DACA recipients share their stories

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DACA recipient Juan Belman will share his life story as part of the Center for Mexican American Studies’ Hispanic Heritage Month.
Photo Credit: Andrea Garcia | Videographer

When anthropology senior Juan Belman was 10 years old a Coyote led him, his mother and his four-year-old brother across the Rio Grande and into the U.S. Faced with an upcoming border checkpoint, Belman and his mother were forced to hide in the trunk while the smuggler and his wife pretended Belman’s brother was their own child. 

Belman and other Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients will share their stories of trial and determination on Oct. 5 as part of the Center for Mexican American Studies’ Hispanic Heritage Month event, “Living the Dream: A real discussion on the impact of DACA.” The panel will discuss the present state of DACA and likely developments in the context of the upcoming presidential election.

“I didn’t realize the danger of crossing the border,” Belman said. “I just remember standing in front of the river knowing that soon I was going to be able to see my dad.”

Professor Denise Gilman, director of the Immigration Clinic at the UT Law School, will moderate the panel. She said the DACA program was announced in 2012 as a way to address the professional barriers undocumented students in the U.S. face after graduation. DACA protects them against deportation and provides work authorization but is not permanent and doesn’t lead to citizenship.

“There were so many people who were in this horrible limbo situation,” Gilman said. “They feared deportation but it was more than that. It was this idea that they’d worked so hard but they couldn’t do anything to benefit themselves and their family by working as professionals. This was finally a chance to become a part of the community in a more meaningful way.” 

Although Belman was reunited with his father at age 10, the two were separated again during Belman’s first year at UT. After being stopped by the police because someone in his vehicle wasn’t wearing a seat belt, Belman’s father was detained. Earlier that semester, Belman’s grandmother had also passed away in Mexico. But without U.S. citizenship, returning to Mexico to see his loved ones was risky. 

“Losing a family member is one of the most difficult things one can go through,” Belman said. “It was very emotional for all of us, realizing no one could go back and be with them.”

After finding out about DACA, Belman began working with the University Leadership Initiative, an undergraduate organization which partners with the Equal Justice Center to spread information about DACA and facilitate the application process through pro bono clinics.

As an advocate for ULI, Belman attended a speech given by President Obama at the Paramount Theatre in the summer of 2014. He and his brother risked being escorted out by the Secret Service when they stood up and repeated, “Stop deportation, expand administrative relief.”

“At the end of his speech, [Obama] pointed toward us and [we were] escorted to the back of the theater where we got to share our stories and really tell him how his immigration policies had affected us,” Belman said.

Nutrition senior Edgar Navarrete is another DACA recipient who will speak at the panel. Though his family came to the U.S. wi th a visitor’s visa, they stayed illegally in order to escape the gang violence and job scarcity in their hometown. Navarrete, however, wasn’t aware of his undocumented status until he began applying to colleges.

“I grew up going to school and doing the pledge of allegiance,” Navarrete said. “I thought I was as American as the people beside me.”

Navarrete didn’t let it stop him. He conducted his own research on immigration relief and gathered all the necessary paperwork to submit his DACA application and receive a work permit. Today, he is working toward becoming a licensed Texas attorney who practices immigration law so that he can help students in similar situations. 

But according to Gilman, the future of programs like DACA is uncertain.

“[Those] who support and care for young people who have DACA should be paying close attention knowing that the outcome of this election is very likely to affect the future of the DACA program,” Gilman said. “Depending on what happens in the election it could be taken away.”

This story has been updated since its original publication. Belman's father was detained, not deported.