DARIO GUERRERO WAS FINISHING HIS HOMEWORK in the library at the California Academy of Mathematics and Science when his phone buzzed in late December 2010. Dario, like the children of most undocumented immigrants, had followed the DREAM Act vote in the Senate, but only barely. He’d been focused on school and sports and college applications.
Dario looked down, puzzled. It was a Boston area code. His heart began to race. He took the call and ran out to the front steps of the library.
An admissions officer from Harvard University broke the good news. Dario had won an undergraduate spot, with enough financial aid to cover tuition, room, and board. A letter confirming the admission was on its way. Dario’s mouth hung open.
“Thank you. Thank you. Thank you!” Dario repeated. He couldn’t think of anything else to say. He hung up the phone and jumped into the air, pumping his fist above him as he let out a whoop of joy.
“You did it. Mijo, you did it!” Dario Sr. cried that night. The DREAM Act, first proposed in 2001 as a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants who had come to this country as children with their parents, had failed yet again to pass, this time by five votes. But surely now, his soon-to-be-college-student son was safe from deportation.
Dario hadn’t even known he was undocumented for most of his life, until he discovered that the Social Security number he was using belonged to his younger brother, who was born in the United States. But by September 2011, Dario felt he was finally starting life, freed from that box of “illegal immigrant.” From here on, his identity would be “Harvard student.”
One night late in the fall of his freshman year, Dario hung out in the Harvard dorms with a few friends. One, the son of a banking executive, offered to take them all to a rave in the Netherlands on his father’s private plane.
Sure, they all laughed, let’s do it. Dario looked over at his roommate Alex, who was from South Carolina, and like Dario found the whole scene both awe-inspiring and ridiculous. Alex raised an eyebrow. Was this kid serious?
A couple of guys leaned forward, calculating the cost, joking about where they’d stashed their passports. Dario nodded along. Even on a free plane with room and board taken care of, there was no way on earth he’d be able to go. He had no passport. He couldn’t leave the country, not if he wanted to ever get back in.
He scoffed. Raves were lame, he said.
Dario’s girlfriend had gotten him to go to some Latino student events on campus. They even talked, mostly in jest, about getting married so he could adjust his status.
“Dude, why are you getting married?” Alex yelled when he overheard the plan. “You’re 18!” That night, Dario told Alex about his immigration status.
At first, Alex didn’t believe him. “I had no idea people who were undocumented could go to college, and to Harvard,” Alex said later. Alex’s own father was from Syria, a doctor who’d gotten a green card through a visa program for physicians willing to work in underserved communities. Alex’s father spoke sympathetically about the plight of the undocumented, mostly farmworkers who were flocking to South Carolina looking for work. His mother, a US native, not so much. She wondered why they didn’t just get in line and do it the right way.
Dario told Alex that since his father wasn’t a doctor, nor did he have a million dollars to invest in a company, there wasn’t really a “right way to come.” The line for most Mexicans was literally a lifetime long. His parents did pay taxes. Only, unlike Americans, they were unlikely to get back any of the money they put into the system when they retired.
Dario and his girlfriend broke up. He and Alex started hanging around more. Dario confided in Alex about a film he had started his senior year with other undocumented friends about applying for college without papers. Alex was fascinated. He offered to help. Together, they could make a full-length documentary. Maybe, said Dario. He’d wanted to come to Harvard precisely so he wouldn’t have to think about what his immigration status meant anymore. He joined the boxing club. He partied alongside all the other first-years.
Many of his friends held odd jobs on campus or off to pay their way, or for spending money. Dario couldn’t get a job — on the books, anyway.
Alex and Dario stayed up late drinking beer and mapping out ideas for a film following undocumented students at Harvard. Dario found nearly a dozen, including graduate students, mostly through word of mouth. But few wanted their faces on camera. They were scared of what it would mean for them, their families, and for Harvard were they to go public.
Their fears weren’t unfounded. In the wake of the DREAM Act’s failure, United We Dream, a youth-led immigrant activist organization, had documented more than 30 cases of DREAM Act-eligible students who had been detained and put in deportation hearings. By the fall of 2011, the Obama administration was on track to deport nearly 400,000 people annually, a record. Students continued to be among those rounded up. Immigrant leaders struggled to reconcile the president they had campaigned for with Obama’s stepped-up deportation program. Stricter enforcement hadn’t brought Congress any closer to taking action on the DREAMers, and even if it had, it would not have stopped their siblings and parents from being deported.
As the action shifted back to the states with Congress gridlocked, young immigrant activists were loud and unapologetic. In many ways, the failure of the DREAM Act had freed them from the image Congress seemed to demand of them. Presenting the story of the perfect, well-mannered student hadn’t worked. Now they could just be human.
The young activists would make national headlines confronting politicians, including GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney at a fund-raiser in New York City, where a Peruvian native, Lucia Allain, asked Romney about his dislike of the DREAM Act on camera. It went viral. These activists could get away with the confrontations precisely because, unlike their parents, they had no accents, and could often blend into a crowd of political supporters.
In late January 2012, a few days before Florida’s GOP presidential primary, the state’s freshman US senator, Marco Rubio, addressed the Republican-backed Hispanic Leadership Network in Miami in his first major speech on immigration, arguing a national consensus existed in favor of helping out young DREAMers. “There is broad bipartisan support for the notion that we should figure out a way to accommodate them,” Rubio said.
