Right now, Diana Alvarez of Lebanon has a full-time job, a driver's license and a form of legal residency in the United States.

By this time next fall, none of those may be true.

Alvarez, 24, was born in Mexico and came to the United States with her family when she was 6 years old. She became part of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program five years ago and is now a teacher at Sprague High School in Salem, but the phaseout of that program announced last week leaves her future in limbo.

Called DACA for short, the deferred action program allows qualifying undocumented immigrants who were brought to the United States as children the right to avoid deportation. DACA recipients aren't considered citizens but are allowed to work.

Until now, DACA certification could be renewed every two years. In rescinding the Obama administration policy change that created the program, President Donald Trump said he'd delay the effects of his own order for six months, potentially giving Congress time to put a new policy in place.

Alvarez received her first DACA papers in November 2012, a few months after Obama's policy took effect. The current certification expires in October 2018. 

After that, anything could happen — and because anything could, Alvarez isn't thinking about it right now.

"I'm not worried," she said. "I know many people are unsure about this, but worrying doesn't solve the problem."

DACA recipients are often called "dreamers," a nod to the DREAM Act, a path to permanent residency for unauthorized immigrants that Congress last failed to pass in 2011. It's thought the Obama administration signed the DACA policy as a direct response to that failure.

Roughly 800,000 people in the United States currently hold DACA certification, according to U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services. In Oregon, 11,281 people had received DACA benefits as of March 31, 2017.

As of the Sept. 5 suspension, no new DACA requests are being processed. People whose documents expire before March 5, 2018, can reapply now. Alvarez is one of 275,344 individuals nationwide whose papers expire in 2018, but because hers are good until next October, she can't reapply.

If nothing changes between now and then, her DACA certification goes away. Her driver's license expires, too. She will no longer be able to work legally in the United States. The risk of deportation looms.

Friends are concerned, she said. "There's a lot of people who now know about my status that didn't know about it when I was going through it, in high school," she said. "The people who know about this are more worried about it than I am. It's kind of cool ... that they care about this."

Alvarez was born in Guanajuato, Mexico, the oldest of five children. Her father, the oldest of 10 siblings, worked in construction and helped to support his younger brothers and sisters as well as his own family. He dreamed of giving his children an education he didn't see as possible in his own country.

He began going north to work, to the United States, where he could get better pay, Alvarez said. He’d work through the growing season, then come home, then return. When one of his employers suggested bringing his family north so he'd no longer have to travel each year, he decided he would.

Alvarez' father made the announcement to the family on April 30, 1998, El Dia del Nino, Children's Day. In a 2012 interview with the Democrat-Herald, Alvarez recounted the words he used: “I’m going to give you guys the biggest present."

Alvarez was 6 at the time and recalled being excited about "going north," although not really understanding why. She said "north," to Mexican children, means the United States. "The land of opportunity," she remembered.

The family's first attempt didn't succeed. With children ranging in age from 6 years to 5 months, hiking through the desert wasn’t an option. So the family paid a coyote — a human smuggler — to get them across in a van.

It didn’t work. The border patrol caught the family, held them in a detention center and fingerprinted everyone, including the children, before sending them back to Mexico.

They made it through undetected a second time, arriving in the mid-valley on May 10, Mother’s Day.

Alvarez enrolled in first grade that fall at the former Waterloo School in the Lebanon Community School District. Despite her practically nonexistent English skills, she immediately became a strong student, earning a spot in the highest reading group by the end of the year. 

She would go on to achieve a 3.98 grade point average and become a 2011 salutatorian at Lebanon High School, receiving National Honor Student recognition and an award her junior year as Outstanding Junior in the Area of Foreign Language.

It was partly her own academic strength that drove Alvarez's plans to pursue a career teaching Spanish. But her immigration status made things complicated. She didn't have a Social Security card, which meant she couldn't fill out an application for federal student aid. She wasn't a resident and didn't qualify for in-state tuition, nor could she acquire a driver's license to get to school anyway.

Alvarez and her family heard about DACA program from news reports on June 15, 2012, the day President Barack Obama announced the new policy. Applying for certification was a given, even at a cost of nearly $500. She didn't know if she'd have another chance.

Alvarez had begun classes at Corban College, even though it didn't have a Spanish program, because the college helped her out financially. After her DACA certification came through, she got her license, transferred to Linn-Benton Community College and finished her transfer degree, then graduated from Western Oregon University.

"I didn't have to pay out-of-state tuition because through the DACA, we were able to apply for tuition equity which gave us the right to be charged the same as any other resident," she said.

Today, Alvarez is in her third year at Sprague High School, where she teaches five classes of Spanish I and one of Advanced Placement Spanish. 

Her status is known but doesn't come up much. This past February, she quietly took a personal day to participate in "A Day Without Immigrants," an event meant to be a national strike to show the impact across the nation of immigrant labor. She plans to do so again next February, but will again take a personal day and leave plans for a substitute so her students won't be shortchanged. "I wanted to do things right," she said.

Now that DACA is all over the news, Alvarez said she plans to sit down with the principal at Sprague to discuss how she should handle the topic if a student asks. 

She wishes, she said, that people could see her past her residency status to who she is as a person and what she's trying to do.

"I'm just like other teachers who are hoping to help students be successful in class, and give them the tools to be successful outside of class, too," she said.

Fellow DACA recipients are just regular people too, she added. "There are people doing awesome things out there just like any other American."

Mostly, she said, people ask why she and other DACA recipients can't also just "do things the right way" and become a citizen. Her answer: It isn't that easy.

"A co-worker asked me about it today (Tuesday, following Trump's announcement) and asked why I can't just apply for residency," she said. "I explained to her that it's not an option for DACA students."

A green card, the document that confers status as a legal immigrant, isn't a realistic option for Alvarez, either. Most green card recipients are sponsored through family members who are legal residents (not an option) or employment (the employer would have to have determined no one else could fill that position). She's not a political refugee or a victim of human trafficking, and Mexico isn't one of the countries eligible for the so-called "green card lottery." 

Alvarez could go back to Mexico, a country that holds no ties and almost no memories for her, and re-establish residency to apply.

However, paperwork can take years to process. And if an applicant already has been in the United States illegally for more than a year, he or she faces a 10-year ban on re-entering. The Department of Homeland Security already knows Alvarez's status: Besides holding three rounds of DACA paperwork, the agency still has her fingerprints on file from the unsuccessful border attempt in 1998. 

Given a magic wand, Alvarez would open a path to legal residency, the desire the unsuccessful DREAM Act tried to fulfill. If it existed, she said, 800,000 people like herself would jump at the chance.

"I'm sure if there was a way, we would," she said. "There isn't right now."

For five years, DACA lifted any concerns Alvarez might have had about deportation or her ability to work. But God has come through in the clutch for her and her family on many occasions. Congress hasn't acted yet. Fifteen states, including Oregon, have joined a lawsuit challenging Trump's decision. Things might change.

Alvarez keeps a notecard in her car with a quote from the Gospel of Luke, chapter 12, verse 25. "Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life?" She didn't have room for the rest of the verse, but tries to live by its words, too: "Since you cannot do this very little thing, why do you worry about the rest?"

"Throughout my life, my parents have been good examples of what it means to trust in God. I think that's why that verse is significant to me and why I'm not worried like many others are," she said.

"It's a peace I can't fully explain."


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