For One ‘Dreamer,’ a Time of Suspense

Iuri with his mother Brigida resting her hand on his shoulder (Photo by Alexandre Soares for Voices of NY)

Iuri is excited for his summer job, still some months away. He plans on working with his father, as a mechanic’s assistant, to earn his first paycheck. Then, in the fall, as soon as he turns 17, he’ll use that money to get his driver’s license and buy a car. Then he’ll park it in front of his family’s house, in Newark, New Jersey, ask his parents and two younger siblings to step in and, in a first for all of them, go on a short drive as a family.

Maybe they’ll just go for lunch somewhere in the city, or maybe they’ll go all the way to the coast and see the ocean. Wherever they end up, it will be possible because Iuri is protected by Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), a program launched by Barack Obama in 2012 that allows teenagers and young adults who came to the United States illegally as children with their parents to receive a two-year renewable protection against deportation, along with work permits and social security numbers.

Iuri is sure that drive is going to happen. “He won’t dare do it,” the teenager says, referring to Donald J. Trump’s promise to terminate DACA, which he called an “illegal amnesty,” in his first 100 days in office. Iuri has lived in the United States since he was 3 years old. He thinks of himself as an American, everyone who knows him does so, and he believes American citizens will step up for him and the other 750,000 people protected under DACA if they need their help. “The backlash would just be too big.”

Iuri was born in Lisbon, Portugal. Brigida, his mom, was 30 years old and his father, Luís, was 32 when they decided to leave the country. They were both working full time, and still, after the baby was born, they came up short on money at the end of every month. “My husband had some of his family in America and decided to come and try it out,” Brigida remembers. Luís quickly found a job as a mechanic that paid $650 a week, almost the same he was making in a month in Portugal. He called Brigida and told her to join him. Five months later, she arrived with Iuri.

“I had never imagined myself as an immigrant. No one in my family had ever left the country,” the Portuguese woman says. “I was prejudiced against immigrants. It was 2003, when Portugal was receiving a lot of immigrants from Brazil, and I used to think they were coming to take our jobs at a time so many of us were unemployed.”

Brigida immediately found a job cleaning houses. They no longer were out of money before the next paycheck, and everywhere they went they were reminded of the opportunities their son would have. “We even decided we could have another kid, something that was completely out of our plans in Portugal.” A couple of years after arriving, Yara, a daughter, was born, an American. Then came another son, Aidan.

Iuri went to school in the Ironbound neighborhood, where most kids are first- or second-generation Americans, but few were not born in the U.S. Brigida says Iuri “left Portugal so young that he has no memory of it” and that “he grew up just like any other American boy, with no reason to think he was different from all the other kids at school.”

Only when he was 11, and in need of some new glasses, did he start to ask questions. He heard his parents discuss how expensive the glasses were and the sacrifices they would have to make to buy them. His siblings had also needed glasses, and he had never heard a similar conversation. “Why are my glasses a problem and not theirs?” he asked. A few months went by and he had to go to the dentist. “I finally had to explain to him that, because he wasn’t born here, like his siblings, he wasn’t an American and didn’t have the same rights, like being covered by health insurance.”

As Iuri grew into a teenager, with a bright white smile, his dark hair styled to lift in the front, he understood why his parents didn’t drive; realized why they had never gotten a mortgage to buy a house; why they had never flown anywhere. “He started to understand that he would have the same obstacles, and that caused him some anger,” Brigida says. “Fortunately, it was never against us. He never blamed us. It was against the system; a system that doesn’t see him the same way he does.”

Even so, for the parents, the guilt was overbearing at some points. “He’s our kid, just like the other two, but his options are much more limited. So you start questioning your choices. The only consolation was to know that we had only done it for him,” she says. “We wouldn’t have left Portugal if it wasn’t for him. And he always understood that.”

Ferry Street, the heart of the Ironbound neighborhood in Newark, New Jersey (Photo by Alexandre Soares for Voices of NY)

Brigida and her husband are at peace with their immigration status. “I was informed when I came. I knew I was doing something illegal. It was after 9/11 and I was aware that it would be complicated to ever become legal,” she says. Still, they “always did the right things” for when the opportunity to become legal arrives. “We didn’t get a fake license or a fake social security number, to not risk being caught committing a crime. We have paid taxes every year. We have never traveled. I haven’t seen my family in 13 years.”

The couple believes they won’t be deported unless they commit a crime. They haven’t considered what they would do if they were forced to leave the country. They tried to become legal through a family member’s company, but when the 2008 financial crisis hit, the business went bankrupt and the opportunity disappeared with it. “Honestly, in these 13 years, life has happened. We have three kids and work long hours. We kept informed about our cases, but it wasn’t a priority. Iuri’s case has always been the priority, the thing making us lose our sleep.”

In 2012, they heard about DACA and immediately contacted Ana Oliveira, a Brazilian immigrant who has a legal services office in the city. “She confirmed Iuri filled every criteria and could apply when he turned 15,” Brigida remembers, getting emotional. “It was such a relief. We just want him to have a normal life. It was more than a door that was open; it felt like all the doors had been opened.”

Iuri applied in 2015 and was accepted. “I know many people who didn’t do it because they were scared to give their information, but we have two kids who were born in America, the authorities know everything about us, we’re not hiding,” Brigida explains. In a few months, Iuri got his social security card, and then his work permit. “It hasn’t changed much in my life yet,” he says. “As I become an adult, and start to work, drive, go to college, that’s when it will make a big difference.”

As Iuri started dreaming about all of this, the presidential campaign rolled in. Brigida discovered that many in the Portuguese community, which settled in the ’60s and ’70s and is mostly legal, had quickly forgotten where they had come from. “Every time someone told me that Trump was right about immigration and that they were voting for him, I made a point of saying that they were talking about my family and it would directly affect our life,” she says. These were rare moments of openness for Brigida. “This is a drama that we live very privately. We don’t ever leave Newark. We’re either at work or at home. We want to be more politically active, participate in a rally, join an organization, but we’re also afraid of risking what we do have. We have three underage kids.”

Iuri just started looking at colleges and is preparing for his entrance exams. He plans to apply to universities in New Jersey, to stay close to his family, and because the state is one of the 21 that charge Dreamers the same tuition as legal residents. Among the opponents of in-state tuition for these immigrants, though, is Jeff Sessions, who was just confirmed attorney general. “It’s terrifying to know that Trump has the power to destroy all these dreams with a single signature and that he’s surrounded by people who support it,” Brigida says.

The family is trying everything to protect Iuri’s chances of going to college. His grandmother, who’s 72 and has been a green card holder for almost three decades, just applied to become a U.S. citizen. “We want to have as many good things going for us as we can in case it’s needed,” Brigida says. “Ana [the legal services counsellor] always tells us to do the most we can. She says something might be useless for now, but the law can change in the future.”

As the conversation nears the end, Yara, the daughter, comes into the kitchen asking for dinner. Aidan is in the living room, doing his homework, and Iuri is playing a soccer game on PlayStation. He has been hearing his mom talk. The players run across the field, some loose and free, others restricted by each of Iuri’s moves on the controller. “I talked about getting my license and being able to drive,” he says. “But it’s so much more than that. To lose [DACA] would be like having my legs cut off.”

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