When Maria Venegas was a year old, her parents fled the poverty of Mexico to the U.S. seeking a better life for their infant daughter.
Today, Venegas is a senior at Dunwoody High School. She works two part-time jobs, saving money to attend college. But in recent weeks her dream of earning a degree in sign language from Georgia State University has been threatened by President Donald Trump’s decision this month to repeal the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, that protects young undocumented people from being deported.
“I’m directly affected by DACA,” Venegas said in an interview while walking home after her shift at Eclipse de Luna on Ashford-Dunwoody Road. She also works at a local daycare.
“Ever since [Trump’s] announcement, I’ve been on the edge myself, scared, anxious about where my future might go,” she said.
Venegas received her first DACA identification card two years ago, when she was 15, and renewed it in May for another two years. The DACA program requires registration every two years. Each registration costs her and her family about $2,000 to hire a lawyer to register for the program.
“Whether [Trump] takes it or not, in my mind I have one year to prepare for whatever is coming my way,” Venegas said. “My parents have lived here illegally for 17 years, so maybe I can do it as well. I want to be safe and have a back-up plan.”
Venegas and her family have lived in Dunwoody for 11 years. She attended Peachtree Charter Middle School and said she “was always the odd one in class, the only Hispanic.” Because her parents did not speak English well, they could not help her with her homework and she said she essentially was on her own. She also has two younger siblings and helped them with their school work.
“What’s got me through is the many wonderful teachers I’ve had,” she said.
But Venegas wanted to do something to raise awareness that a repeal of DACA affects not only people from somewhere else, but also people living in Dunwoody and attending Dunwoody High School. She helped organize a Sept. 8 rally at DHS where more than 100 students chanted and waved flags and signs to show support for the DACA program.
“I just wanted to protest so people who are affected can see they are not alone,” she said. “We want them to know they have support, even in Dunwoody, which is primarily a white community. Sometimes people look at us differently because we are a different race or ethnicity. But we are Dreamers and we are not alone.”
Venegas said she was brought to tears to see how many students showed up at the rally and protest.
“I was just very pleased our community could come together for one big cause. It’s a very hard situation, to put yourself out there,” she said.
Venegas said after the rally she received hate emails and students looked at her differently in the hallways.
“This was the first time many of my classmates found out I was illegal,” she said. “People I’ve known since the second grade were pointing at me and now want to treat me differently because they found out about my status. It was very intimidating … and yet I had a sense of pride. We did something. I’ve been calling it Dunwoody High School history.”
Rachel Greenwald, a junior at DHS, said the rally was quickly organized online, “a testament to how students communicate now.”
“I feel like not caring is a privilege,” she said. “In any high school, there is a vibe that you don’t hear about political issues … it was reassuring to see our involvement in our politics. This is not just Dreamers and their families standing alone — we have members from other communities just as supportive of DACA.”
Farah Ulfat, a junior at Dunwoody High School, held a sign that read, “I dream with the Dreamers” at the rally.
“I’m out here because this is our generation,” she said. “In the future, we are going to dream, we’re going to build America, we’re going to make it better. If you send these children home, if you send them back, who is going to create … the future generation?
“It is us who is going to support the future,” Ulfat said. “If you get rid of us, there will be no one to take care of America. That is why I am here. To stand up for all these people.”
Venegas formed DHS’s first sign-language club after deciding to learn American Sign Language when corresponding via video chat with a deaf aunt who lives in Mexico. Because she is a DACA recipient she has never seen many of her family members still living in Mexico.
“I wanted to be able to communicate with her,” Venegas said about the catalyst for the career she wants to pursue. A teacher at PCMS nurtured her desire to learn sign language and at DHS she formed a club that now has about 25 members.
Venegas admits frustration and a sense of hopelessness after working so hard in school to be able to go to college to learn her opportunity to do so may disappear as soon as next year if DACA is repealed.
Venegas said she feels she is just as American as any of her classmates who were born in metro Atlanta. The DACA program gave her hope that she could one day live the American dream outside the shadows.
“I’ve worked so hard and trying to do the most I could to be the perfect candidate,” she said. “And now our president wants to end DACA. The one thing giving me a chance may be taken away. … To leave my future in someone else’s hands, it’s very upsetting and I’m angry.
“I felt like everything I worked for could be discarded because a lot of people think we don’t deserve a chance for a better future,” she said.
DACA is an executive policy implemented by President Barack Obama that allows undocumented youth with no criminal records and other criteria to register with the federal government to receive legal identification so they can, for instance, get a job.
Obama implemented the DACA program in 2012 after Congress failed to pass the DREAM Act, which would have paved a path to permanent residency for teenagers and people in the early 20s and 30s. Many college and high school students who came out of the shadows of being undocumented to advocate for the DREAM Act became known as Dreamers.
Trump campaigned on repealing DACA, saying it was unconstitutional. Attorney General Jeff Sessions this month said the Dreamers were breaking the law and stealing jobs from native-born American citizens. Trump is giving Congress six months to come up with some other kind of policy to replace DACA.
Venegas said many of her teachers continue to encourage her to stay strong.
“It’s great knowing we have support,” she said. “All hope is not lost.”