Like millions of families over the generations, Jennifer Bravo Fajardo’s parents left their native Ecuador in search of a better life in the United States.
Bravo Fajardo was eight months old when she and her family came to Westchester, settling in Ossining.
But because Bravo Fajardo, now 18, isn’t a citizen, she is one of the estimated 800,000 people between the ages of 15 and 30 throughout the United States that could be deported if she can’t renew her Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) permit, which expires in May 2019. The chances of that happening significantly increased after President Donald Trump rescinded the program last week.
“I don’t have a fear of leaving, but I wouldn’t want to go,” said Bravo Fajardo, who graduated from Ossining High School in June and is attending Mercy College. “It will be scary, but they’re treating us like criminals and we’re not. We’re kids, we’re teenagers, we’re young adults. I’ll be leaving a country that I’ve been calling home for the past 18 years.”
Carola Bracco, the executive director of the Mount Kisco-based Neighbors Link, which helps integrate immigrants into communities throughout Westchester, said that within minutes of U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ Sept. 5 announcement that the DACA program would end, the organization was flooded with calls from families, advocates, school superintendents and even local elected officials about what would happen next.
Bracco said the immediate challenge is to make sure that any DACA recipient whose permit expires before Mar. 5, 2018, the deadline set by the president for Congress to solve the issue, submit their application for renewal before the Oct. 5 deadline. For those whose permit expires on or after Mar. 5, they will not be able to renew. A permit lasts for two years.
For the immediate future, Bracco urged all those with DACA permits to continue leading productive lives despite the anxiety about what may lie ahead long-term. A permit allows its holder to work, go to school and obtain a driver’s license.
“We’re asking people to go to work, go to school, do all these things in order to be contributing members, and we’re asking them to do all these things so maybe at some point if there is immigration reform they could act quickly,” Bracco said.
“Yet it’s very hard to be doing that if you’re looking over your shoulder concerned that you might be in a car accident, you might be in the wrong place at the wrong time and that would result in you going down the path of being deported.”
There are between 40,000 and 50,000 people benefiting from DACA in New York State, including an estimated 8,000 in Westchester, said Assemblywoman Sandy Galef (D-Ossining), who attended a rally with more than 100 attendees supporting the program last Saturday afternoon in Ossining.
She said 97 percent of DACA permit holders in New York are going to school or working.
“They’re contributing to our community in so many ways, getting a great education so that they can go on and become such productive employees and employers in our state,” Galef said.
The average age that DACA recipients entered the United States was six years old, Bracco said. What complicates the issue is that many immigrant families have mixed status for various reasons, including having arrived in the United States at different intervals, Bracco said.
Since those with DACA permits are in limbo for the next six months, it’s putting a strain on them and their families, including what the government may do with the personal information they had to disclose in order to become eligible.
“There’s significant concern what happens to that information now or in the future and that is another source of significant stress,” Bracco said. “It’s very cruel the way they now have to wait through this time period to see if Congress is going to do anything. It’s very cruel and it’s hard to watch as people are living through this.”
Bravo Farardo, who attended the Ossining rally Saturday afternoon, said her family also has a mixed immigration status. Her parents obtained work permits that has enabled them to lawfully remain in the country, while her 12-year-old brother is a U.S. citizen because he was born here.
Ossining resident Omar Herrera said he and many others in the immigrant community are eager for a workable immigration reform. Passage of the Dream Act is a necessary step but not a permanent solution.
“That would be a temporary, huge Band-Aid in which we need to have an attainable way to become a citizen,” Herrera said. “It will help a lot of people but we need immigration reform. I mean, we’ve talked about it for a while. It’s time.”
Bravo Fajardo, who is bilingual, said that if she is unable to stay in the United States, her parents have told her they will all return to Ecuador. Other than her grandparents, she has no connection to her native country.
“Everybody that I know is here,” she said. “I don’t know anyone from Ecuador. If you send me back I’ll go. I know how to speak Spanish, I can get an education, but it won’t be my home. This is my home.”