Kevin Lara was just 8 years old when he, his mother and sister left their home in Guatemala, journeyed through Mexico and crossed the river at Brownsville, Texas, heading all the way to North Carolina to join family members.
Fidel Altamirano was 14 when he left Mexico so he could find a job in America to support his father, who was sick with an embolism.
Years after making their treks, Lara and Altamirano were fortunate enough to win temporary reprieves from deportation and obtain work permits under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, and now leave nothing to chance as the fate of the 6-year-old program remains in limbo.
For many of the approximately 700,000 immigrants enrolled in DACA, deepening their roots here in a tenuous legal and political climate requires finding sustainable employment or building their own business.
With President Donald Trump first threatening to cancel but then embracing DACA, Congress unable to reach a compromise on a variety of immigration issues and federal appeals judges ordering the administration to keep the program alive, so-called “Dreamers” continue to peer over their shoulders while growing their families’ nest eggs.
Lara established Jasmines Trucking with another investor in 2014. Named after Lara’s daughter, the company now supports the 6-year-old along with his wife and 2-year-old son, Kevin Jr. The Wallace-based firm helps pay the rent, puts food on the table and covers DACA fees and the services that he receives from immigration attorney Helen Tarokic, owner of Wilmington-based Helen Tarokic Law.
As the “managing member” of Jasmines Trucking, Lara, 31, oversees a fleet of eight trucks that move up and down the East Coast and as far west as Texas with loads of produce, meat, household goods, beverages and paper products, according to Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration records.
There have been bumps along the road. The company filed suit against a freight broker, alleging that invoices for moved loads had remained unpaid. But Lara’s firm may yet collect some of that debt as the broker emerges from bankruptcy.
Another legal matter, however, is even more important to Lara.
“My main concern is my U-Vs [U-Visas],” he said.
Working with Tarokic, Lara and his wife, Yolma, have applied under the federal government’s U Nonimmigrant Status Program for permanent lawful residence.
The program was created for victims of certain crimes who are “helpful to law enforcement or government officials in the investigation or prosecution of criminal activity” that occurred in the U.S. or violated U.S. laws, according to the program’s website.
Tarokic said it could take as long as eight years for the couple to receive U-Visa designations, but Lara already knows what he will do if it is granted: stop renting, buy a home and spend more time with his family.
Fight or flight?
When Fidel Altamirano, now 33, first trod across the Mexican desert in 1999, it was December, it was frigid, and he could hear the coyotes baying. He and the other members of his group walked about 12 hours a day for two days before reaching the border.
Later, he made his way to North Carolina, where he has lived since 2004 and where he was granted DACA status in 2013.
Last fall, as the president started talking about abolishing DACA, Altamirano began having second thoughts.
“I love this country but maybe I should just move my family back to Mexico,” Tarokic remembers Altamirano saying.
“Let’s not give up,” she countered, and told him to return to her office this past January. By then, a preliminary injunction ordering the administration not to shut down DACA was in place.
Tarokic filed his renewal application and it was approved in late February.
“All of our clients who had DACA chose to renew” in light of growing uncertainty, she added. Now Altamirano, with a new work permit in hand that allows him to keep running his concrete contracting business, continues to support his family.
The Cost of Departure
There is much at stake economically if the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program is terminated, according to the Cato Institute, a Libertarian-leaning think tank.
“We estimate that reversing DACA would cost the U.S. economy $351 billion from 2019 to 2028 in lost income and that the U.S. Treasury would lose $92.9 billion in tax revenue,” the Washington-based organization said in a study released in February.
But the courts could end up tempering such an economic blow, said Tarokic.
If DACA were unwound and removal proceedings for its participants begun, Dreamers like Lara and Altamirano could go before an immigration judge and argue their case, she said, with any favorable ruling resulting in the issuance of green cards that grant permanent residence.
But with the courts likely to be overwhelmed by such cases and only a limited number of green cards issued by the government each year, judges might have to resort to a series of legal continuances to ensure that Dreamers actually get those cards, Tarokic said.
More immediately, good news could await Dreamers who have enlisted in the military.
In February, Secretary of Defense James Mattis said unauthorized immigrants who enlisted or are honorably discharged will not be deported, even if their legal protections expire.
But for now – with the fate of DACA itself up in the air – what about those who have never received a work permit or have never served in the military?
“They’re basically in the shadows all the time,” observed Lara. “I tell them just to do their best to survive and push forward.”