Marisol Martinez camped out on a chilly November evening on her 8-year-old son’s first overnight Cub Scout adventure.
This month is busier than usual for Martinez, who was camping with her Cub Scout, keeping up with her other two active children and cooking for her extended family’s large, traditional Thanksgiving dinner. She’s mashing potatoes and preparing a green noodle dish with poblano peppers. Her sister is making at least three casseroles. Her dad will cook the turkey outside on the grill. It’s his thing.
Martinez, who was born in Mexico, became a U.S. citizen in 2014. She had three good reasons: her children. Now, if she travels outside the United States, she doesn’t worry about some glitch in the system that might keep her away from home.
“You start thinking about your kids more than you,” Martinez, who lives in Galveston, said. “When you have to think about your kids, it’s important to make good choices.”
She’s living an American dream, contributing to the community and raising young Americans. But other immigrants don’t have the same resources and can’t offer the same opportunities to their children.
These are challenging and uncertain times for immigrants who don’t have citizenship, lawyers and activists said. A March 5 2018 deadline looms for some of the 113,000 young people living in Texas who were covered under the now rescinded Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program and who are not sure what comes next.
More than 33,000 immigrants sought advice on that and other concerns in 2016 from Houston-based St. Frances Cabrini Center for Immigrant Legal Assistance, part of the Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston. Some of those immigrants worry about government agencies having their information, program director and lawyer Zenobia Lai said.
About 2,000 young people in Galveston County are in limbo after President Donald Trump in September rescinded the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, and they could be deported although they grew up in the United States, Lai said.
One in six Texas residents is an immigrant, and 15 percent of Texas residents are native-born U.S. citizens with at least one immigrant parent, according to a November American Immigration Council study.
In Texas, 2.36 million of the state’s 7 million children live in immigrant families, and 80 percent of them live in two-parent homes, an October Annie E. Casey Foundation report said.
The foundation wants state and federal policies that keep families together, help children in immigrant families thrive and create well-paying jobs for their parents.
While the Martinez family is thriving, many immigrant families stumble with a lack of opportunities, according to the foundation report.
And some don’t have the family connections or resources to get the proper and sometimes expensive paperwork to become legal residents or U.S. Citizens.
CHARLAS AND CHATS
St. Frances Cabrini Center for Immigrant Legal Assistance helped about 10,000 people in the Greater Houston area in 2016, Lai said.
“An additional 23,559 received information or legal consultation through our ‘charlas,’ outreach, presentation and workshops,” Lai said.
Charla means chat in Spanish, and the center holds three of them every month to explain immigration rights and to give individual legal consultation, Lai said.
Many immigrants in Galveston don’t always get a lawyer because of the money and they assume that they have to travel to Houston, grass roots groups said.
BEING AND DOING
Ser y Hacer, a Galveston-based grass roots organization, tries to fill a void. It offers free English classes and citizenship classes to immigrants in Galveston, and it also helps with filling out paperwork to apply for residency, citizenship and other legal paperwork.
Ser y Hacer in Spanish means to be and to do, or being and doing. Magdalena Alvarado started Ser y Hacer in 2012 just one year after she became a U.S. citizen. She was well aware of the hurdles, she said.
“There’s a necessity here in Galveston,” Alvarado said. “Everyone says ‘I need to go to Houston.’”
Alvarado had to go to Houston to see lawyers, get general advice and attend a citizenship class to prepare for the 100-question exam.
To come up with an island-based solution, Alvarado networked with Galveston Independent School District officials and city leaders.
She also worked with the U.S. Customs and Immigration Service to set up classes to help immigrants become citizens.
“They are a liaison that works for us,” she said. “It is a huge collaboration.”
She met Mary Longoria at city hall when she first started the organization, and soon Longoria became her partner at Ser y Hacer.
Alvarado and Longoria work as unpaid volunteers who post fliers about classes, counsel immigrants and help them find scholarships and jobs.
“We love to do that,” Longoria said. “We love the people, the community, the families. To know the people is the best part.”
BORN ON THE ISLAND
Yadira Araujo, who is from the Monterrey area in Mexico, has gone to Ser y Hacer to get help filing paperwork for her family. It costs $750 to file some forms.
“And the lawyers charge that, too,” Araujo said. At Ser y Hacer, she just has to pay whatever the filing fees are and she doesn’t have to double the cost with lawyer fees.
“They’ve helped me with my children,” Araujo said.
She has a 15-year-old daughter who was born on the island. She also has a 17-year-old son who she brought to Galveston when he was 6 months old.
Araujo and her husband came to Galveston in 2000 on a travel and business visa, but they didn’t go back to Mexico, she said. It’s a complicated situation. While her daughter is a U.S. citizen, her son is not.
