Meet The Terrified ‘Dreamers’ in Trump’s Crosshairs

President Trump has told the thousands of undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children to "rest easy." Here's why they're not about to

Photo Illustration R. A. Di Ieso
May 12, 2017 at 7:59 AM ET

Emmanuel Ayala Frutos hasn’t had a good night’s sleep in weeks. Not since Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents showed up at his family’s front door on a Sunday morning. Not since Ayala Frutos — who is 21 years old and now in the crosshairs of President Donald Trump’s deportation force — was hauled away from their Portland, Oregon, home in handcuffs.

Detained in late March, the young man would go on to spend the next 18 days at a private prison for undocumented immigrants. Nearly a month after his release, he remains haunted knowing that he may still be sent to a country he hardly remembers.

“I can’t imagine going back to Mexico,” Ayala Frutos said on a recent Friday, his soft-spoken voice struggling to rise above the din of fellow coffee shop patrons. He sat at a Starbucks in the North Portland neighborhood where he attended public school and learned to skateboard, where he made lifelong friends and discovered anime cartoons and hip hop. “I love winters. I love the rain.”

This neighborhood is home, Ayala Frutos said. It’s where, in 2002, he and his two siblings arrived with their parents after they left Mexico’s troubled Michoacan state when he was 6. It’s where, a little more than a decade later, he became a so-called “Dreamer,” one of the thousands of young men and women brought illegally to the U.S. as children but who were later able to obtain temporary legal status under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA.

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But like a growing number of young people who became Dreamers, Ayala Frutos’ life is suddenly more chaotic and uncertain.

Even as his administration aggressively cracks down on illegal immigration, Trump has pledged not to go after DACA beneficiaries and went so far to declare last month that they should “rest easy.” Around the country, however, there’s mounting evidence for why they shouldn’t. Dreamers have been swept up at home or off the street since Trump assumed office, while others have received cryptic letters from ICE telling them to pack their bags or show up at the agency’s offices for undisclosed reasons. At least one young immigrant with DACA status has already been expelled from the U.S., raising fears that more will follow.

The predicament seems to capture the jarring state of immigration enforcement in the early days of the Trump era, one that’s relentlessly harsh, haphazard, and confusing. While DACA has never guaranteed safety from deportation, its recipients are seeing greater reason to fear for their future.

“The land for them is filled with land mines,” said Abigail Peterson, an immigration lawyer in Jackson, Mississippi. “I don’t think anyone is safe.”

Immigration authorities detained one of Peterson’s clients, Daniela Vargas, in March just minutes after the 22-year-old spoke at a news conference about her deportation fears, an incident that drew national attention. Vargas, who was brought to the U.S. from Argentina at age 7, legally worked as a store manager and had attended the University of Southern Mississippi under DACA. She was in the process of renewing her status when she was arrested and sent to a detention center in Louisiana for more than a week, Peterson said. Vargas still faces deportation.

In recent months, ICE agents have also pursued a 25-year-old Dreamer and accounting student from Texas over a pair of unpaid traffic tickets. They’ve locked up a Seattle-area DACA recipient with no criminal record, alleging he was a “self-admitted gang member” — a claim that the young man and his lawyers say is untrue. Even a Dreamer who coached soccer at an elementary school and volunteered regularly at his Episcopalian church in Gresham, Oregon, was taken into federal custody because he had pled guilty to driving while intoxicated months before, according to immigration officials.

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These young people are a far cry from the rogues gallery of rapists, drug peddlers, and killers conjured by Trump when he speaks about the “bad hombres” his administration intends to boot from the country. But the executive orders on immigration signed by the president when he took office make nearly anyone living in the country illegally a priority for deportation — including the thousands of young men and women who hoped they might remain protected.

Initiated in 2012 under President Barack Obama, DACA provides two-year work permits and a reprieve from potential deportations for certain people who, as minors, entered the U.S. illegally with their parents before the age of 16. To date, nearly 800,000 Dreamers — named for the failed DREAM Act, which would have provided them a path to citizenship — have passed rigorous background checks and plunked down the hundreds of dollars in fees required to obtain the temporary legal status. The program does not extend this status to their family members, nor make them eligible for federal welfare benefits. But it does allow Dreamers to hold down jobs, attend universities, open up bank accounts, and purchase homes and vehicles.

DACA, its proponents say, allowed young people living in the country illegally to step out of the shadows, even as the Obama administration deported a record number of undocumented immigrants from the country. And it remains popular among the public. A Global Strategy Group poll following November’s election found that 58 percent of voters thought that Trump should continue the program, while only 28 percent wanted it repealed.

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While Trump as a candidate repeatedly promised to end DACA on “day one” of his presidency and called its protections “unconstitutional executive amnesty,” he has yet to scrap the program and now speaks of its beneficiaries in more sympathetic terms. Late last month, as news surfaced that a 23-year-old removed from the U.S. appeared to be the first Dreamer deported under the Trump administration, the president tried to reassure immigrant communities and their supporters.

“We are not after the Dreamers, we are after the criminals,” Trump said in an interview with the Associated Press. “The Dreamers should rest easy. OK? I’ll give you that. The Dreamers should rest easy.”

