Christmas was just around the corner in 2015 when Bryan Viera stood in the morning sun, gazing at a hole in a wall along the Texas border.
He was 15.
His journey had begun 27 days earlier in El Salvador, but somewhere around Chihuahua, in Mexico, he’d gotten separated from his stepmother and stepbrother.
“They were gonna check people with identities, and the smugglers split everyone up into different cars,” he remembers.
Now he was biding his time in a border town near El Paso with a group of equally desperate strangers. “They kept us there for like an hour, just hiding,” he says. “It was like 5:30 in the morning.”
As he prepared to make a run for it, the others—believing one could simply declare political asylum by setting foot on American soil—told him he needed to get 1,000 feet inside the border. They advised the teen not to run away from the border agent in the distance, but rather toward him.
“I would be sent to my dad, because I was underage and on my own,” Viera says. “If I had been over the age of 18 they would’ve deported me.”
As the darkness turned to light, a cry went out among the assembled: Run, run, run!!
“And so we ran.”
Twenty-two years have passed since U.S. Senators Orrin Hatch and Dick Durbin sponsored the Dream Act, legislation that would have allowed immigrants arriving in this country as children to apply for conditional—and ultimately permanent—residency in the United States. The rationale of the bipartisan bill was simple enough: Children who came here through no fault of their own should be treated compassionately by a country built upon the contributions of immigrants.
But the Dream Act languished, un-passed, for years, until 2012, when it was replaced with an executive order by then Homeland Security chief Janet Napolitano during the Obama administration. DACA—Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals—was intended as a stopgap to preserve the protections outlined in the stalemated Dream Act.
In June, DACA hit the 11-year mark with no permanent solution in sight. Terminated during the Trump administration and revived, to a degree, by the Biden administration, the program has become a poster child for kick-the-can-down-the-road congressional inaction. Some states have endeavored to protect it, while others have moved in the opposite direction.
To qualify for DACA, applicants had to have arrived in the U.S. prior to their 16th birthday and lived here continuously since mid-June of 2007. Immigrants lucky enough to have DACA status can maintain it by filing for renewal every two years.
The irony is that a system designed to protect evokes fear for many when the time comes to hit the “enter” key. Will this year’s renewal somehow trigger an inquiry by immigration authorities? How protected is protected? Which form might trip you up this time around—driver’s license, college application, financial aid, a visit to the free clinic? What about a traffic stop? What’s the difference between, say, the word “resident” (an immigration status) and “residence” (your current address) to someone for whom English is not a first language?
Of course, many of the first 800,000 DACA recipients are now well into adulthood. And immigration—legal or not—didn’t just grind to a halt once newcomers ceased to qualify for DACA. There’s an entire generation of undocumented arrivals for whom the notion of status protection is, well, a foreign thought.
They’re all described as “dreamers,” and many have made Northern Virginia their home.
Marymount University in Arlington is on a bit of a roll. It’s nationally ranked by U.S. News & World Report for the first time in its 73-year history, and two of its sports teams (men’s soccer and women’s volleyball) won first-ever Division III conference championships in 2022.
But if you ask President Irma Becerra to prioritize the Catholic university’s recent accomplishments, she’s just as proud to point to the school’s 2020 designation as a Hispanic-Serving Institution—the first such institution of higher learning in the Commonwealth of Virginia.
To receive the title, a school must have a student body that is at least 25% Hispanic. With that, Becerra says, comes a higher calling toward serving DACA and undocumented students.
“It is both a faith imperative and a moral imperative,” Becerra says, estimating that between 1-2% of Marymount’s student body of 4,000 is undocumented. “We are called to be cognizant of what it is like to be an immigrant and to attend to immigrants. Pope Francis has called all of us to pay attention to the pain that is going on around the world.”
While some colleges and universities have tried to remain neutral on the issue of undocumented students, Marymount has been out front, issuing press releases highlighting its programs for dreamers. It touts the academic accomplishments of students like Karla Mercado Dorado, who came to the U.S. from Bolivia at age 2 and is a Campus Compact 2023-24 Newman Civic Fellowship recipient. The award provides leadership development, networking opportunities and scholarship assistance to students creating positive social change in their communities.
