Jessica Aguilar says she feels overwhelmed at times.
When the pandemic hit, the 26-year-old Andover resident not only temporarily lost her job as a debt collector, but she also heard daily from her longtime partner, Omar Castro, about his fears that COVID-19 could spread in the jail where he was detained by immigration authorities.
And Aguilar worried that even if Castro stayed healthy, he might be deported after two offenses related to driving while impaired. She wondered if she and their 3-year-old daughter, Aviana Castro, would ever see him again.
Now, Aguilar might soon face the prospect that she also could be deported.
The U.S. Supreme Court will soon decide the fate of Aguilar and hundreds of thousands of people like her — the so-called Dreamers — who were brought to the U.S. without authorization as children and granted temporary legal protections under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy. Lower courts upheld the program after President Donald Trump ended it in 2017, but judges on the nation’s highest court appeared favorable to his administration’s appeal when hearing oral arguments in November.
If DACA goes away, “I would be left with nothing, really,” Aguilar said. “It would be back to zero. No identification, nothing to protect me, nothing to have a good job.”
Aguilar’s parents moved the family to the U.S. from Mexico without legal documentation in the mid-1990s, when she was just a few months old. She grew up in Andover feeling similar to her American friends but recognized by high school that her immigration status would limit her path to work or college.
As classmates excitedly planned their futures, Aguilar felt embarrassed and ashamed to disclose how her status might prevent her from following her dream to become a nurse. Teachers in a multicultural program urged her to fill out college financial aid applications, but she made excuses, not wanting to tell them that she didn’t have a Social Security number, which is required to apply.
At least she could confide in Castro, whom she began dating in high school. He had come to the U.S. under similar circumstances.
Former President Barack Obama announced the DACA policy in 2012, effectively deferring deportation proceedings and granting work permits to immigrants who were brought into the country before they turned 16 if they had no criminal history.
Aguilar and Castro were approved for the program, clearing the way for Aguilar to take a job at a credit union while Castro worked as a roofer.
“Having DACA did open up the doors. … I started to feel almost more normal, more free,” said Aguilar. “Not in a shadow.”
And they had Aviana, who is a U.S. citizen. But Aguilar’s optimism dimmed after Trump ended the program five years after it began and called on Congress to pass comprehensive immigration reform.
“It was really scary, honestly,” said Aguilar. “I had to think about what’s going to happen to us. Are we going to be deported? ... I don’t want my child to grow up in a country where I’ve never been.”
That was also around the time that Castro pleaded guilty to driving while impaired in 2017, which automatically canceled his DACA protection, and authorities initiated deportation proceedings against him.
Aguilar recalls that was a rocky time for the couple. She said she told Castro not to drink and drive again. But while he was out on bond, he was arrested again in November to another DWI-related offense.
Castro testified that it wouldn’t be safe for him or his family to return to Mexico; other relatives had been kidnapped there. Aguilar testified that she and her daughter depended on Castro for emotional and financial support. But U.S. Immigration Judge M. Audrey Carr denied Castro’s application for cancellation of removal in early March, and he’s now appealing to the Board of Immigration Appeals.
As jails around the country became hot spots for COVID-19, Castro and 61 other ICE detainees at the Sherburne County jail unsuccessfully filed a legal challenge asking to be released, citing health concerns. U.S. District Judge Nancy Brasel ruled May 14 that ICE could keep the plaintiffs detained during the pandemic.
“It’s like a ticking bomb in here,” Castro said in an interview from the jail. “It’s ready to explode, and that’s what we’re scared of. I don’t want to be that guy in the news that ends up dying, and [an inmate dying] is the only way that they’re going to be able to release people in here.”
Aguilar’s DACA status put her in a more favorable position than many immigrants who lack legal authorization to be in the country: She qualified for a federal stimulus check and unemployment benefits. And now, she’s returning to her job.
But life remains stressful with Castro’s losses in court and now the looming Supreme Court decision on the DACA policy.
“I didn’t have a choice” to enter the United States, Aguilar said. “Omar didn’t have a choice. [Our parents] brought us here for a reason. They brought us here for a better living. He made his mistakes, but unfortunately when we make our mistakes,” she said, “we have to pay for it at a higher price.”