Fearing deportation

Marshall DACA recipients retain hope

Photo by Jenny Kirk Marly Wagner, left, and Selene Antunez strike a sober pose, a reflection of their life in limbo after President Donald Trump rescinded the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) in September and with Congress yet to pass a bipartisan bill to replace the program.

MARSHALL — Selene Antunez Talamantes doesn’t remember specifics about walking across the desert from Mexico to the U.S. at age 6.

But her sensory memories are vivid.

“I was crying because I didn’t want to walk anymore,” she said. “We didn’t have a full meal or much water to drink for four days. My mother told me that people traveling with us had to carry me because I couldn’t walk anymore.”

Two decades from being carried on the shoulders of others, Antunez is a collector analyst at U.S. Bank Equipment Finance, having worked her way up from entry level jobs in other firms.

She has a resume packed with local school and community accomplishments, but no certainty about how long she will be able to stay.

The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, known as DACA, allowed Antunez and Marly Wagner, also of Marshall, to grow up in the U.S. after being brought here as minors.

But the DACA program was ended Sept. 5 by the Trump administration. DACA recipients will lose work permits and legal status in the U.S. upon the two-year anniversary of their most recent DACA renewals.

For both women, the renewal dates approach.

Antunez and Wagner spoke about their experiences — and their fears — at a Nov. 15 event sponsored by the Southwest Minnesota State University Latino Club and the Lyon County DFL. Fifty people gathered in the Christ United Presbyterian Church to hear their stories and offer support.

Wagner, 26, has also developed a long pedigree of accomplishments since arriving in Marshall at 13. But it wasn’t easy.

“I arrived in 2004, and remember how my grades and my aspirations quickly dropped,” Wagner said. “I struggled to learn English, make friends, and thrive.

“I remember seventh-grade science class. I was put on a team and asked to read out loud. Not knowing a drop of English, I had to tell the teacher in Spanish that I didn’t know how to read. My classmates laughed. I cried in the bathroom after that block was done.”

But Wagner persevered, and by the time she was a high school freshman, she had moved out of English learner’s classes, graduating from Marshall High School with straight A’s.

Because DACA recipients may not apply for financial aid for college, Wagner put herself through SMSU, working until she had saved enough for a semester. She would attend that semester, go back to work full time until she had saved enough for another semester, and return to classes.

Every two years, her DACA renewal application fee of $495, and lawyers’ fees of about $400, ate up part of her savings and delayed her academic goals.

Yet Wagner received a bachelor’s degree in psychology, then entered the SMSU graduate program in business administration. She is the assistant director of Trio Upward Bound of Southern Minnesota, and one class away from completing her master’s degree.

For Antunez, higher education was too expensive to pursue.

While the women’s grandparents and other relatives are legal residents, the rescission of DACA may soon send both women back to Mexico, a country they hardly know.

“When I was growing up in Marshall,” Antunez said, “bullies would say ‘Just go back to your country.’ That’s not something I can do. I don’t know my way to my hometown. I wouldn’t know where to start. I fear that if this happens, I’m going to be lost.”

For Wagner, who is married to a U.S. citizen and expecting the couple’s first child, the situation is somewhat less bleak.

But applying for resident status as a family member will take years.

Under U.S. immigration law, “I might have to go to Mexico for 10 years,” she said. “Being separated from my husband for 10 years and expecting a child — that’s a lot of hardship for one person to take.”

Wagner and Antunez are far from alone. There are 800,000 DACA recipients currently in the U.S., most having left their countries due to lack of work, poor wages, authoritarian governments and criminal cartels that threatened their survival.

They find it difficult to understand what threat they pose to their American community.

Wagner, a slight woman with long brown hair, said she babysat younger siblings while her mother worked night shifts at a poultry processing plant, alongside many immigrants from the Marshall region.

“It’s dignified work; it fed me,” she said. “But I’m not built for that kind of work. I wanted a little bit more.”

Antunez reflects on this point. “People say, ‘They’re taking our jobs.’ But I always ask myself, ‘Would those people really want to go work where immigrants do? Are we really taking their jobs?’ I pay my taxes, I work hard, I contribute to the community.”

Statistics from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services show 4,600 DACA recipients living in Minnesota. This number accounts for 1 percent of DACA recipients nationwide.

Immigrants have faced struggle whether they migrated to the U.S. 200 years ago, or two decades. For Antunez and Wagner, the struggle might expand within two years, erasing much they have gained.

“I’ve been able to build my credit, start my own Mary Kay business, purchase my first car and live without fear,” Antunez said. “But now that fear returns.”

Although she does not know what the future holds, “we stand together as a community and continue to fight for something we have earned,” Antunez said.

“We went through the background checks and completed the government’s requirements, and we deserve to be here.”

While the women realize many will not understand their plight, Antunez ended the gathering with an aspiration.

“We are all here to learn from one another and build create awareness,” she said. “I hope you came with an open heart.”