“Marymount told me from the start that it would be a supportive environment for me to continue my education as an undocumented individual,” Dorado, a rising senior majoring in biochemistry, said in a press announcement. “I have committed to uplifting marginalized voices on campus and building safe spaces for underrepresented students.”
Becerra, who came to the U.S. as an infant, can relate. “I am an immigrant,” she says proudly. Though her family emigrated legally from Cuba in 1960, the stories of other families similarly uprooted still resonate.
“We recognize the pain that is associated with having to leave your place of birth and start over again,” she says. “It’s not by choice we left our country. Fidel [Castro] wanted to take our assets, and the way that he took assets for the revolution was by killing people who had means. Many people leaving their countries today are escaping violence, war, poverty. I think we have a responsibility as citizens [to help]. The United States is a country made of immigrants.”
After sprinting across the border into Texas, Bryan Viera was sent to live with his father in Reston, where they shared a house with extended family. “It was overwhelming,” he says. “Honestly, I didn’t even recognize my dad that much. I hadn’t seen him since I was 5.”
Viera’s introduction to South Lakes High School, with its 2,500 students, was daunting—but not as daunting as the years after Donald Trump was elected in 2016, when DACA applications were suspended and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents were mobilized in full force.
“ICE came to our house once and knocked on our door around 4 in the morning,” Viera says. “They knocked for like half an hour, obviously waiting. Without a warrant they couldn’t go in, but they knew there were undocumented people in there.”
Tensions were high back then. “Everyone was scared of keeping the doors open,” he remembers. “We always had the doors locked. If we had to go out at night, we were very cautious, looking around the house, making sure there was nobody out there. There were checkpoints in Reston, too. Once we were coming from a party in Arlington and somebody told us, ‘Hey, make sure you don’t take this road. There’s an ICE checkpoint there.’ It was a super scary situation.”
“Illegal alien” is a term that still stings.
“I mean, it just sounds like I’m not a person,” he says. “It sounds like I’m not one of you. I understand the illegal part. Yeah—I don’t have legal documentation here. But to be called an alien? Am I from Mars?”
With his high school graduation approaching in 2019, Viera began looking into avenues for financial aid. “I wanted to go to college,” he says. “People knew about scholarships that didn’t require citizenship or legal documentation.”
A South Lakes teacher who believed in his potential decided to call Marymount University on his behalf. “She asked if there was a possibility of me getting a little bit more financial aid,” he says. As it turned out, Marymount had a program designed for students like him.
Then came another crisis. Viera’s family situation fractured, and he found himself needing a place to live.
Again, his teacher came to the rescue, this time with a proposal: He could stay with her, rent-free, while he earned his degree. “If I dropped out, I would have to move out. That was the deal,” he says. “If it wasn’t for her, I would’ve been homeless. I would not have gone to school.”
Now 22, Viera has a degree from Marymount and is gainfully employed in IT. We’re sitting at Northside Social in Clarendon amid a smattering of other digital denizens on laptops.
“I came here for prosperity and education,” he says. “Back then, the crime rate in El Salvador was a lot higher. The gangster groups were recruiting younger people. I had been asked to do that. If you refuse, you face consequences, and I had refused. So I had to just leave.”
It’s hard to know where he’d be now, if not for his teacher’s kind offer of room and board.
“She’s like my second mom,” he says. (His biological mother is still in El Salvador.) “But now I can pay for my food.”
Why does he think she stuck her neck out to help? “She’s an immigrant, too,” he says.
Danayit M. is sitting outside Idido Coffee and Social House on Columbia Pike, where customers of all ethnic backgrounds are streaming in. The word coffee, or “kaffa,” comes from Ethiopia’s lush Kaffa region.
