For the safety of the subjects in the story, identifying factors of family members, such as names, ages and locations have been either modified or omitted.

Maria Hernandez stands facing Carlos, her 6-year-old son, at the edge of her driveway on a frigid January morning. Like a rising sun, a school bus manifests over the horizon. She holds back tears, of both joy and sadness, as she watches Carlos climb into the bus.

An emotional yet common memory for many, for Maria it was a dream come true.

Just weeks before, a pregnant Maria was running for her life as she crossed the U.S/Mexico border at Mexicali and Calexico. Carlos, along with his father Alejandro and two-year-old brother Manuel, were not far behind.

The family found safety in the cover of the dark Sonora Desert sky and was soon picked up by a car waiting for them. There they embarked on the three-day drive to Big Rapids, MI.

That was fifteen years ago, when the Hernandez family first came to the U.S.

Maria and Alejandro are illegal immigrants, and will likely remain so, but since that first day they saw their eldest son board a bus to an American school, they have worked to make their American dream a reality. For them, the American dream has little to do with their own future. It’s about their children’s futures.

They have nearly achieved it.

Maria and Alejandro have four children. Their two youngest were born in the U.S., with full citizenship. Carlos, years after that first day boarding a school bus, was accepted into the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.

That leaves 16-year-old Manuel, their second oldest.

If all goes according to plan, in a few months’ time, Manuel will also be accepted into DACA. The time for the family now feels right. Donald Trump was elected president when Manuel was twelve years old, voted in on campaign promises that included doing away with DACA.

While the program was never completely repealed during the Trump years, applying felt like a risk, a way to potentially expose themselves as undocumented. Now, with more stability in the program, Maria and Alejandro are ready to try.

If Manuel is accepted, all four of Alejandro and Maria’s children will have some form of protected residency status, and the parents’ goal will be realized: they will have given their children a chance to build a better life than they had themselves.

Their Own American Dream

The Hernandez family’s story in the U.S began in the early 2000s when Alejandro and Maria entered the country illegally from Mexico along with their two sons, Carlos and Manuel.

According to the two parents, the decision to come to the U.S was an easy one. At this point in Mexico’s history, the economy was still hurting after a nearly 10-year-long recession. Crime was on the rise and much of the political corruption that would come to define the country’s politics for the next decade was starting to come to light.

By this time, much of Maria’s family had already made the move to Michigan and were urging her to do the same. In the hopes of “giving our children something better,” the Hernandez family made the move, setting off on the pursuit of the American Dream.

After a few years of moving around the central part of the state, the Hernandez family found a home in the form of a small, rural town on the outskirts of Genesee county. Alejandro and Maria both found jobs on the same farm and ended up moving into a house owned by their boss.

With their relatives nearby and the house being only a few blocks away from their children’s school, the Hernandez family settled in.

The Path to Residency

Victoria Arteaga is a retired immigration attorney turned volunteer staff attorney at the International Affairs Center in downtown Flint. Since DACA’s creation in 2012, Arteaga estimates she’s facilitated somewhere between 300 and 400 successful DACA applications including the one for the Hernandez family’s oldest son, Carlos.

She says the Hernandez family is a perfect example of everything the average American thinks a family made up of mostly illegal immigrants isn’t.

“There is this stereotype that white Americans have of who these people (immigrants) are. They have this image of these kids who came here to get free this and free that and they don’t humanize them. They don’t see these families that are working hard and paying taxes and they don’t get any benefits. They can’t get food stamps, they can’t get unemployment, they can’t get social security. They can’t get assistance,” Arteaga said. “They don’t have these things that we all take for granted.”

Victoria Arteaga, a retired immigration attorney turned volunteer staff attorney at the International Affairs Center in downtown Flint. Feb. 25, 2021. (KT Kanazawich | Flint Beat)

Arteaga went on to say many of the families she works with, like the Hernandez family, simply want to be productive members of society. In fact, she’s not exaggerating when she says some illegal immigrants pay taxes despite having no access to resources those taxes help fund.

According to an actuarial note (a study of the state of the Social Security Administration’s financial status) released in 2013 by the Office of the Chief Actuary (OCACT), approximately 10.8 million individuals of unauthorized status lived in the U.S in 2009.

The OCACT goes on to say in its report that after accounting for individuals who use falsified Social Security numbers and who overstayed their work visas (both groups who would already be paying taxes), there were still another estimated 3.1 million unauthorized immigrants paying Social Security Taxes in 2010.

In its report, the OCACT concluded that, of the $13 billion contributed to the social security program by illegal immigrants, only $1 billion of that money actually went toward providing assistance for those same illegal immigrants.

As Arteaga said, despite contributing to the economy, many families will not receive anything in return simply because of their status. These types of issues are more akin to what the Hernandez family has had to deal with.

By the time their family was settled in their current home, Alejandro and Maria had their third child, Diego. Since he was born in the U.S, Diego became the first legal citizen in the family.

