she would take me on. This is just the reality of the situation that I am in.”

Once he gets his new DACA card, he wants to reapply for the position at Macy’s, or find a job somewhere that can help build a resumé. Elviz is still thinking about going to school too, perhaps at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa. But with Trump’s rescission of the DACA program and less than six months until the Congressional extension expires, both of those paths are uncertain at best.

“Another thing that really makes it harder for undocumented immigrants to succeed in the U.S. is that we cannot apply for FAFSA [Free Application for Federal Student Aid] or student loans or help from the government,” says Elviz. “That’s another reason why I’m not sure I should go back to school. I don’t want to end up dropping out with a lot of debt. I’m trying to make the smart move and make sure I’m doing the right thing. I don’t want to just do something and then regret it.”

Trump’s ending of the DACA program means that he is ending people’s dreams. “Most dreamers are in school or have good jobs thanks to DACA. If he ends that, they will be struggling to get by without options or opportunities,” says Elviz. “I’m not going to talk bad about Trump. I’m not the person to be judging. But I do think he is making a terrible mistake. The majority of undocumented immigrants work hard. We understand the sacrifices that were necessary to get us here and we are not about to waste that chance. My parents gave up a lot for me. I would never want to let them down. Taking away DACA will make it so much harder for us to fulfill the dream that our parents sacrificed for. It’s like clipping our wings.”

The same day that I interview Elviz, he gets an email from the USCIS office saying that they finally realized his name is spelled wrong, but that they need a copy of his passport sent to them to verify the spelling.

“I was just talking to my dad yesterday, and I was asking him what he is planning to do with his life now that I’m no longer at HMA,” Elviz says. “He was saying, you know—with Trump in the White House, and what he is saying and doing with regards to immigrants—looking at it, it might not make sense to stay here anymore. He wants me to come back with him because he thinks I’ll be able to go to school and get a good job for sure, since I know English. But what he doesn’t know is that this is my home. I made this place my home.

“I came here at such a young age. I learned the language, I made new friends, I built connections and a life; I don’t have that in Mexico,” he continues. “This is my home. America is a big part of my life. Hawaiʻi is a big part of my life. I will forever love America, and Hawaiʻi. President Obama gave us hope. He gave us the opportunity to dream. And there are still people trying to help us out. There is a nationwide movement to try and help us stay here. Groups like YPDA [Young Progressives Demanding Action] are organizing to resist Trump and support immigrants. Writers are publishing stories like this one. So we’ll see what happens in six months.”

Trump called immigrants drug dealers, criminals and rapists; he has done everything he can to try and make immigrants scapegoats for America’s deep systemic problems—problems that disproportionately impact those same immigrants, as well as people of color, indigenous Americans, Muslims, women and the LGBT community. But dreamers like Elviz are still committed to making America a better place for all of us. Their indomitable spirit is truly inspiring.

“We dreamers want to fight for a better future,” says Elviz. “I want people in Hawaiʻi to know that we are not bad people. We are your friends, your family members, your neighbors. We are here to help each other and to be a part of the big ʻohana that is Hawaiʻi. Hawaiʻi has a long and proud immigrant tradition that gave rise to a lot of diversity and tolerance. I want people to know that we are human; we are just like them. We may have different barriers and obstacles in life that we have to deal with. But we’re human and we have dreams too. And we’re not giving up on them.”

Note: Will Caron is the editor of The Hawaii Independent and an executive committee member for the Hawaiʻi chapter of the Young Progressives Demanding Action, which is actively working to organize the community against the removal of DACA and other anti-immigrant policies coming out of the Trump White House.