The red brake lights on the cars ahead all lit up, the rush-hour traffic slowly rolled to a halt and Nicolle Uria, tightly gripping a Gatorade water bottle in one hand and her iPhone in the other, just needed someone, anyone, to answer her call.
“Come on, pick up, pick up,” Nicolle whispered to herself in the passenger’s seat, phone pressed against her ear.
It went to voice mail. She punched in another number.
“Pick up, pick up,” she said a little louder, and again no one did.
On this drizzly October evening, Nicolle found herself as she so often has since Sept. 5: stuck between two worlds as a high school student and volleyball player, and as a dreamer. The 17-year-old was coming from a meeting in Arlington with the Dream Project, an organization that helps students with various immigration statuses apply to college. She was heading to Annandale High School in Fairfax County, where she is a senior and had a volleyball match at 7:15 p.m. And, for a moment, it all felt hectic and out of her control.
Sept. 5 was the day President Trump rescinded the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which was created in 2012 for undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as children, a group known as “dreamers.” Nicolle came from Bolivia when she was just a year old and received DACA status in September 2016. That gave her a Social Security number, working papers and, more than anything, opportunity.
Then Trump discontinued DACA last month and Nicolle, with about 690,000 other dreamers, was thrown into a state of confusion. She was not eligible to reapply for DACA at the Oct. 5 deadline. If a fractured Congress doesn't reach an immigration deal in the near future, her DACA will expire next September and she will become undocumented. If that happens, Nicolle will be subject to deportation and not able to legally drive or work. A handful of colleges have programs for undocumented students, but she would not be eligible for in-state tuition without DACA and her options would be slim.
Her plan was to apply to schools abroad, shoot for Virginia Commonwealth University if that didn’t work out, try out for the volleyball team, major in journalism or business and one day head a media company. But the DACA decision turned that future, once brimming with goals, into a waiting game stuffed with questions, ones only Congress can answer and make her wonder if she has a future here at all.
“It’s like you’re sailing in a beautiful ocean and then you crash and it’s raining a lot,” Uria said earlier that October day, sitting in the half-lit living room of the only home she has ever known. “And you’re stuck and you don’t know where to go, which way to swim, it’s dark and you can’t see. That’s how I feel right now with DACA maybe ending.”
At this moment, however, Nicolle was just worried about getting to her volleyball match in time. Finally, on her third try, Annandale’s team manager answered her call and Nicolle sat up in her seat.
“Is the JV still playing? . . . Uh-huh . . . Okay . . . How many sets left?” she asked. “Tell everyone I will be there on time.”
Nicolle went to hang up before reaching the phone back to her ear.
“Hey,” she said firmly, making sure he was still on the line. “I promise I’ll be there on time.”
‘Thought she was American'
It was a cold Friday in February 2016, and Nicolle’s parents, Ivan Uria and Giovanna Portugal, were acting strange when she got home from school.
“Why don’t you go upstairs to your room,” Nicolle remembers her mother saying. “We need to talk.”
Nicolle’s first thought was that she might be adopted. But she looked so much like her two older sisters, that couldn’t be true.
All three of them, as far as she knew, were born in the United States. Nicolle’s first memory was of her whole family eating ice cream at the Leesburg Outlets in Virginia. Her father was holding a camcorder and she and her sisters, still learning English, were laughing and saying their names for him in between bites.
“All she ever knew was America and she thought she was American,” Portugal said. “She loved her country. It was her country.”
But as she got older, Nicolle noticed her family was different from others. When she was 10, her grandparents, who used to live in their basement and took care of Nicolle when she was little, went back to Bolivia because, as her mother told her, “they missed home.” When there were parent lunches at school, her sisters came instead. Her mother was busy working three jobs as a house cleaner, babysitter and receptionist. Her father was a cashier at a gas station near their house. They were always saving up to make car payments, pay rent and put Nicolle’s older sisters through college.
When Nicolle asked to go to France for an eighth-grade field trip, her mother said she couldn’t because they didn’t have the money. When she hassled her parents to take her to get her learner’s permit, they said they were too busy at work. But the whole truth was that if Nicolle left the country she would not be able to get back in. She was not allowed to drive, even as all her friends were learning. The family legally immigrated 16 years ago because Ivan and Giovanna had work visas. But the visas eventually expired and the family stayed anyway. Ivan and Giovanna were now applying for green cards, and her sisters were doing the same, and Nicolle wanted to get her learner’s permit but . . .
“You’re undocumented,” her parents told her in her room, and she immediately started to cry.
Before Nicolle could start asking questions, they handed her a folder full of transcripts and paperwork and old tests she had aced. They told her there were forms for her to sign. There was a way for life to go on as it always had. There was hope.
On the front of the red folder, written in black Sharpie, were four letters: DACA.
‘You don’t know their story’
Before Nicolle was rushing to her volleyball match that October day, she sat on the edge of an Arlington classroom, binder on her lap, No. 2 pencil ready to scratch notes onto paper.
“Right now, all the high school students I work with are afraid,” Carlos Aleman, a James Madison professor and guest speaker at this Dream Project meeting, said to the room. “Afraid of what’s going to happen. Afraid of DACA ending.”
