Wanda Hernández, Curator of Nuestras Historias: Latinos in Richmond discusses how DACA has impacted one of the individuals featured in the exhibition
Photo: Dan Currier
During the creation of Nuestras Historias: Latinos in Richmond, I interviewed over 60 Latinos in the Richmond area. One of the individuals I interviewed was Santiago, who shed light on the complexities of immigration policy and how it impacts his day-to-day life. At the time of the interview, Santiago was completing his last year at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia. However, On September 5, 2017, Santiago received life-altering news.
While parents conversed at bus stops, kids loaded school buses and teachers prepared their classrooms, President Trump announced the discontinuation of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), an executive order issued by President Obama in 2012 to protect undocumented youth from deportation. The optimism that accompanied the new school year evaporated for approximately 800,000 DACA recipients, also known as Dreamers.
In order to qualify for DACA, the applicant has to be 30 years old or under, have arrived in the U.S. prior to the age of 16 and lived here for five consecutive years. Additionally, the applicant must be an outstanding citizen, maintain a clean criminal record, be in school or have graduated, or be a military veteran. Hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants met these rigorous requirements. Until 2012, a Dreamer’s legal status was a well-guarded secret for many Richmonders like Santiago.
In 2002, Santiago and his family immigrated to Richmond when he was 9 years-old. Undeterred by the change in scenery, language and culture, Santiago quickly adapted. He learned English after only about one year in the United States and fell in love with the universal language of numbers, math.
By the time he got to high school in Henrico County in 2008, Santiago was an exceptional student, a leader in various honor societies, a member of the robotics team and captain of the soccer team. However, unlike many teens, Santiago moved around due to immigration raids occurring in the area in the 2000s. He also contemplated whether he could, or even deserved to attend college. Without a nine digit number, Santiago was an undocumented teenager.
Hispanic College Institute t-shirt, ca. 2010, Gift of Santiago, photo: Terry Brown
While he was an active member of his school community, his classmates couldn’t understand the duality he faced every day. Thankfully, in 2010, Santiago encountered a network of immigrants and their allies, who were committed to supporting one another in personal, educational and professional endeavors. Santiago found his support system at the Hispanic College Institute (HCI), a week-long college preparatory conference for students across Virginia. Santiago described that for the first time, he felt a sense of familia, and grew close with others he could relate to. The mentors and friends he met that summer in 2010 gave him hope in a future he had thought would always be out of reach.
In June 2012, when Santiago graduated from high school, he benefited from DACA. While DACA did not allow him to receive federal financial aid, he did obtain a work permit and driver’s license. However, it was the encouragement Santiago received from his HCI familia that ultimately led him to pursue education at a four-year institution. In 2014, Santiago received a full scholarship to attend Virginia Tech, where he earned his Bachelor’s and Master’s in Engineering in May 2017.
Santiago’s story is represented in our exhibition Nuestras Historias: Latinos in Richmond through his HCI t-shirt.
There are organizations in Richmond, the Commonwealth and throughout the United States like the Hispanic College Institute that provide support and opportunity to deserving individuals, regardless of legal status. As many in our communities fear for the future and safety of our undocumented neighbors, there are stories like Santiago’s that remind us that the dream is not lost.
Wanda Hernández is the curator of Nuestras Historias: Latinos in Richmond and the Latino Programming Coordinator at the Valentine.