Ethiopia is also where Danayit is from, having spent most of her life in the village of Bishoftu southeast of Addis Ababa. But at 20, she’s taken a liking to American life and its melting pot of cultures. She watches baking shows; eats tacos, Indian and Thai food; listens to K-pop.
She graduated this spring from Arlington Community High School and is getting ready to start fall classes at Northern Virginia Community College, where she plans to study computer science.
In Ethiopia, she says, her career options were limited. Now they seem endless. “I want to go to NOVA and explore. I feel like coming to this country, I will have more opportunities…choosing my major or just having the freedom to pursue any field I’m passionate about. I think I have more of a chance to grow.”
Danayit came to the U.S. just last year and has no immigration status, yet she already feels safer in Arlington than she did at home.
“Here, I’m not scared that somebody’s gonna come and make me leave my house because of my ethnic group or because of my name,” she says. “I’m not scared to speak my language in public. In Ethiopia, there’s discrimination, especially with the war that just ended. That’s why I left my country.”
What about the fear of deportation? “It’s a possibility and I know it, but I’m trying not to think about it in my daily life,” she says. “If my asylum is not approved, there’s a chance I would have to go back to my country, which would be unsafe for me. I’m hoping that good things will happen.”
American optimism has fueled her assimilation. There’s still so much of the U.S. she wants to see.
“I’d like to visit Hawaii,” she says.
“I don’t know. I feel like it will be so beautiful. So green and so beautiful. In Ethiopia, our city is known because it’s so green. So many lakes. So I would say Hawaii is, maybe, a lot similar [to] the village I came from.”
“It’s a long way,” I say.
“I know,” she says. “But maybe someday.”
For decades, dreamers landing in Northern Virginia have found a champion in Emma Violand-Sánchez. Long before she was named a Fulbright scholar for her educational reform efforts in her native Bolivia, before she received the James B. Hunter Human Rights Award, she was Arlington Public Schools’ first Latina teacher and administrator.
Violand-Sánchez joined APS in 1976, overseeing programs for immigrants and refugees, including English for Speakers of Other Languages/High Intensity Language Training (ESOL/HILT) for K-12 students. She later became the first Latina on the Arlington School Board.
In 2010, she founded the Dream Project, an Arlington-based nonprofit that provides scholarships, mentoring, family support and advocacy to students who face barriers due to their immigration status.
The nonprofit’s mission statement is neatly summed up in two sentences on its website: “Our organization started with a group of invested parents around a kitchen table. A decade later, our work is still rooted in the conviction that everyone deserves a place at the table.”
Violand-Sánchez has seen immigrant waves from all corners of the world. In the mid-’70s, Arlington welcomed an influx of Vietnamese, Cambodian and Laotian refugees. Then came Salvadorans.
“Today, we have students from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Mongolia and Ethiopia,” she says. The cultures are different, but they all share a steadfast belief that a better life lies ahead.
Since its founding, the Dream Project has awarded nearly $1.4 million in scholarship funds to some 340 students. All of the students profiled in this story received either financial or academic assistance from the organization.
Scholarships are only one part of the puzzle. Dreamers and their families may also need legal referrals, technology assistance, mental health support and emergency relief when curveballs threaten to derail their educational goals. The Dream Project addresses all of those things on a case-by-case basis.
Violand-Sánchez offers an example. “During the pandemic… the people who have undocumented status, where do they work? Restaurants were closed. If people clean houses, nobody wanted to have them in their house, right? Universities were closed and many students did not have computers. We had to provide computers, but then they didn’t have an internet connection. They didn’t have a place to go. Fortunately, we had one funder who provided $60,000 for emergency grants.”
Lately, the nonprofit has engaged in the fight to preserve in-state status for undocumented Virginia students seeking college tuition assistance. It’s a protection that took years to secure, Violand-Sánchez says, which Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s administration is now seeking to undo.
Nataly Montano’s American experience began in 2001 at a bus stop off Route 50 in Arlington. She had recently arrived with her mother from the Bolivian town of Cochabamba. The 6-year-old’s ears popped in pain when their plane touched down on U.S. soil. Her mother rubbed her head and said, “Everything’s going to be OK.”