Not long after that, just as DACA was introduced, Carlos, the oldest brother, applied and was accepted into the program, making him the second in the family to have authorized residency status.

This left Manuel as the only of the three brothers to still be a fully illegal and undocumented immigrant. Just a middle child’s luck.

The brothers, as close as they were and still are, started leading fundamentally different lives.

Carlos, who was about six when he crossed the border, grew up knowing the family secret and the risks involved with simply being inside the U.S. He said this made him grow up quickly. To him nothing was guaranteed, nothing was real. Life as he knew it was always one nosy neighbor away from disappearing.

“Knowing something like that and knowing I couldn’t tell anyone … I always felt like I was not really there, you know? I feel like it made me grow up a lot faster, I was a lot more mature than all the other kids,” Carlos said.

He recalls how growing up, any small deviation from what he considered the norm immediately brought him fear. He never knew when things might all go south.

“When we would go to the grocery store and they took a little bit longer than they said they would, you’d suddenly start thinking, ‘Where did they go? Where are they?’” Carlos said.

Carlos also grew up knowing he would not get a chance to lead the typical life of a teenager. As he started getting into his teens and his friends started fantasizing about their first cars Carlos had no choice but to play along, knowing a license is something he wouldn’t have any time soon.

Upon becoming a DACA recipient, however, Carlos said “all these doors just magically opened up and you’re like, ‘okay, okay, I can start doing stuff now, I can start enjoying my life a little bit and not have to worry about every little detail all the time.’”

Of course, DACA has a strict set of guidelines that state a recipient cannot be convicted of any felonies, significant misdemeanors or three or more of any other misdemeanors on top of having to clearly not be a threat to national security or the community. For Carlos, who grew up walking on eggshells due to his status, these stipulations were never an issue.

This new freedom granted to him allowed Carlos to start thinking about college, something he’d spent his whole life telling himself would never be a possibility for him.

“When I was in school I already knew I wasn’t going to technically be able to go to college…I never put much thought into what careers I could get into,” Carlos said. “I always told myself I’m gonna graduate high school and I’ll get a manual labor job just like my parents…It felt a little easier now, like I was a part of this world.”

Manuel’s path has been similar to his older brother’s except for one big difference: he didn’t know about his residency status until he was 13 years old. Up until then, Manuel had grown up knowing he’d soon be driving, graduating and moving up to college.

Manuel recalls the day he found out he, and the rest of his family was undocumented.

“I got home from school and I was super excited to tell my parents about this culinary program. The school pays for it, there’s a bus that takes you so they don’t have to worry about driving, I was just really excited,” Manuel said.

As the three brothers near the possibility of having protected residency in the U.S., they talk about the excitement of having a more normal teenage lifestyle. They’re excited to get jobs and their drivers licenses, and most importantly to live without the fear someone could turn them in. Feb. 21, 2021. (KT Kanazawich | Flint Beat)

As he describes it, he went over the details of the program with his parents and explained how some of his friends were doing it too. Alejandro and Maria told him they’d talk about this later.

“Like a half-hour later, my dad walked into my room and sat at the end of my bed with a serious look,” Manuel said. He asked his dad if he was in trouble. Alejandro said no. “He said to me ‘son, I have to explain to you that you can’t do this because you’re undocumented.”

Manuel said at first, he didn’t understand what that meant. His whole life, he had never questioned his or his family’s residency status.

Rather than being upset by this revelation, Manuel found himself more troubled at the fact he couldn’t attend the culinary program. This would be his attitude toward his situation until he reached his last years of high school.

The gravity of his situation came in stages, slowly becoming a borderline existential crisis for Manuel.

At first, it revealed itself in smaller ways, like having to get rides from his friends because he couldn’t get a license.

“If I wanted to hang out with friends they would always have to pick me up. I still have to do that now,” Manuel said. According to him, his friends would sometimes ask why he didn’t have his license or a car, and every time Manuel had to skirt around the topic by saying he didn’t have the time or money to pay for courses.

As he got into his senior year of high school and college applications became a common topic among his friends, he started to realize his life would only start deviating further and further from what he had always grown up expecting.

“I felt like I was in a gray area, I felt like I was behind everybody… Everyone is getting ahead, getting further, getting accepted into colleges and I’m just sitting here waiting for a set of numbers,” Manuel said. “I’m just at a standstill, all I can do is focus on school and that’s it.”

Unlike his older brother, Manuel did not meet the criteria to be able to apply for DACA during the early years of the program’s existence. Though DACA has a long list of qualifiers that need to be met in order to apply, the only one Manuel was missing was age. According to the program rules, an applicant must be at least 15 years old to be an eligible recipient.

Unfortunately for Manuel, he wouldn’t turn that age until after the 2016 presidential elections.

