VISA, application, immigration, rights

Nayda Benitez grew up in the Southeast and attended local schools. 

Now 25, she works with the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition and talks openly about her undocumented status on behalf of countless others in her community. As a current DACA recipient (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals), she is especially worried about a case in federal appeals court that could end the program.

When did you arrive here?

We made it to Colorado Springs around 2002. Dad came on a work visa. I think that there’s this myth that undocumented people are mostly coming across in border crossings, but actually it’s a lot of overstayed visas. 

But the rest of us, my mom, my two siblings and I were undocumented from the beginning. We never planned to be undocumented. We applied for visas, but were denied. It was tough being separated from dad, but the U.S. was the place to go for financial opportunity. Our family is from a rural part of Puebla (a state in south-central Mexico), where there is not a lot of financial opportunity.” 

How do you like Colorado Springs?

Good now. My dad was able to leave the job he was doing to manage his own company. He’s up to 10 employees now. 

I’ve always had a love/hate relationship with the Springs though.  

Why’s that?

This is a place where my parents have been able to access financial mobility. Even though I grew up here … even though it’s home, I’ve never felt welcome or part of the Springs. It’s a conservative and military culture. One example, our county sheriff used to have a 287 G agreement [to have local law enforcement receive training and work directly with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement] for most of my childhood. 

I feel much safer in the Southeast than other parts of the city, but it’s still hard calling it home with the city and county having so many anti-immigrant policies. There’s been ICE activity across the city, especially under  [former president Donald] Trump.

Has your opinion changed over time?

When I was younger, I used to just be so thankful for everything, but as I have expanded and learned more it’s been hard to unsee some things that happen in our city.

Once at college I attended a club for undocumented students and we had ICE called on us. During the pandemic, ICE was seen outside community health clinics. 

I’m a community organizer now, and it’s frustrating to see things like the sheriff’s contract with ICE. The contract is ended now, but only because the ACLU and the Immigration Rights Coalition sued.  

Does your family consider what would happen if you were deported?

We don’t talk about it too much. 

For me, it wouldn’t be ideal, but I have family back in Mexico too, and I speak the language. I might not be able to use my degree there though, and it would be harder to find jobs I’d want to do. Also, my partner and friends are all in the States.

My youngest brother, he’s 12, is a natural-born citizen but he would probably leave with my parents if they were deported. We would be a family spread across borders.

How did DACA enter your life? 

It was during Obama’s presidency. My parents are the ones who did everything. They saw it on the news, got all the paperwork together and told all three undocumented kids that we were signing up. It changed life in so many ways. 

I’ve talked to older DACA folks, like in their 30s. 

Hearing their experiences, they had really limited opportunities. I was lucky though. I got status before graduating from Sierra High School in 2014. I was able to start working, go to UCCS and work there too. It qualified me for financial aid and scholarship opportunities.

It’s really funny how a few documents — like a social security number and a driver’s license — change everything.  

What’s the current legal situation with DACA? 

I have DACA, and that’s a privilege and protection that other family members and friends I know don’t have. 

But last year a judge in Texas ruled that DACA is illegal. He stayed part of his ruling [while it is being appealed], so current DACA recipients can still be part of the program, but the appeals case that started earlier this month could yank that too. It’s a very real possibility we could lose it all when the ruling comes out in the next few months.

What would happen if DACA ended?

If a negative decision comes down, I don’t think the nation would be ready for the impact. Engineers, doctors, accountants, teachers, nurses would suddenly be unable to work. We are in every state and work in every sector of the economy. The impact would be massive. DACA folks have kids now, whose parents would be at risk of deportation. 

I heard a report that DACA workers made up a big percent of essential workers during the pandemic. [the Center for American Progress estimates more than 200,000 DACA recipients were classified as essential workers in a 2020 report]. 

As you face the possible end of the program, what are your thoughts?

I don’t want to see DACA go away, but I also feel that it’s Congress’ fault that we’re in this situation. 

Both parties said they supported permanent legal status for dreamers (children of immigrants brought to the country before they were adults) but permanent legal status remains unobtained. During the Trump years there was fear of ICE attacks. But with Biden it’s more a story of inaction. 

If there was one thing you’d want folks to know about the immigrant experience, what would it be?

That immigration is often for better opportunities. 

I hope people can put themselves in someone else’s shoes, because we wouldn’t have gone through this if it wasn’t absolutely necessary.