But the Sept. 11 attacks came a few months later, dashing their hopes of securing immigration and tourist visas. “So we just overstayed,” Montano says. They never looked back.
Montano’s most vivid childhood memories revolve around school. “I went to Barcroft when I first came here,” she recalls. “We had moved in with my aunt, and our bus stop for elementary school was right at the same corner. I remember running around a tree with some other kids waiting for the bus. That’s where I met my first friend. He lived down the street. His parents spoke Spanish and English.”
It really wasn’t until middle school, at Kenmore, that Montano gave any thought to her undocumented status. “That’s when the whole Don’t tell your friends, be careful stuff started,” she says.
By the time she reached high school at Washington-Lee (now Washington-Liberty) she was keenly aware of what was at stake. Though public K-12 schools are prohibited from asking families about their immigration status, the fear of being exposed was always a thought.
Typical high school rites of passage felt fraught. “Anywhere there was a lot of beer, the cops came around,” Montano says. “To this day, I do not like to be pulled over or have any sort of interaction with cops. It freaks me out. I think that’s definitely from when I was young, being told to stay away from that.”
As her high school experience came to a close, Montano had a solid circle of friends. She was a two-sport athlete—cross-country and crew—and was beginning to see her life’s ambitions crystallizing. Setting her sights on a career in medicine, she went off to Texas Tech, where she kept her status “on the down-low” and kept her head up, even though she felt lonely. “I didn’t have any family in Texas,” she says.
It was during her freshman year at Texas Tech in 2012 that she received her DACA confirmation.
Montano had fully expected to encounter racism in the Lone Star State, where immigration tensions were high. She did not.
What she wasn’t prepared for was the exchange she had with a prestigious East Coast university when she called to inquire about transferring.
“I told them I was looking to transfer and they were like, “OK, we’re [sending] you to the Office of International Students,’ ” she recalls. “I tried to explain that I wasn’t an international student, but they connected me to the international office anyway. When I explained to the woman that I was thinking of transferring and that I had DACA, she said, ‘Why don’t you just go swim across the Rio Grande and go back to Mexico?’ ”
Montano was both stunned and infuriated. “I said, ‘Um, first off, I’m not from Mexico, I’m Bolivian. And by the way, I flew here, I didn’t swim here.’ And then I just said, ‘Thank you for your time’ and I hung up.”
Vindication would come later. After graduating from Texas Tech in 2016, Montano spent two years as a research assistant at the very university she’d hoped to enter as a transfer student. Then, another two years in emergency medicine at George Washington University in Washington, D.C.
And yet, she was stringing together two-year stints with no master plan. It wasn’t until a mentor at the American Medical Women’s Association asked her, “When are you gonna be a doctor?” that she finally allowed herself to seriously contemplate her lifelong dream.
“I had been working to help my mom and my dad. I was sending money,” Montano says. By then, both of her parents had voluntarily returned to Bolivia. Working in medical research scratched the itch, but med school still felt unattainable. Her MCAT scores weren’t quite where they needed to be.
Hoping to polish her candidacy with experience, she applied and was accepted to a graduate program at Brown University, where she earned a master’s in medical science.
“As soon as I left to do my master’s at Brown, I was like, This is my goal. My goal is to become a doctor and everything else is just noise. The stress of having to reapply for DACA is just a part of my life. I can’t change it and I can’t do anything about it.”
This fall, Montano will begin the next chapter of her career at Stanford Medical School—on a full ride. She’ll still have to re-up her DACA status every two years. Stanford will cover that $500 fee as well.
It’s been a long road. “I cried a lot,” she says.
“Dreamers are Americans,” President Biden declared on the anniversary of DACA this past June. “Many have spent the majority of their lives in the United States. They are our doctors, our teachers and our small-business owners. Dreamers strengthen our economy, enrich our workplaces, and during the Covid-19 pandemic, many served their communities on the frontlines.”