Though President Donald Trump was never successful in repealing DACA permanently, he was successful in destabilizing the program for almost four years.

In 2017 he had DACA rescinded, which put both Carlos’ legal status at risk as well as made it impossible for Manuel to apply.

It wasn’t until Jan. 19, 2021, that applications for DACA were once again opened. The Hernadez family jumped on this opportunity and reached out to Arteaga for help with the application. Happy to help as this would be her first applicant since Trump entered office, Arteaga pushed the application through and currently, the family is waiting for a response from the U.S Citizenship and Immigration Services office.

Growing up in a majority white rural community taught the brothers a lot about the volatility of their situation. Racist remarks were common in school during the brother’s upbringing.

According to Carlos, the brothers all developed thick skin throughout the years but some jokes served to remind that even in school, where kids ought to feel safe, the threat of deportation was always looming over him.

Once, in middle school, a classmate turned to Carlos while the class was watching a video about the history of immigration in the U.S.

“A girl turns around and is like, ‘You’re not an illegal immigrant, are you? Because I’ve got my phone and I can call ICE.’ And I was like damn, I really can’t tell anybody. Like, these are jokes right now, but if I were to tell them yes I am, what would really happen?” Carlos said.

In January, when the family decided to go ahead with Manuel’s application, the answer to the question “what would happen if I told someone?” was answered.

DACA’s application process requires applicants to submit a plethora of documents, including something called a CA-60 in Michigan, more commonly known as a student’s permanent record. In the case of DACA, this record is required to gauge a student’s attendance, grades, and behavior over the course of their primary and secondary educational careers.

Though this is a document students are free to request at any moment, Manuel knew he would be taking a risk by requesting this CA-60 from his high school’s principal.

To Manuel’s good fortune, however, his principal proved to be a tremendous help in recovering his records. According to Maria, Manuel’s records were spread over several school districts, making the task more difficult than usual. The principal said it was no trouble and that he considered handling a task like that part of his responsibility to students.

From his perspective as an educator who has seen the three brothers grow up, the principal said it’s always been a pleasure to have them in the school. When saw he had a unique chance to affect Manuel’s life for the better, he took it.

“I fundamentally believe in education,” the principal said. “I believe in people growing, learning and bettering themselves … how dare I become a barrier to that?”

Completing the Dream

Now, all the Hernandez family has to do is wait. Like any parents, Alejandro and Maria want nothing more than for their children to lead better lives than they did. To do this, they left behind their motherland, their language, and their friends. For 16 years the couple has sacrificed their own comfort and well-being for their children. They’ve put countless hours into different jobs in the agricultural industry and have taken every precaution to stay under the radar.

The family spends time together in the living room of their home on Feb. 21, 2021. (KT Kanazawich | Flint Beat)

With Manuel’s DACA application showing promise, the two parents, for the first time in almost two decades had the chance to take a step back and assess how their lives have turned out.

“The American Dream (for us) was never about a dream. It was about work. If you work, your dreams come true; if you don’t, things go poorly. The advantage of living in the U. S is there is work, there is opportunity,” said Alejandro.

For Maria, who spent many years working alongside Alejandro, the dream, as beautiful as it may be, came at a price. She brought up the idea of ‘la jaula de oro’ or the golden cage.

A popular phrase among illegal immigrants, the golden cage is exactly as it sounds. The U.S as expansive and teeming with opportunity as it may be for many, can still act like a prison for those who lack the proper documentation to experience it.

With the exception of their first two years here, no one in the Hernandez family had a valid driver’s license until Carlos received his thanks to DACA. That means for over a decade, driving was a luxury only to be used to get to and from work and school. No cross-country road trips, no overnight trips up north, almost no night-driving at all.

“The American Dream is very expensive,” Maria said. “You pay a high price… Here, even though you’re technically free, you’re really not,” Maria said.

Alejandro said he has never once been pulled over by a police officer in 16 years. “You have to follow all the rules if you don’t want to get noticed. You have to be alert at all times, you can’t be a burden on society in any way.”

Now, a month removed from Donald Trump’s presidency, a period during which everyone in the Hernandez family had something to lose, they are once again not afraid to simply exist. Legal or not, they’ve labored in this country for almost two decades. Finally, they feel safe and they’re ready to continue making the U.S their home.

“When DACA was announced by Obama, that was a moment of great joy for us because now we knew … our children would be able to accomplish everything we never could. We knew now they would make it further than we ever did. That’s the reason we came to this country, for them to live a better life,” Maria said.

Looking back on the last four years of her life as an illegal immigrant and the mother of illegal immigrants, Maria said, “I’ve never once regretted having come here,” she said after a moment of silence. “Even at its darkest, I always knew the sun would rise again.”

Santiago Ochoa is Flint Beat's Latinx Community reporter. He is always looking to write about anything Flint or Latinx. He especially enjoys investigative reporting and human-interest stories. A communications...

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