The clock is ticking, and the politics swirling, while Hector Rivera Suarez watches and waits.
On Jan. 21, Rivera Suarez’s protection under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals will expire. With that, his driver’s license will lapse and so will his dream of becoming a teacher in North Carolina.
Rivera Suarez, 20, is the student body president at Guilford College in Greensboro. In this roller-coaster week, he and 120 other “dreamers” traveled to Washington, D.C., to tell their stories. They hope to persuade Congress to make a deal to extend DACA, the Barack Obama executive order rescinded last fall by President Donald Trump’s administration. On Capitol Hill, surrounded by other “dreamers” and members of Congress, Rivera Suarez stepped to the microphone and told a C-SPAN audience he felt like he was losing control of his future.
By late in the week, he was back in class at Guilford, checking Google Alerts as the news reports focused on vulgar language by the president about Africa and Haiti – remarks deemed racist and denied by Trump.
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“It’s honestly been a real surreal week,” Rivera Suarez said in an interview Friday.
The week had started with a federal district judge in California issuing a preliminary injunction against the Trump administration’s efforts to end DACA, raising Rivera Suarez’s hopes. By late week, a bipartisan group from Congress said it had crafted a deal on immigration that included continued protection for the 800,000 young people covered now. Then came the president’s comments, and his tweets Friday calling the deal “a big step backwards.”
Hopes dashed again — something Rivera Suarez is used to.
“I’ve worked hard. I’ve made all these decisions to better my future and to create a career for myself, “ he said. “But it’s very hard that every time you look at the news, there’s something different being talked about that will affect your future. ... It does create that feeling that you have no control over it.”
Rivera Suarez arrived in the United States from Mexico when he was 8 years old. His parents brought him and his older sister to start a life in the High Point area. Since then, they have worked minimum-wage jobs in fast food and construction, Rivera Suarez said. His father often works two jobs so the family can make ends meet.
He started school in the middle of the year in third grade, speaking no English. He went to summer school the next summer, and set about catching up to his classmates.
“I really give a lot of credit to that, because by the time I started fourth grade I was able to have conversations with my peers that I wasn’t having in third grade,” he said. “I just had to work really hard, you know.”
He began to excel in school. He went to high school at Middle College at Guilford Technical Community College. There he took high school classes from noon to 5 p.m., with the morning devoted to college classes. Some started at 7 a.m., and because his parents were working, he had no transportation, so he walked the mile or so to school in the dark. Occasionally, when it rained hard, he would take a taxi. After school and on weekends, he worked at McDonald’s.
Even working 20 to 30 hours some weeks, Rivera Suarez graduated near the top of his high school class and had also earned a two-year associate’s degree.
He received two scholarships to cover his full tuition costs at Guilford College. As part of one scholarship program, he does 140 hours of community service each semester. He volunteered at a community center where he tutored children, mostly Latino children, whose parents spoke little English and couldn’t help with homework.
“I saw a lot of myself in these kids,” he said, “and I could also see that it was helpful for these kids to see someone like them.”
Rivera Suarez began to see himself as a teacher. He had planned to major in business, but soon had a new goal. He switched to education.
But then there was a new roadblock. He found out that he couldn’t teach in North Carolina’s public schools.
“There’s no path to get your teaching license,” he said. “So that was a pretty devastating moment for me as well, because that’s what my passion is.”
With his professors’ help, he began to chart a new path. He would major in philosophy with a minor in education, and speed up his path to graduation. As a DACA recipient, he could teach as part of the Teach for America program, which puts recent graduates in high-poverty schools. His goal was to be assigned to a school in the Triad area, close to home.
Then another snag. When the announcement came last fall about a rescinded DACA, “dreamers” were given one month to apply for a renewal. Rivera Suarez scraped together the $495 application fee, but a postal delivery delay caused him to miss the deadline, along with about 4,000 others. He was rejected.
“It was one of the worst feelings ever because I worked so hard, I changed my graduation date, and it all just seemed like it was for nothing,” he said.
The prospect of joining Teach for America was becoming more remote. He was missing deadlines.
Even with all the setbacks, Rivera Suarez hasn’t given up hope. This week, on his first trip to Washington, he met other “dreamers” who had graduated from college and started careers. The fast-paced atmosphere there made him see that change can happen.
The group of young people managed to visit more than half of Congressional offices, where they met with staff and sometimes directly with representatives and senators. Democrats and Republicans alike offered encouragement, he said.
“From the meetings that we had, we had a very positive response, a lot of the people acknowledging that something needs to happen very soon,” he said.
The image of him speaking on Capitol Hill made his mother cry. It had a similar effect on Guilford College President Jane Fernandes, who blogged about it Friday.
“Hector was so impressive as he spoke with powerful eloquence,” Fernandes wrote. “I was moved to tears by his words. The people watching with me were equally impressed and proud. ... I admire Hector for his courage and commitment to our city, state, and nation –the only home he has ever had.”
For Rivera Suarez, the waiting, and dreaming, continues.
“I really hope that something happens, as soon as tomorrow. It would be really amazing.”