Trump’s words provide little comfort to those like Sthefany Flores Fuentes, a 20-year-old DACA recipient and honors student at Gardner-Webb University, a private Christian college, in North Carolina. In April, she returned home from a school-sponsored Model United Nations trip to find an official letter from ICE in her mailbox. The document, reviewed by Vocativ, instructed her to show up at the agency’s Charlotte office later that month with a passport and no more than 40 pounds of luggage. Immigration officials planned to send Flores Fuentes back to Honduras, a country she had not set foot in since her family left when she was 7 years old.

She was frightened, confused. “I stopped thinking about my future plans,” Flores Fuentes, who studies journalism, theater, and political science, recalled in an interview. She said she had no idea why ICE was suddenly targeting her and the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees the agency, wouldn’t tell her when she asked. Flores Fuentes had just renewed her DACA permit for a third time, granting her temporary status through 2019. She had no criminal record.

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Flores Fuentes would later learn that she had been ordered removed from the country by an immigration judge back in 2005, according to records from the U.S. Executive Office for Immigration Review. She was 8 years old at the time. Flores Fuentes said that neither she nor her mother had ever been notified of a hearing.

As her meeting with ICE neared, Flores Fuentes said she received a groundswell of support from those in her community. Friends as well as a local immigration rights group began contacting North Carolina’s governor, U.S. senators, and Flores Fuentes’ member of Congress urging them to intervene. Professors penned personal letters attesting to her character as did the priest from the Catholic church she attended in Forest City, her hometown, southeast of Asheville. Frank Bonner, Gardner-Webb’s president, was even prepared to accompany Flores Fuentes when she met with federal immigration officials.

Less than 48 hours before her scheduled appearance, ICE told Flores Fuentes she no longer had to show up. There had been some sort of clerical snafu, she said the agency told her. “To them, it was a matter of finding some missing files,” said Flores Fuentes as she wrapped up end-of-the-semester projects and prepared for finals. “For me, it could have meant not having the life I’d been planning to have.”

There was no official letter or advance notice before immigration agents showed up at Ayala Frutos’ home on the last Sunday in March. He had no idea they were coming for him. That weekend ICE agents had fanned out across the Pacific Northwest in a multi-day raid that netted undocumented immigrants previously convicted of “sex crimes, drug offenses, and domestic violence,” as well as “criminal aliens who pose a public safety threat,” according to a press release published by the agency several days later.

Immigration officials said Ayala Frutos was one of those targeted in the deportation sweep, which led to 84 arrests across Oregon, Washington, and Alaska, because of a prior criminal conviction. In November he had pulled a knife on a group of construction workers who had allegedly made racially-charged threats against him and a few of his friends, his lawyers told Vocativ. It was the only time he had ever been in trouble with the law, a mistake Ayala Frutos said he made out of fear for his own safety.

Ayala Frutos later pleaded guilty to possessing and displaying a dangerous weapon, misdemeanor offenses that do not disqualify a person from receiving DACA protections, according to his lawyers as well as the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services website. In fact, ICE detained him only three days after he had completed a fingerprinting appointment necessary to renew his status.

Ayala Frutos did not protest or put up a struggle with the armed agents at his family’s front door. He was more worried about his undocumented mother, who hid inside their house, than what might happen to him. After speaking with agents, he agreed to follow them to their unmarked vehicle. They placed him in handcuffs as soon as he stepped inside. This can’t be happening, he thought.

Rocio Ayala Frutos, Emmanuel’s older sister and also a DACA recipient, said her family was terrified. “We didn’t know what to do but cry,” she told Vocativ. They had reason to worry about Emmanuel being taken away. In early January, he had been struck by a car while skateboarding home at night. The collision had shattered both his legs and left him hospitalized for six weeks, medical records show. During that time, doctors also diagnosed Emmanuel with a type of bipolar disorder and placed him on medication.

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Ayala Frutos also began to worry about his own vulnerable physical and mental state while being transported to the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, Washington, about 140 miles north of Portland. His thoughts turned to what some of the men at facility, which include those convicted of violent crimes, might do to a disabled kid who could barely get around without the use of a wheelchair. “I know it’s a, like, detention center, but it’s basically a prison,” Ayala Frutos said. “I was scared.”

He managed keep to himself and avoid trouble at the detention center, which holds more than 1,500 undocumented immigrants awaiting deportation. He didn’t watch television or play board games like some of the other detainees did to pass the days. His appetite waned, and he struggled to move around, though he was eventually given a wheelchair. He stopped sleeping at night. After 18 restless evenings — and amid growing pressure from elected officials, immigrant rights groups, and the ACLU of Oregon — Ayala Frutos was granted a hearing and released from custody on a $10,000 bond.

Despite what the President of the United States told him and other Dreamers, Ayala Frutos still isn’t resting easy. “To this day my sleeping schedule is messed up,” he said.

And his life still hangs in the balance. It could take months, or even years, for his deportation case to make it through Portland’s immigration courts, which had a backlog of nearly 4,200 cases in March, according to data tracked by Syracuse University. In the meantime, Ayala Frutos is not quite sure what to do with his days. His DACA renewal was rejected shortly after his arrest by ICE, which means he can’t legally work. He’s now even reluctant to venture outside his home. He’s afraid he could be profiled or somehow land in hot water.

“It’s so hard for him to have a normal life now,” Rocio said, seated next to her younger brother at the Starbucks, a few tears streaming down her face. “He’s just got a big target on him all the time.”

Ayala Frutos took a deep breath and sighed. He looked off into the distance. “It’s been a rough year,” he finally said.