Everyone has a different idea of what ‘The American Dream’ is. For some, it’s growing up and taking over the family business. For others, it’s moving away from their small-town home for a life in the big city. For many, it’s climbing up the corporate ladder.
But for Jose Ocampo, a Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) student at Trevecca Nazarene University, it’s simple: earn a college degree.
Ocampo has lived in the United States since he was 6-years-old. He has also benefited from the DACA program, the result of an executive order signed by former President Barack Obama in 2012 that provides protection from deportation, among other things, to undocumented immigrants who were under the age of 31 as of June 15, 2012, and who came to the U.S. when they were younger than 16.
On Sept. 5, President Donald Trump called for a wind down of the DACA program, sending more than 700,000 young immigrants, often described as ‘Dreamers’ into a frenzy.
“When I heard about [Trump’s plans], I cried,” Ocampo says. “I was left feeling so insecure about my future. I thought I would not be able to finish college. I thought that everything was gone. The dream of one day walking out with a degree in my hand, being someone I never imagined to be, that was gone.
“Being able to help out my family ... DACA gave me that opportunity. It would mean a door slammed in my face.”
Nationwide, an estimated 1.7 million people might be eligible for DACA, according to the Pew Research Center. Through DACA, recipients can acquire work permits, driver’s licenses and social security numbers. And for those like Ocampo, it provides an avenue to enroll in college.
After the Sept. 5 announcement, the Department of Homeland Security stopped accepting new applications and made known that DACA recipients had one month to reapply for the program. This would allow DACA students to continue working and studying during the six-month adjudication period, allowing Congress time to craft legislation on the future of the program. But not all qualified for reapplication. For those who didn’t, like Bernice Oliva, one of about 130 DACA students at Trevecca Nazarene University, the only option is to wait to hear what Congress decides to do.
“As a DACA recipient, I have had the opportunity to feel safe and accomplish so much, but now with DACA being rescinded, every day that passes makes me more anxious,” Oliva says. “I will lose my license and my work permit in 2018. Even though things are incredibly difficult and stressful at the moment, I try my hardest to keep my faith strong.”
At Trevecca, Oliva hopes help her community by earning a degree in social work with a focus on immigrants and refugees. “I want to be a resource for those families and students that are facing the struggles that I have faced and continue to face,” she says.
Echoing Trevecca’s opposition of the DACA program wind down, Belmont, Lipscomb and Vanderbilt have all made similar statements.
“[The] announcement is a betrayal of trust to countless young people — including several of our own successful alumni — who met the requirements of DACA, came forward, and identified themselves in order to pursue their dreams without fear,” Bob Fisher, president of Belmont University, said in a statement following the announcement.
“Ending DACA is a mistake,” said Vanderbilt University Chancellor Nicholas S. Zeppos, in a similar statement. “Without an alternative in place, it closes the door to young student scholars and leaders raised and educated in the United States and cuts short their potential to contribute to their communities and our national economy.”
Alexis Garcia, a freshman psychology major and DACA student at Trevecca, has said he feels it would be a mistake for the U.S. to keep any young person, regardless of legal status, from pursuing an education.
“I feel like President Trump is making a mistake. The DACA recipients have brought economic growth to this country,” Garcia says. “They have a lot of motivation to succeed and to be people who make a difference. The more intelligence and hard work is allowed in this country, the more success it’ll have.
Garcia hopes to become a physician’s assistant after graduating. “The DACA program opens so many doors,” he continues. “For all we know, the cure for one of the deadliest diseases could be in the brain of a DACA recipient, and we wouldn’t know because we don’t allow opportunity to those who aren’t citizens of the U.S.”
Both Garcia and Ocampo were able to reapply for their DACA status, something that they are grateful for. At the same time, they are hurting for their neighbors and worried for their futures.
“I have been confronted on social media because, [according to some], I came invading a land that isn’t mine. I stole someone’s job. But in my eyes I didn’t. I was better suited for the job because of either my hard work or my qualifications,” Garcia says. “In my neighborhood, I have been threatened by a man because I am in his country. I was told that if I didn’t leave that I would get shot. It’s scary, but when you have dreams and ambitions you try to forget about those things and move forward. God has a plan for me, and I will continue moving forward until he says it’s my time.”
Ocampo’s father migrated from Mexico to Tennessee to work so his family could afford a better opportunity. When Ocampo was six-months-old, his father told the family that he’d only be gone for one year. Five years passed before he was able to meet his dad when they made the move across the Mexico-U.S. border.
“I did not know that what we were doing was wrong,” Ocampo says. “I only knew I was going to meet my dad for the first time. I was just scared.”
Garcia said his family came to the U.S. for the same reasons, and that, as a 6-month-old at the time, he couldn't have been aware that what his family was doing was wrong.
“I had no clue as to what it was like getting here. I have no memory of what Mexico is like,” he says. “My parents show me pictures and videos, but it isn’t the same. They just wanted to have a life where their children wouldn’t have to face the same challenges as they did growing up.”
Once in the U.S., Ocampo and his family were forced to move around a lot — his father, who worked as a landscaper and handyman, moved the family wherever there was work. That meant Ocampo assumed the role of perpetual “new kid,” starting new schools with each move. At one point, he attended four different middle schools.
“It was a really tough transition. I couldn’t get the hang of it. Finally, we were stable after a really long time,” he says. That stability didn’t come until Ocampo was in high school, but after the constant struggle to adjust, Ocampo graduated with honors from Antioch High School as one of the top students in his class.
“But then, another wall came … college,” he says. DACA recipients pay taxes, but those who hope to enroll in college are barred from receiving any form of federal or state financial aid.
“[With DACA], I got accepted to schools, but either way it was going to be too expensive. I felt like, as a male in the family, I was supposed to go to college. I hit a wall when I found out I couldn’t go without a legal status — it would have been so expensive. It really hit me hard. Then I started questioning why. I may not be the best at academics, but I tried more than other kids. I felt like an outcast. Others that didn’t do so well and didn’t work hard, they got handed money to go to college. I was told I had to stay home and go work like everyone else of my kind.”
Despite that, Ocampo was able to enroll at Trevecca Nazarene University with the help of institutional scholarships. “I consider Tennessee my home,” he says. “Whenever I started hitting those roadblocks and getting so much hate, I started feeling like this isn’t what I considered home. But I had an idea of one day walking into college and getting a degree and everyone being united with no barriers. I found that Trevecca was very welcoming. Everyone was willing to work on helping me get to college.”
After a while, the expenses began to catch up with him. His dad got sick and was diagnosed with pulmonary fibrosis, which meant Ocampo had to take on more work to support his family.
“It got to the point where I wasn’t able to pay for college even at the first tuition rate they put me in, and [since my dad was sick], I had to work to sustain my family. But I worked with my financial aid counselor, and Trevecca was able to give me an endowment scholarship,” he says.
Ocampo hopes to start his own business after graduating and is choosing to remain hopeful about the future of the DACA program.
“[Despite everything], I am here in college. I can afford it. I have straight A’s. I am part of the future. I’m here. And I am getting my education. That is something no one will be able to take away from me.”