Cairo Mendes visited the WGBH News studio to discuss the future of DACA with All Things Considered.

Credit: ATC Staff/WGBH News

Undocumented Immigrants Protected By DACA Await Trump Administration's Decision

September 1, 2017

BARBARA HOWARD: This is All Things Considered, I'm Barbara Howard. A decision on the fate of DACA is expected from President Trump on Tuesday. That's according to the White House. Tuesday is the day that a consortium of states had threatened to go to court to end the program once and for all. DACA, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, was put in place by President Obama five years ago. Renewable every two years, it offered a semblance of security to people who were brought by their parents to the U.S. as children, allowing them to work legally, to hold a driver's license, essentially, to have a future here. DACA kids had to have good standing, as well. Before DACA, there was the DREAM Act, a precursor to DACA. One of the so-called "Dreamers" is in the studio with me – Cairo Mendes, a lead organizer for what's called the Student Immigrant Movement. It's a statewide network of undocumented youth and supporters. Thanks for coming in, Cairo.

CAIRO MENDES: Thank you, Barbara, for having me.

HOWARD: So tell me what it was like ... what brought you to United States? Where did you come from? How old were you?

MENDES: Yeah, I came to the United States 15 years ago in 2002. I was 9 years old. My family and I came on a tourist visa and my dad had already been living here.

HOWARD: So you came from Brazil to... ?

MENDES: Marlboro, Massachusetts, yeah.

HOWARD: Tell me what it was like the first days, when you got to the United States.

MENDES: On the way to the airport, from Logan Airport to Marlboro, my dad was very specific and he said we couldn't really share the situation. And it was very difficult being here in those first few days, being extremely, you know, alone and depressed and not knowing the language or the culture. 

HOWARD: Yeah, that's hard for any immigrant, but being someone who couldn't say, "I have no papers," was that a problem growing up?

MENDES: It didn't really become that much of a problem until I became the age of 16, when I couldn't apply for a driver's [license], when I couldn't get a job. You know, all my friends were thinking about college, and I necessarily didn't know if I was even going to be able to do that. 

HOWARD: In 2010 the DREAM Act was in the news. It didn't become law, but that's when you revealed your status, right?

MENDES: That's right. In 2010 the DREAM Act was introduced. I was 17 at the time. So I decided that I would have to step out of the shadows and claim my status.

HOWARD: And then two years later, 2012 – that was five years ago – comes DACA.

MENDES: Yes. President Obama passed Deferred Action, which helped over 800,000 people apply for work permits and driver's licenses. 

HOWARD: Well, at that time, "come out of the shadows" is what they said. Do you have any regrets now that you did that?

MENDES: I don't have any regrets. I think there's a lot of anxiety within the community that the government has all that information and that the Trump administration could use [it] to deport people, but a lot of us who are here are fighting and are saying that we are going to keep resisting this.

HOWARD: Have you encountered people your age who have not stepped out of the shadows who are reluctant to do so at this point?

MENDES: Yes.

HOWARD: What do they have to say for themselves?

MENDES: I think they're afraid, and rightfully so. You know, they're afraid for themselves, they're afraid for their families.

HOWARD: Are you concerned that the list could be used to find the parents of these one-time children who were brought over?

MENDES: Yeah, yeah. I think I would, you know, I wouldn't want to hide that, I think that that's a real fear that's passing through a lot of people's heads.

HOWARD: Are people taking actual action, going underground in some way?

MENDES: Yes. A lot of individuals that have gotten in contact with me are afraid to come out, are afraid to speak out.

HOWARD: What kind of support are you getting from outside groups?

MENDES: We have received contact from legal service organizations that are here to protect students if anything happens to their families or themselves. And so, you know, we're getting a lot of support from a lot of different types of groups.

HOWARD: Do you have any intention of getting in touch with the AG's office, Maura Healey's office, here in Massachusetts? They appear to have been considering getting involved to help people like you, DACA kids.

MENDES: I think we're always open to working with the Attorney General's office, who has done amazing work already. And so, we're definitely always open to working with her on this. Yes. 

HOWARD: What about you personally? Can you imagine living in Brazil?

MENDES: You know, I don't know. I don't think so. I have grown up here. You know, my family has lived here for so long that it really ... I don't see myself in Brazil. I wouldn't know [what] a life in Brazil could even look like, even though the rest of my family is there. 

HOWARD: What about students who didn't find out about their status until much later in life?

MENDES: I've always known I was undocumented, but a lot of immigrant youth didn't find out they're undocumented until they were graduating high school. That whole time they thought they were U.S. citizens, and they came here when they were six months old. So to throw these kids to countries that they have no attachment to is cruel and it's inhumane.

HOWARD: You said your whole family is in Brazil at this point, including your mother?

MENDES: When I said my whole family, I mean my extended family – my grandparents and my dad, right. My dad went back seven years ago. My stepmother is there. I have two younger siblings that are down there as well.

HOWARD: Who in your family is still here?

MENDES: Just me, my mom and my sister. And, you know, some extended cousins. Yeah.

HOWARD: If you went back to Brazil – I mean, people listening are thinking, "Gee, he has an American education." You've gone through the Massachusetts state college system. You would have no trouble finding a job. You wouldn't be poor if you went back to Brazil. You have the skills now.

MENDES: Absolutely. I don't dispute that. And in all honesty, I've also thought about that, too, because my work permit expires in November of next year, and I graduate in May. And so to me, it's, you know, like, would I be able to find a job afterwards? You know, so even that real thought about going back and using my American education, that has definitely, no doubt about it, crossed my mind. And then there's the other side, that is like, actually, but you know, this is also a home and it took a long time to make it home. And also the way I see it, when I go back, is it letting them win? 

HOWARD: Well, it also raises the question of, you know, the United States educated you through public schools and through public colleges and are we, essentially, financing training for people who then go abroad and don't use their skills here? I mean, is that ... it hurts us as a country as much as it helps Brazil?

MENDES: I personally think that it would hurt the U.S. to then go back to their homes and open businesses and pursue careers there to contribute to the economies. That is a loss of knowledge, that is a loss of skills that the U.S. is experiencing.

HOWARD: Do you lose sleep over this? 

MENDES: I have in the past week. There have been times where I've woken up in the middle of the night anxious, and that is something that is going on all across the board from what I hear from people who are involved in the immigrant rights movement. Every day there's rumors that this announcement is going to come out. So imagine us, who do this work, are not only the impacted group from this decision, but also having to guide and provide direction for the community. It's an added stress, and so, it is exactly what they want. They want us to wake up in the middle of the night. They want us to freak out. They want us to make rapid decisions based on emotions and feelings. 

HOWARD: Are you finding people just leaving the country just to put it behind them?

MENDES: I saw a lot of people leave after the election. I haven't heard recently, but I know that throughout the year people have been leaving the country out of, I think, exhaustion – not seeing some sort of pathway to adjusting their status. And people just rightfully feeling afraid of this administration. 

HOWARD: And you, yourself, have you entertained those thoughts of leaving?

MENDES: I have, I have. I think that at some point, you know, decisions have to be made and it just feels more like we're not wanted here.

HOWARD: OK, thank you so much, Cairo.

MENDES: Thank you so much for having me. I appreciate it.

HOWARD: That's Cairo Mendes, lead organizer for what's called the Student Immigrant Movement, a statewide network of undocumented youth and supporters. This is All Things Considered


WGBH News is supported by:
Back to top