The first time Alfredo Ayala-Arenas filled out the paperwork to get federal aid to go to college, he was 15. His teacher told him it was OK that he didn’t know his Social Security number. He should just go home and ask his parents what it was.
When Ayala-Arenas got home that evening, he did just that.
“You don’t have one,” he recalled his mother telling him. “And you can’t apply for one.”
His mother had him brought to the United States from Mexico in 1993, before he was a year old. She had entered the country illegally shortly before that, and Ayala-Arenas has never met his birth father, who remains in Mexico.
Today, Ayala-Arenas, 24, is partially protected under the federal DACA program, short for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals.
It grants the Spanaway man and other young immigrants, commonly known as Dreamers, a work visa and protection from deportation, but not citizenship. He does not get citizenship because he is “inadmissible, but technically not deportable,” said Laura Romero, his immigration specialist.
In 2007, when Ayala-Arenas found out he didn’t have a Social Security number, the DACA program didn’t exist, nor did any other protection for young immigrants.
For Ayala-Arenas, that meant federal financial aid of any kind was out of the question. So were most other grants and scholarships. So was a regular job.
Suddenly, high school seemed like the end of the road.
“I got to the point of thinking, I can’t do anything,” Ayala-Arenas said. “I can’t go to college. I can graduate high school, but what’s a high school diploma really going to get you nowadays?”
Though he didn’t realize he wasn’t a U.S. citizen until high school, Ayala-Arenas said he has never felt different from his peers. He has two jobs, a truck, a life on social media, a pit bull that thinks it’s a lapdog and a girlfriend who talks about one day competing in “The Amazing Race” with him.
“I feel like an American,” he said.
Yet like many other Dreamers, he has his own set of worries, especially after the deadlocked vote in the U.S. Supreme Court, announced June 23, that blocked President Barack Obama’s sweeping immigration reform.
His mother is in the United States illegally and could be deported at any time. The father of his four young siblings already has been. Without their mother, Ayala-Arenas’ American-born brothers and sisters could end up in foster care.
He’s also worried about seeing people rally around presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, who repeatedly has proposed ending federal programs that protect young immigrants like Ayala-Arenas.
“It’s been scaring me half to death,” he said.
After learning how limited his life after high school would be because of his immigration status, Ayala-Arenas lost his drive to succeed academically.
Once a bright student who loved every class from drama to engineering, he failed five classes his senior year at Franklin Pierce High School and graduated only after an extra semester.
“I was going to apply for scholarships and eventually become something,” he said. “That was a whole lot farther out of my reach than originally planned.”
After graduation, he spent time doing odd jobs for friends and neighbors, mowing lawns and helping with construction projects. It wasn’t until his mother warned him he was going to become a loser in life that he decided to get his goals back on track.
He found support from a local youth group, and in 2013, when he was 21, he confided to a pastor that he was living in the country illegally.
The pastor told Ayala-Arenas about Tacoma Community House, one of a handful of organizations in the area that help people navigate the paperwork and legal processes of immigration.
Volunteers and staff members deal with people in all stages of their immigration process, from those seeking paths to citizenship to helping family members join them in the United States to learning how to adjust to a new culture and country.
Community House’s paid immigration specialists are by far its most in-demand service, said director Liz Dunbar. The five specialists, while not immigration lawyers, are recognized by the U.S. Board of Immigration Appeals as able to give legal advice to immigrants and refugees.
The 106-year-old nonprofit, run mostly on federal grants supplemented by service fees, helps about 2,700 people in the Tacoma and greater Seattle area each year, Dunbar said.
Many are young immigrants like Ayala-Arenas who were brought to the country illegally as children and have only known life in the United States.
“We see a lot of people who are undocumented, who are working hard, who are paying taxes, who are contributing to the community,” Dunbar said. “We’ve seen Dreamers who are student body presidents. … The kids are doing well in school, and they just want a chance to be recognized.”
State Rep. Matt Manweller, R-Ellensburg, said Washington state is relaxed in its treatment of young people who come to the country illegally.
It welcomes them into its K-12 programs regardless of their citizenship status, and after they complete those programs, they can attend any of Washington’s public colleges and universities, said Manweller, a political science professor at Central Washington University.
Given the state’s leniency in offering education to undocumented students, Manweller said, he felt asking for state financial aid from an already-limited pool was a step too far.
“What I wanted to say was, ‘I feel we have met you halfway, now meet us halfway,’ ” he said.
GIVING BLOOD PAYS OFF
Romero, one of Tacoma Community House’s five immigration specialists, estimates she sees 60 to 80 clients each month, most of them Dreamers. She helps them determine whether they qualify for DACA.
Obama established the program by executive order in 2012. It gives those who arrived in the United States before they were 16 a path to a work permit and protection from deportation.
When Ayala-Arenas came to Tacoma Community House, Romero determined he qualified for the program.
To be accepted, he had to prove he was born on or after June 16, 1981, came to the United States before his 16th birthday and had lived continuously in the country since June 15, 2007.
He also had to prove he’d been enrolled in school during that time and that he had a clean criminal record. Hardest to prove was that he was physically in the United States on June 15, 2012, the date the policy went into effect.
Ayala-Arenas, though he could show he was at a leadership camp the first week of June, had no way to prove he’d stayed in the country through the next week.
He needed something with his name and a date on it.
“I pretty much tore my house apart,” he said.
Thankfully, he said, his efforts to help others left a paper trail — he found a record showing he donated blood to the Cascade Regional Blood Center in Tacoma on June 14, 2012.
Ayala-Arenas’ application was accepted in February, three years after he began hunting down records to prove he met the criteria.
The decision means he is protected from deportation and can work legally in the United States for three years, when he will have to reapply. If his reapplication is rejected, he will be considered for deportation.
Romero said 99 percent of her clients who have applied or reapplied under the DACA program have been accepted.
Ayala-Arenas said that while he’s happy to have a temporary work permit, he’s sad it’s the only option he and other Dreamers have now.
“In the end, it’s only a work visa and not a full solution for us to become legal citizens,” he said. “I’m honestly proud of my Mexican heritage, but that doesn’t mean I’m not a proud American.”
A DREAMER’S DREAMS
In many ways, Ayala-Arenas is like any other 24-year-old.
He spends mornings loading trucks at an express delivery service and afternoons working at a play park for kids. He funnels whatever money he can into his savings account for the future.
“I’m busting my butt, really,” he said, “but trying to make a living is a whole lot easier. It’s better than taking odd jobs.”
When he’s not working, he spends his time with his longtime girlfriend and their two dogs, or taking care of his mother and his siblings. He said he continues to work with Tacoma Community House to try to find a way to naturalize his mom.
He dreams of going back to school to study nursing, and traveling the world with his girlfriend, who’s studying in Italy.
Without full citizenship status, Ayala-Arenas couldn’t return to the United States if he was to leave. Still, he hopes to one day visit the United Kingdom and Japan, and travel to Mexico to learn about his heritage.
He said his birth father has recently expressed interest in meeting him, but with neither man able to visit the other’s country, Ayala-Arenas isn’t sure how much of a relationship he could have with him, if he decided that’s what he wanted.
He said that in many ways, he has learned to live with his citizenship status — yet the anxiety of an uncertain future continues to permeate his life.
He said he has considered joining the military, but fears being unavailable to his siblings if something happened to his mother.
Ayala-Arenas said his girlfriend’s family has joked that after six years of dating, the two of them should just get married.
But he said he doesn’t want to get married just to get a visa.
“I want to have a normal relationship and not have a forced marriage,” he said. “I just really want to live an honest and normal life.”
Hannah Shirley: 253-597-8670, @itshannah7