Nicolle stopped writing and nodded her head in agreement. She looked across the room at Lizzett Uria, her older sister and the Dream Project’s executive director, and the two locked eyes for a few long moments. Then Nicolle dropped her head and kept recording what Aleman said.
She never felt fear before Sept. 5, a day she spent in Washington taking photos for a friend’s magazine project. She was not near her phone or a television as Attorney General Jeff Sessions stood in front of an American flag and said, “I’m here today to announce that the program known as DACA, that was effectuated under the Obama administration, is being rescinded.” Her mother immediately texted Nicolle, asking where she was, who she was with and when she would be home.
When Nicolle walked through the door that evening, Portugal told her what happened. Her parents and sisters all have temporary green cards, putting them on track for permanent residence, and now Nicolle was the only one with an uncertain future. Nicolle focused on the six-month period Trump left for negotiations on DACA. They had to come up with something, she thought. She set up notifications for the president’s tweets so she would be alerted every time he posted. For more than a month now, as Trump has tweeted about the NFL and North Korea and hurricane relief, Nicolle has stared through her cracked iPhone screen, looking for the word “DACA,” hoping her fate becomes clearer.
“But you shouldn’t be afraid,” Aleman continued as more than a dozen students, a handful with DACA, quietly listened. “You’ve already done the hard part.”
The hard part for Nicolle has been trying to stand out and blend in at the same time.
She had always been active in school and the community, but having DACA made her want to do even more. She stars as an outside hitter on the Annandale volleyball team in the fall, does gymnastics in the winter and runs track in the spring. She may try lacrosse for the first time this year. She does community service with the Key Club, collecting change for those affected by Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Irma. She is president of the school’s Hispanic Leadership Club, a member of Future Business Leaders of America and entertainment editor for the school newspaper. She is a Girl Scouts ambassador, and has been a part of a troop since kindergarten.
But she still felt like she was hiding. In the first months of Trump’s presidency, Nicolle heard some of her friends adopting opinions they saw on the news. They called immigrants criminals. They said those who crossed the border are a part of gangs. They said they should leave.
“You don’t know their story,” Nicolle would suggest.
“Well, how do you know?” she remembers one friend answering.
“I have a friend who is an immigrant and undocumented,” Nicolle remembers telling her, and she left it at that.
“I was really afraid last year,” Nicolle said later. “I didn’t want to be out there with my identity because of a lot of the things Trump was saying. Now I don’t mind, because it helps people understand better.”
Once Aleman finished speaking, Nicolle waited to see him one-on-one. She wanted to ask about James Madison’s academic programs. She wanted to know if there was a Hispanic presence on campus. She loved hearing about colleges and all the different majors, clubs and classes that make knowledge seem limitless.
“What is your status?” Aleman asked her after they had been talking for a bit.
“I have DACA,” she said.
“Can you get it renewed?” he replied, and assured her he was not asking for admissions purposes.
“No,” Nicolle said before catching herself. “Well, maybe. I don’t know yet.”
They spoke for a few more minutes, and then Nicolle hurried out of the door.
‘She still has hope’
Nicolle walked quickly toward the school entrance just before 7 p.m., hugging friends and waving to parents as she went.
“Hey Nicolle!” said a dad working the ticket table right outside the gym. “Why are you so late?”
“Uh . . . ” Nicole took a long pause as she opened the door behind her. “I had a school thing.”
Her team was already warming up, and she took just three minutes to change into her uniform and twist her hair into a tight braid. As much as she likes the Dream Project, where she can discuss her immigration status without fear of being judged, she also enjoys the normality of playing sports. Physically, volleyball gives her a chance to spike winners and celebrate with teammates between points. Emotionally, it gives her a break.
Few people inside the small gym knew about Nicolle’s uncertain future. There is still time for DACA to be saved, and Nicolle will track the headlines as the deadline inches closer. She could still go to college, with or without DACA, if she is accepted to a program for undocumented students that is affordable for her family. And if Nicolle does need to go back to Bolivia, Portugal will go with her.
“It’s supposed to be her senior year of high school, such a fun and exciting time,” her sister Lizzett said. “But she is the only one in the family who doesn’t have a stable status right now. She doesn’t know anything about Bolivia. It’s sad for us, but she remains so positive. She still has hope.”
On nights like this, with her family watching from the bleachers and the referee’s whistle echoing off the brick walls, there was something settling for Nicolle about working toward a clear objective, tracking the ball as it sailed back and forth over the net, doing everything she could to keep it from hitting the floor.
Annandale lost to Hayfield in straight sets and, after the teams shook hands, Nicolle slowly walked over to Lizzett.
“Don’t hug me,” Nicolle said, laughing. “I’m so sweaty.”
“Tough one,” Lizzett said, hugging her anyway.
“Yeah, but it’s okay,” Nicolle answered. “There’s always the next one.”
Soon the crowd filtered into the night and Nicolle, Lizzett and Lizzett’s husband walked through a misty rain and to the car. It had been a long day, and it was time for Nicolle to go home.
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