Last week, I spent my 24th birthday in detention.
I’ve been in an immigrant detention center in Tacoma, Wash., for more than a month. That’s a month away from my family, a month further away from doing everything I can to support my 3-year-old son and a lifetime away from the future my parents wished for me when I was brought here from Mexico at age 7. I’ve spent nearly my whole life in the United States — as a child, a teenager and now an adult with a child of my own. This country is my home.
I was detained and brought here on Feb. 10, just over a month after moving from the Central Valley in California to the Seattle area to find a better job to support my family. It has been difficult to keep a positive outlook. It’s gray here, and I mostly keep to myself, except for the prayer group I attend twice a day. To pass the time, I recently started learning how to make origami animals to give to my son when I see him again.
But being in here, my mind races. Before this, I never thought that I would end up in a news headline or have my name become a hashtag on social media. I was supposed to be one of the lucky ones. In 2012, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) gave young people like me, who were brought to the United States without authorization as kids, what we craved the most: legal status to live, study, work and even serve in the military, without the fear of deportation.
The day that I was approved for DACA was one of the happiest days of my life. I felt that I could stop being afraid and fully participate in the incredible opportunities this country has to offer. I found work picking oranges in the fields of central California near my home. It was hot, difficult and dirty, but I was happy to be able to work and help my family without the fear of being deported. In 2013, my son, Daniel Jr., was born. That little boy is my world, and he completely changed my life. It became more important than ever to build a stable future. I started taking classes and hoped to get on a career path to work in auto repair or painting cars — two things I love.
It sounds simple, but that was the promise that DACA gave 750,000 people like me: We could work hard, take care of our families and live without the constant fear of being sent to a country that we don’t know, forced to leave behind the people we love.
Unfortunately, that’s exactly what happened to me when immigration agents came into my apartment after they arrested my father outside. I was arrested, too, detained and brought to this center. Agents said that a tattoo on my arm means I’m in a gang. I got that tattoo when I was 18 to honor La Paz, Mexico, the city where I was born. Agents interrogated me for hours and insisted I was a gang member because I’m from the Central Valley. They are all gang members there, they told me. It didn’t seem to matter how many times I told them that I wasn’t.
They don’t even need to take my word for it — the government already knows that I’m not a gang member. Like all “dreamers,” I gave all of my personal information and fingerprints to the government to qualify for DACA. I’ve been checked against every state and federal database. They verified twice that I have no criminal history, was never affiliated with any gang and was not a threat to public safety. Despite that, I was treated as though my DACA status and my work authorization meant nothing.
Despite how terrible this situation has been, in some ways, I am still one of the lucky ones. I have an incredible team of lawyers who are helping me every step of the way; they have interviewed me here in detention and used our conversations to draft this essay so I can tell my story to the public before I’m released. I have the support of my family and friends who will not stop fighting for me until I am back home. I have a son who I love and miss every day. And I have received incredible support from people nationwide in a way I never could have imagined. I’m now waiting for the judge to decide whether I can be released and whether he will hear my case in federal court.
I am hopeful that I will have a future in this country, but I know that this case is not just about me. Hundreds of thousands of dreamers are questioning just what sort of protection the government’s promise provides. If I can be arrested and detained without any evidence, what will happen to them?
My parents brought me to the United States because they wanted for me what all parents want for their kids — a good shot at life. Dreamers like me aren’t asking for handouts. We want the government to stand by its promise and let us contribute to our communities and take care of our families without being sent back to a country we don’t know. Part of why I love the United States is because it embraces people who have different cultures and languages. It rewards people who work hard and help others. And it stands for the promise of a better future. This is the America that I love and the America that I hope will stand behind us dreamers.