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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 22 June 2018

End of American dream for one young Mexican immigrant — and thousands more like him

Ricardo Aca is proud to call himself a New Yorker. But the student and waiter - who worked at a restaurant in a Trump hotel - may now face deportation after the president announced he was overturning the Daca programme that offered protection to illegal immigrants who entered the United States as children

Ricardo Aca, 26, is one of about 800,000 so-called "Dreamers" who now fear deportation after US president Donald Trump overturned protections for illegal immigrants who arrived in the United States as children. Rob Crilly for The National
Ricardo Aca, 26, is one of about 800,000 so-called "Dreamers" who now fear deportation after US president Donald Trump overturned protections for illegal immigrants who arrived in the United States as children. Rob Crilly for The National

The news arrived when Ricardo Aca should have been concentrating on class.

Instead of listening to his university algebra lecture, the 26-year-old was glued to his phone, scrolling through news of president Donald Trump’s announcement on Twitter that he was ending Daca, the programme that allowed Mr Aca — and hundreds of thousands of young people like him — to remain in the United States.

“I saw the tweet when I was in the classroom this morning and it was very inhumane,” Mr Aca said hours later.

“It broke my heart. It wasn’t fair, knowing this is where I belong.”

Mr Aca has lived in New York since he arrived with his 12-year-old sister from Mexico at the age of 14. That was 12 years ago.

They crossed the border illegally to join their mother who had already begun building a new life for their family.

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As illegal immigrants, they lived in the shadows, unable to join mainstream society for fear of being deported.

That changed five years ago when former US president Barack Obama signed an executive order shielding illegal immigrants who arrived as children from deportation. Instead, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (Daca) allowed them a social security number and work permit, which had to be renewed every two years.

It mean a job for Mr Aca, ironically enough in a restaurant at a hotel owned by Mr Trump.

President Trump's decision to scrap Daca was trailed in advance and on Tuesday morning he posted a tweet, signalling that he was overturning the order signed by Mr Obama.

“Congress, get ready to do your job — DACA,” he tweeted, referring to the six months given to Congress to come up with a legislative fix for the issue.

The decision to overturn Daca was formally announced by attorney general Jeff Sessions later in the day.

"Simply put, if we are to further our goal of strengthening the constitutional order and the rule of law in America, the department of justice cannot defend this type of overreach," Mr Sessions said, reading from prepared remarks during a televised briefing at the justice department where he refused to take reporters' questions.

Mr Aca said he was appalled the president had chosen not to speak about the issue in person himself, instead using social media to deliver a bombshell before leaving it to his attorney general to explain later.

“I think it shows how cruel a person he is,” he said.

Mr Aca is one of 800,000 so-called “dreamers” who had been protected by the Daca order. They now face an uncertain future and the risk of deportation as their permits come up for renewal and they wonder whether Congress will rescue the system.

Many know no home other than the US.

And unlike undocumented immigrants, their fingerprints and addresses are held by immigration services making them easy to track down.

Mr Aca remembers the journey that brought him here from Puebla, just outside Mexico City. His mother wanted a better life for her children and paid a “coyote” - or people smuggler - to bring them across the border. He remembers walking through the dead cold of the Mexican desert, sleeping at the border fence and then climbing over when the coyote said it was safe.

He and his sister hid for two hours on the Arizona side of the fence to avoid patrols.

It was a journey of risk coupled with anticipation.

“I had always been intrigued by American culture,” said Mr Aca. “I grew up learning English by listening to Brittney Spears songs.”

An American high school and friends completed his immersion process.

Jennifer Hernandez (L) and Paola Rodriguez, both recipients of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (Daca) programme, take part in a vigil at the San Jacinto Plaza in El Paso, Texas, on September 5, 2017. Jose Luis Gonzalez / Reuters
Jennifer Hernandez (L) and Paola Rodriguez, both recipients of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (Daca) programme, take part in a vigil at the San Jacinto Plaza in El Paso, Texas, on September 5, 2017. Jose Luis Gonzalez / Reuters

But he said it was not until Mr Obama introduced the Daca programme that he felt he could come out of the shadows. Gone was the danger that any brush with authority would see him outed as an illegal.

“I was able to travel safely within the US,” he said. “I was able to go to Miami, I was able to go to the west coast. I could move around in safety, without the risk that I might get deported and separated from my family.”

And there was the work permit. In 2013 he took a job as a busboy at Koi, a restaurant in Trump Soho, a 46-storey hotel and condominium that bears the billionaire’s name.

“I guess I was proud to work in a restaurant in a hotel with the name of a famous man who was a billionaire,” he said, explaining how he first became a barista and then a waiter. “Then that changed once he named me and my community as criminals, rapists and drug dealers because I knew from personal experience that was not true.”

When Mr Trump announced he was running for president, he set the tone for much of his campaign with an outspoken attack on Mexican immigrants whom he characterised as criminals.

“It’s a lie and he knows it but he doesn’t want to acknowledge our contributions to his business and this country,” Mr Aca said.

He left the restaurant in January. Tips dried up as business tailed off amid opposition to the new president, said Mr Aca, who now manages a hotel breakfast buffet elsewhere in Manhattan, as well as studying for a degree in public and international affairs at New York’s Baruch College.

He told his story in the Queens offices of Make the Road New York, a group that campaigns for immigrants. It lodged a legal challenge to the repeal of Daca hours after Mr Trump’s tweet.

If New York is the melting pot of America, Queens is the melting pot of New York. Outside, the street is lined with Colombian chicken restaurants and Ecuadorean coffee shops. In one direction lie Chinese and Japanese noodles; in another, the curry houses of India, Pakistan and Nepal.

Ask Mr Aca whether he feels more American or Mexican and he seems to shrug off the question before giving his true feelings away.

“We’re a nation of immigrants. I am very proud to come from Mexico but I think I’m more of a New Yorker because this is where I grew up,” he said, before describing his pride at legally carrying a New York State identity card.

“It gives me something to show off,” he said with a smile. “Anywhere you go, we are known as the tough guys.”