The waiting was killing Paúl Quiñonez Figueroa. Now that the DACA recipient knows President Donald Trump’s plans for young, undocumented immigrants, he can figure out his next steps.
Paúl Quiñonez Figueroa wakes up around 6 a.m. every day, anxious.
“I could literally wake up to the end of DACA,” he said of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which since 2012 has allowed young people brought to this country illegally to live and work here.
As a 22-year-old DACA recipient, the waiting has been killing him.
“He should announce it already,” Quiñonez Figueroa said Friday in his Northgate apartment.
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On Tuesday, Attorney General Jeff Sessions did it for the president.
Sessions announced an “orderly, lawful wind down” of DACA over the next six months. The Department of Homeland Security will accept no new applications.
Current DACA recipients, however, will be allowed to work legally until their two-year permits expire. That gives Quiñonez Figueroa until February 2019.
“Having a few extra months to prepare for the end of life as we know it is not treating us with empathy or with heart,” Quiñonez Figueroa, an activist with Washington Dream Coalition, said immediately after Sessions’ remarks.
And he was infuriated that President Donald Trump, who had pledged to show heart when dealing with Dreamers, “did not have the decency to face us.”
Now, he’s looking toward the congressional debate that Trump and Sessions have set up as they left the fate of DACA recipients to the legislative branch.
Quiñonez Figueroa, who works as a legislative assistant to state Rep. Shelley Kloba D-Kirkland, said he and his peers plan to press members of Congress to vote on a new DREAM Act introduced this year. The bipartisan bill goes further than previous, failed versions; those eligible would include not just young, undocumented immigrants who go to college or serve in the military but also those in the workforce.
Unlike DACA, it would provide a path to citizenship.
Quiñonez Figueroa said, however, “we’re not going to be used as bargaining chips to put down our parents, to put down our friends.”
He was referring to speculation that Trump and some Republicans might try to trade passage of the DREAM Act for items on the president’s agenda less friendly to immigrants: building a wall on the border with Mexico, hiring thousands of new Border Patrol agents and placing new restrictions on legal immigration.
If Congress tacked such addendums onto the DREAM Act, Quiñonez Figueroa said, DACA recipients like him would seek to kill the bill, he said.
His views represent something of an evolution in the Dreamer movement. It has generated tremendous momentum in part because people brought here as kids are often seen as blameless, unlike other immigrants who come to the U.S. illegally.
But some are so uneasy with being in a special category that they no longer want to be called “Dreamers” — a term they feel connotes virtue unique to them.
“We’ve moved far beyond that,” Quiñonez Figueroa said.
He and others want the parents who brought them here to have the same protections they do, even while that is a much more controversial notion.
“Best I could be”
For a long time, Quiñonez Figueroa was angry about being uprooted from his home in a small town in the Mexican state of Colima, about 500 miles due west of Mexico City. He was 7.
“I remember my childhood as happy — normal,” he said. “Why did I have to grow up undocumented here?”
Only last year, when he returned to Colima while studying in Mexico for the summer, did he realize the poverty of his hometown, the challenges his cousins faced in getting to college and the dangers of a country beset by drug cartels.
Then, his parents’ decision to reunite the family in the U.S. — where his father had been working construction and was finding return visits increasingly hard because of toughening border security — made more sense.
He remembers the trip in the back seat of a car, eating potato chips and trying to keep his younger brother quiet as they crossed into California, driven by a legal resident. His mother followed a week later, taking a riskier trip through the desert that she never talked about.
Eventually, they made their way to Eastern Washington, where they had extended family. Quiñonez Figueroa mostly grew up there. Tutored by his mom, who had wanted to be a teacher but couldn’t afford the necessary schooling, he was placed in a program for advanced students.
He threw himself into extracurriculars: volunteering as a bilingual interpreter, running cross-country and playing tennis, joining the debate and Spanish clubs.
“I had to be the best I could be,” he said. Otherwise, he wouldn’t get the private scholarships he needed to go to college. Even when DACA came into being right before his last year of high school, and he was deemed eligible, he couldn’t get federal financial aid due to his status.
As the Trump administration has been keen to point out, DACA recipients are still considered undocumented even though the government has granted them permission to work here temporarily.
Accepted by Gonzaga University, Quiñonez Figueroa benefited from Washington’s version of the DREAM Act, approved while he was there, to allow undocumented students to get state financial aid.
He quickly built up his résumé. He interned for U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, a Michigan Democrat, in Washington, D.C., and got a fellowship to spend a summer at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public & International Affairs.
After school, he worked as an Eastern Washington field director for Sen. Patty Murray’s re-election campaign, and was interested in working for the federal government. But undocumented immigrants are not allowed.
So he turned to local politics. In his job as Rep. Kloba’s assistant, he does everything from running the office budget to helping arrange town-hall meetings.
Not ready to give up
It was in Mexico last summer that Quiñonez Figueroa realized how American he has become.
Participating in a program that brought DACA recipients to study side by side with Mexican students, he picked up on subtle but distinct cultural differences, like the way he and his peers would complain about service they found lacking.
“We were called ‘arrogant Americans,’ ” he recalled.
He nevertheless discovered he could get by in Mexico if he had to. His Spanish was passable. There were opportunities for college-educated professionals like him.
Staring down the possibility of a forced repatriation, he said it wouldn’t be end of the world, but added: “I’m not ready to give up.”
His game plan: go to graduate school and hope that by the time he’s done. Congress will have passed a law allowing him to stay.