He’s in that group of young people commonly referred to as “Dreamers,” a term based on never-passed proposals in Congress called the DREAM Act that would have provided protections for young immigrants. The DREAM Act — Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors — was a federal proposal that offered protections for immigrants brought to the United States as young children.
But it didn’t become a law.
While Congress never passed the DREAM Act, another program sought to offer similar protections. That was the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program that former President Barack Obama’s administration implemented. The administrative program allowed young immigrants living in the country illegally who were brought here as children to remain in the United States. It did not convey legal status.
DACA granted nearly 800,000 young people two-year work permits and temporary protection from deportation and permission to legally work.
Of those 800,000, about 113,000 were in Texas. About 2 percent to 3 percent of the 113,000 are in Galveston County, Lai said. That would mean about 2,000 to 3,000 young people.
President Donald J. Trump’s administration announced Sept. 5 that it would end the program in March 2018. The Trump administration gave recipients 30 days to submit renewal applications if their permits would expire before the program ends.
VIDEO GAMES, DATES
Cesar Araujo, 17, is a senior at Ball High School who wants to study economics at Texas A&M University, possibly starting at the Galveston branch then transferring to the College Station campus. He did well in his advanced placement economics class.
“I like dealing with money,” he said. “I like how orderly it is.”
He has a girlfriend. They went out to see “Jigsaw” at a movie theater recently. He likes to play single-shooter video games such as “Counter-Strike: Global Offensive.” He works part-time at Marshalls on Stewart Road in Galveston, where it can get busy with tourists on Sunday afternoons, he said.
He watches documentaries on history and science, which he thinks makes him seem weird to his friends, he said.
Cesar Araujo was that 6-month-old baby that came to Galveston and never left. He met the October deadline to renew his DACA application. It was approved, and he can stay in the country through 2019.
Something else about Cesar Araujo — he likes President Trump.
“It’s not what you expect,” he said, and grinned like a senior in high school.
He’s not worried about what happens to him after 2019 and is optimistic about his future.
“I also try to be a realist,” he said. “For me, I’ll accept reality. I love this country and even the laws that come with it.”
But if he should be deported to Mexico, he’ll be at a disadvantage. He doesn’t speak Spanish well, he said. And his mom agrees with that. He’s also not familiar with Mexican culture. All he knows is Galveston.
Cesar Araujo has gotten into heated debates about immigration policy at school with classmates yelling at him that he doesn’t know what he’s talking about, he said. He usually tells them that, yes, he knows quite a bit about immigration policy. And he notices all the misconceptions people who are not in his situation have from the idea that undocumented immigrants are all Mexicans to the notion that all immigrants are stupid or criminal.
And even though he could be deported in a couple of years if Congress doesn’t create legislation to fix the issue, he’s not certain that DACA was ever fair to other immigrants who couldn’t use the program.
“I’m just an honest man,” he said. “I look at things from both sides.”
‘NOT A GOOD TIME’
“Most people agree our immigration system is broken,” Lai said. “We are tearing apart families.”
She points to a Migration Policy Institute study comparing the jobs that DACA recipients held to their cohorts. DACA recipients tend to work in office settings and hold professional jobs.
“We are talking about a significant number of important, contributing members of the economy,” Lai said. “However tenuous their connection is with our country, we need to do what can we do to help the ‘Dreamers.’ They grew up as our neighbors, they grew up as our friends and now they are our co-workers.”
The U.S. immigration system is dysfunctional and needs an overhaul, she said. Only a small number can get education waivers. Immigrants seeking a humanitarian status have to file within the first year they are here.
“It’s not a good time for immigrants,” Lai said.
GO AHEAD AND DREAM
Martinez’s immigration story starts with her grandfather who gained U.S. resident status in the 1970s. He worked in Galveston and extended the resident status to her father.
Her mother, who got homesick, went back to Mexico where Martinez was born and where she grew up. Martinez got a degree in computer science while she lived in Mexico, but she couldn’t find any jobs.
So she went to her other home, Galveston.
A few years later, she met her future husband, who is from El Salvador, when a mutual relative had a baby. He had moved to Galveston with his parents when he was 10 years old.
“I really admire my in-laws,” Martinez said. “My mother-in-law started selling jewelry from a catalog when she came here.”
Now, her in-laws own and operate Martinez Furniture Center on Broadway in Galveston. They opened the store in 1997.
“They never gave up,” she said.
Martinez encourages other immigrants to work hard like her in-laws and motivate their children to get an education. She also recommends taking the path to citizenship.
“Make it happen,” she said. “You can have dreams, but it’s better to make it happen.”