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With DACA's Fate Unclear, Some Young Pittsburgh Immigrants Hope For The Best

Virginia Alvino Young
90.5 WESA
Ana Alberto-Ramirez and Jesus Gutierrez live in Bethel Park, and are both recipients of the DACA program.

Ana Alberto-Ramirez spends most evenings after work with her boyfriend at their home in Bethel Park, hanging out and watching TV.

“And he plays soccer, so I go to his games, and I like taking pictures. Sometimes I’m there just taking pictures,” she said.

The 24 year-old works as a hair stylist on Pittsburgh’s South Side.

“I like to make hours, so I like to stay longer than I have to, especially when it’s busy.”

She’s permitted to work because of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, the policy instituted by the Obama administration and recently rescinded by President Donald Trump. The program, which offers protections for 800,000 young people nationwide, was not a pathway to citizenship, but a temporary measure that gave her a social security number, work permit and the thing she was most excited about – a driver's license.

Alberto-Ramirez qualified for the program because she came to the U.S. when she was young, had been here for a long time and went to school here. She moved from a small village in Puebla, Mexico to Pittsburgh when she was 10. She had heard stories about “the north,” and fantasized about it.

“And when you’re young you don’t think about the problems you’re going to face here. You don’t think about the language,” she said, “I didn’t think about nothing like that.”

Her parents were already in Pittsburgh. Eventually, she joined them.

“I grew up with cows and goats and bulls over there, so I didn’t know the city,” she said. “Now I love the city. I love how people love their sports. I’m a big fan of all of them, even though I don’t understand most of them. People are friendly.”

She faced bullying in American grade school, but eventually learned English and never worried about not having documentation. That challenge finally hit her the day she went to pay for community college classes, and they told her she couldn’t without a state I.D.

“I was in tears, and that’s when I realized I was not going to get anywhere," she said. "I wanted to be a dentist.”

When DACA was announced in 2012, she was hopeful, but things have changed since then.

Credit Virginia Alvino Young
Virginia Alvino Young
Monica Ruiz is a community organizer for Casa San Jose.

Monica Ruiz is an organizer for the Latino advocacy group Casa San Jose and said she’s faced one challenge after the next.

“I call it like damage control,” she said. “It’s kind of been this way since the election, where we can’t get in front of things. We’re always being reactive instead of proactive.”

She said Latinos have been getting mixed messages about being welcome, and President Trump’s rhetoric and policies aren’t helping.

“These are fear tactics," Ruiz said. "He’s playing now with the most vulnerable in the community.”

Trump declared an end to DACA last month and put the onus on a deeply divided Congress to find a solution. Several states attorneys general, including Pennsylvania's top attorney Josh Shapiro, quickly sued to block the program's end, and Congressional Republicans have since introduced a bill to offer some protections, while adding money for a border wall and additional border security. 

After Trump's announcement Sept. 5, Casa San Jose encouraged program participants who were eligible to renew DACA to start the process immediately. Processing fees are about $500 per recipient, but Ruiz said many organizations reached out and sent checks. She said several immigration attorneys in Pittsburgh also came out in full force.

But that only benefited people whose DACA status expires before March 5, 2018. They could renew one last time in order to keep benefits for another two years. For those whose DACA permit expires after March 5, like Alberto-Ramirez’s, his or her enrollment is over. 

Ruiz said many recipients have grown up, finished high school and gone on to college. Some are still in school, while some are married with mortgages. Alberto-Ramirez said she’s put down roots.

“I never thought it was going to end,” she said. “I thought I was going to have it forever. I felt really secure with it.”

She knows people saw this coming, but she's an optimist.

“I want to have a future, I want to have a future in [Pittsburgh], because I see this as my home. Fourteen years, more than half of my life here.”

Even now, Alberto-Ramirez said she has faith that Congress will come up with a solution before her DACA status expires next year. If not, she said, life goes on. She lived in America before DACA, and if necessary, will do so again.

“I’m planning to stay here until they kick me out.”