Jesus Paez has lived in Sonoma for all but three of his 28 years.
He graduated from Sonoma Valley High School in 2007, studied computer science at Santa Rosa Junior College, and has worked at Sonoma Market for nearly nine years. His English is perfect, but his Spanish is rough: he never felt any real urgency to master the family’s native tongue.
They are from Guadalajara, Mexico, or were. Paez’s parents and four sisters live here now, and have since 1992. That year they crossed the desert from Mexico to the U.S., when Jesus was just 3 years old.
The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, was established by the Obama administration in 2012 with people like Jesus in mind.
Children, the thinking went, brought into the country illegally by their parents, shouldn’t be held to answer for laws they didn’t consciously violate. Undocumented children who’d been raised as Americans should not forcibly be repatriated in the same way as those who had deliberately broken the law.
Enrollment in DACA was available to so-called “dreamers,” people ages 15 to 30 who had been brought to the country without legal permission before the age of 16. The temporary protections of the program lasted for two years, and allowed enrollees legal permission to drive and work. Participation required registration of an applicant’s personal information with the federal government, and cost $465 every two years.
In 2012, when then-President Obama rolled out the program by executive order in response to a political impasse lasting more than a decade, nearly 800,000 “dreamers” signed on. Jesus Paez, who’d turned 23 that year, was among them.
But last month, on Sept. 5, every changed – President Trump rescinded the program, leaving DACA enrollees in a state of flux.
“If your DACA expires on March 5 or before, you have the chance to reapply by Oct. 5,” Paez explained. DACA enrollees from that particular cohort will be granted an additional two years of the program’s limited protections, but those falling outside of the timeline will receive none. “Mine doesn’t expire until next year – 2018 – and so I can’t renew it when it does expire,” Paez continued.
By holding paperwork timestamped for the wrong day, Jesus Paez is potentially looking down the business end of a deportation order in a few months. Despite the fact that he’s lived here his whole life, and has laid plans to move forward professionally. He’d like to become an X-ray technician, a skilled position paying as much as $120,000 per year.
“I’ve lived here pretty much my whole life. Since I was 3… I grew up here. If I do go back to Mexico, it’s a whole new world,” Paez said.
Paez returned to Mexico for the first time last year, using DACA’s “advanced parole” to legally re-enter the U.S. While there he felt like the foreigner that he in fact is: the people, the lifestyle, the machismo of the patriarchy seemed so different from the culture Paez was raised in that he felt ill at ease.
“Whenever I would walk on the streets I would get a vibe,” Paez said.
Immigration policy in the U.S. has been a political third rail for decades. In 2001, Senators Dick Durbin (D-Illinois) and Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) co-sponsored the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act, or “DREAM Act,” a bill thick with exacting prerequisites that would have allowed undocumented children a path to permanent residency.