It’s an oft-repeated political sentiment that’s done little to move the needle on meaningful legislation. Though studies have repeatedly found nearly three-quarters of Americans in favor of giving protection to immigrants who arrived here as children, the congressional stalemate continues.
By the end of 2022, the number of DACA holders in the U.S. was around 580,000, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation, an independent health policy research organization. Today, the term “dreamers” also extends to the thousands of immigrants who came to this country as minors after the cutoff for DACA, many of whom are just now contemplating college.
In his address, President Biden noted that 79% of immigrants are in the workforce, contributing a whopping $13.3 billion to the economy. It all seems like numbers until you start talking to actual human beings.
Like Marymount graduate Bryan Viera, now a specialist in cloud computing architecture. Thanks to a non-DACA program (Special Immigrant Juvenile status) for children who came here as minors and ended up under the protection of the court system as a result of parental abuse, abandonment or neglect, he is now a permanent resident. In five years, he’ll be eligible for citizenship.
What does the word “dreamer” mean to him?
“I feel like it means a desire to do something that you can’t do in your home country. To strive. To achieve an education. To help your family as well, not just yourself,” he says. “I feel like it means that you can be an actual member of society.”
Earlier this year, Viera and his friends took a trip to New York City, where he finally had a chance to see the Statue of Liberty. “I remembered seeing it in the movies, and I thought, I can’t believe I’m here,” he says. “I wish my mom could come here [from El Salvador] and see it, too. But I don’t know if that’s ever gonna happen.”
Charlote V. still remembers so much of it all.
She remembers the minibus pulling up to her house in La Esperanza, Guatemala, in June of 2010 to pick up her and her brother. The 15 days of walking and driving and more walking. The thorns that pierced her little hands as she crawled through brush. The eventual reunion with her family. Being mesmerized by the automatic doors at American grocery stores. She even remembers having no idea what to do with a hamburger on a bun. Do you just hold it in your hands?
She was only 7.
But there’s one memory that really stands out. Midway through her journey north, she became separated from her brother. Now she was alone. The driver of a white cargo van was beckoning her to get in. And every child in Guatemala (or anywhere else, for that matter) knows the cardinal rule: You don’t ever get into a van with a stranger.
Luckily for her, what she lacked in years she made up for in faith. Faith in God and faith in her parents’ wisdom. Before the trip, her father had assured her the man behind the wheel would be trustworthy. “He said I was going to be OK,” she says.
Though she may have been too young to ponder it at the time—a little girl about to embark on a solo journey with a smuggler— it’s worth noting the name of the hometown she had just left. Esperanza means hope.
And so Charlote got in.
By the time she arrived in the U.S., the conditions for DACA protection had elapsed. “I didn’t make the cutoff,” she says. She thrived anyway.
Now preparing for her second year at the University of Virginia, she rattles off a list of the AP courses at her Arlington high school that helped get her there—calculus, physics, French, English lit, statistics, Spanish. And to think that 13 years ago she didn’t speak English.
“A lot of people have the same story,” she says. “My parents came to this country for a better life, a better education. They didn’t have support back in Guatemala—they’re both from sort of a broken family. My dad had to start working when he was very young. It was just a very hard life for them.”
So hard that they were willing to put their little girl in a van with a stranger—who, as fate would have it, was not a kidnapper. The promise outweighed the risks.
“I am a Latina, I am an immigrant,” Charlote says. “I believe in the American dream, where you work hard to have a good life, a successful life. But you need to put in the work. Nothing is handed for free. That’s something my parents have always taught me.”
She’s thinking she wants to become a speech pathologist. As we drive back to her house in Arlington, tape recorder turned off, she giggles as a random memory from her first year at UVA pops into her head.
“One of my suite mates had a habit of taking Ubers from our dorm room to class.”
I laugh, thinking of the white van, her harrowing journey through desert brambles, and the years of unshakable resolve that led her to this point.
“You’ve got to be kidding. Americans just don’t get how other people live, eh?”
She looks ahead and just smiles.
Read the original story on Arlington Magazine’s website.