Daniela Arias was born in Mexico but she has never set foot there.
Arias, 17, was brought to the United States before she could walk, before she could talk — an infant in her mother’s arms.
But with a president’s signature, the Tacoma girl could find herself deported.
“It’s scary and it’s nerve-wracking,” Arias said. “Just because my birth certificate says (Mexico). I was raised like any other American child. It’s all I know.”
Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), an executive order signed by President Barack Obama in 2012, provides protection to undocumented immigrants who arrived in the U.S. as children — if they meet certain requirements.
“DACA has brought me out of the shadows and given me the opportunity to be somebody,” Arias said.
Sometimes called “Dreamers,” DACA recipients have obtained drivers licenses, landed secure jobs and, like Arias, enrolled in higher education.
The recent Lincoln High School graduate hopes to start at the University of Washington Tacoma in September. She’s pursuing a career in social work or criminal justice.
She used part of her senior essay, which detailed her family’s struggles and the fear she feels under the Trump administration, to apply at UWT.
“We were told to write about hardships we had to overcome,” Arias said. “How those hardships helped us become better citizens.”
She began work on the essay during the final weeks of the U.S. presidential election in 2016.
When Donald Trump was elected, Arias knew the hardships might come again if she has to recede back into the shadows.
“It was coming all too fast,” she said.
What happens to a dream deferred, she asks in the essay’s opening line.
“My heart doesn't know about birth certificates, boundaries or nationalities,” she wrote. “All it knows about is what America has given and done for me.”
Tacoma Public Schools officials liked the essay so much, they turned it into a video. The video, in turn, has generated public support for Arias.
COMING TO AMERICA
Arias’ mother wanted her children to escape the poverty and violence of Mexico.
“She had the courage to come here, to give us a better life,” Arias said.
They settled in the Los Angeles area along with two older sisters.
To support her three girls, Arias’s mother would clean houses in the day and again at night.
“She only had a couple of hours between jobs to sleep,” Arias said.
Arias’s mother constantly reminded her daughter of the importance of an education.
“She inspires me all the time because she says, ‘Look at me, where I’m at: nowhere. This is all I do. Work’.”
In July 2016, the family moved from Los Angeles to Tacoma, where Arias lives with her mother, stepfather and a younger stepbrother.
“We just have kids and not graduate.”
That’s the stereotype that Latino kids like Arias fight all their young lives, she said.
But that stereotype isn’t necessarily coming from non-Latinos. And sometimes it’s true, she said.
“That actually happened to my sisters,” Arias said.
Arias’ two older sisters never finished high school. They both had children at age 20.
The sisters told Arias school didn’t matter.
“They asked me, ‘Are you really graduating?’ doubting me,” she recalled.
“I started to doubt myself,” she said.
The sisters stayed behind in Los Angeles when the rest of the family came to Tacoma.
Moving to Tacoma and experiencing Lincoln’s diversity came as a shock to Arias.
In her California school, there was little diversity. Her fellow students were like her: Latino and bilingual.
“It was 99.9 percent. I’m not kidding,” she said.
When she arrived at Lincoln, she was perplexed by the mix of Latino, Asian, black and white faces she encountered.
She wondered whether she would fit it. Whether other kids would be mean to her.
“Do I talk to them or not?” she wondered. “Or do I go to my own kind?”
She discovered her fears were unfounded.
“Everybody was just so united,” Arias said. “Everybody was so welcoming.”
Still, she felt isolated by the loss of her extended family, the change in climate, the new school.
She suffered through a bout of depression.
The cure: bowling.
“I mainly joined the bowling team to get out of the house,” she recalled. The camaraderie and friendships were a lifesaver, she said.
DREAMER / DACA
Washington is 11th highest for DACA recipients with 17,843 approvals as of March 31. The national total is 886,814.
The overwhelming majority of DACA recipients, like Arias, are from Mexico.
But Mexico remains a foreign concept to Arias. She has never returned to her homeland.
“I have no idea what it looks like, how people are — it’s alien to me,” she said. “It would be devastating to leave my life here and my opportunities.”
When she got her DACA approval at age 15, she realized the importance of being legal. “I needed it to have a stable life.”
President Donald Trump has sent mixed messages on DACA. While vowing to repeal the act, he has also expressed empathy for people like Arias.
The concept of losing her DACA status is frightening to Arias.
“It’s nerve-racking to think someone has the power to take that away,” she said. “There’s been nights where I can’t sleep. I’m very worried.”
Arias has always been aware of her Mexican heritage but has never thought of herself as anything but American.
She can recall the school-age tradition of making paper turkeys for Thanksgiving, American history lessons, the rituals of Independence Day.
She’s beginning her college career as though DACA will stay in place. But she’s also mentally preparing for its repeal.
“If it does happen, I have to be ready for it,” she said.