THE MORNING OF JUNE 15, 2012, the president strode out onto the steps of the White House and into the Rose Garden, where he unveiled Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, the most dramatic immigration reform the United States had seen in nearly three decades. Young people who came to the United States before the age of 16; were currently 30 or younger; had been physically present in the country for the past five years; and were in school, had graduated from high school, or had joined the military would be eligible to work and in many states to drive. They would no longer have to fear that any interaction with police could lead to deportation. “It makes no sense to expel talented young people who, for all intents and purposes, are Americans,” the president said.
It was estimated that more than 1 million people would be affected by the order (the number to date is closer to 800,000).
In Long Beach, Dario’s mother shrieked from the living room and ran to wake her son, home from college and sleeping late. Dario sat up. His first thought: “Thank God I didn’t get married.” His mind flashed to all the things he wanted to do: Get a driver’s license, find a job to help his parents, and maybe study abroad.
In Los Angeles, during a protest in front of the downtown immigrant detention facility, dozens of youth stopped chanting and waving their signs and stood in a circle holding hands, savoring for just a few quiet minutes the unexpected victory.
LIFE IN CAMBRIDGE changed for Dario after DACA. He landed a position at a campus-affiliated bar, then a job at the massive Widener Library’s audiovisual department. He began to enjoy more of the privileges of school. Armed with DACA, undocumented students on campus became more willing to talk for his film project.
Then in the late fall of his junior year, his father called. His mother was sick. It was most likely cancer. In January 2014, Dario took a leave of absence from Harvard.
He began using his university-level research skills to find alternative cures. He tore up the family’s traditional menu of carne, rice, and veggies. He invested in an industrial-strength juicer, filming its first use for a project about his mom, as orange carrot juice went flying in his hair.
“The first to vomit loses!” they joked after Dario whipped up his first cleanser, and mother and son clinked their glasses. After a few weeks of the health diet, his mother could walk again.
But the tumor continued to grow. In the summer of 2014, the doctors said they could do no more for his mother, and Dario decided to take her to Mexico for an experimental treatment. He requested permission to leave, but when the US government asked for more information, he did not wait. He was desperate. The treatment failed. Weeks later she died in her parents’ home in Mexico. In the eyes of the American government, Dario had self-deported. His first request to return was denied. School started, and Dario remained stuck in Mexico, despite efforts by Harvard’s lawyers, the offices of Representative Michael Capuano and Senator Dick Durbin, and others. Finally, he agreed to let the Associated Press tell his story. Hours after it appeared, he was granted humanitarian parole. He would have to apply to get his DACA status reinstated and a new work visa, but he could return to the US and to school.
AFTER RETURNING TO HARVARD in January 2015, Dario became a copresident of the boxing club and began mentoring younger Latino students. His film was coming along — the story of his mother’s decline, his experience in Mexico, his parents’ history, all set against the Aztec creation myth. He turned in the first half as his senior thesis and received top honors. Now it was on to graduation.
A week or so before, Dario had heard about the experimental art project of a fellow student who had put the entire contents of his wallet in a school vending machine — an exploration of how commercialized human identity had become. Captivated and irritated at how much privilege it required to renounce the very documents he so desperately needed, Dario and some undocumented friends hijacked the art project. Using rolls of quarters, they bought the entire contents of the wallet, then put up a ransom note. They would return the items only if their classmate could verify his identity with transcripts, a birth certificate, a personal letter from his mother, enough social media posts to prove he’d been in the country for the last five years, and a mock immigration interview — a nod to the requirements they’d had to complete for the DACA program. The student gamely agreed. The prank ended with shared drinks and the return of the wallet.
After graduation, Dario had lined up an internship at the Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection in Washington, D.C. He was still waiting for his DACA status to be reinstated, which he needed to finalize the internship, but at least the humanitarian parole would let him stay in the country.
DARIO SPENT LESS THAN TWO WEEKS in Washington. Without his DACA status reinstated, he wasn’t eligible for the Dumbarton fellowship. On his last night before heading back to California, Dario decided to go see the monuments with a few friends. They took a cab from Georgetown to the Lincoln Memorial. They walked from there to the Korean War Veterans and World War II memorials. At the FDR Memorial they got caught in a crowd of Pokemon Go players. Finally, they sat down beneath the Jefferson Memorial rotunda.
Dario looked across the marble at the four inscriptions on the towering walls, settling on the fourth. “I am not an advocate for frequent changes in laws and constitutions, but laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths discovered and manners and opinions change, with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also to keep pace with the times,” Thomas Jefferson had written some 200 years before.
Dario spent the summer with his family, caring for his little sister Andrea, helping out his father, and wondering what he would do next as he watched his fellow graduates take new jobs and move forward with their lives.
In early September, the Trump administration — under threat of a lawsuit by Texas’s attorney general over DACA — announced it would sunset the protection and would no longer accept new DACA applications. Those whose DACA permits expired before March could apply for one last extension that would protect them through 2019 — but only if they applied by October 5. Dario tried to distract himself. He finished the film about his mother and began looking for a premiere date. He started driving for Uber and boxing again, training for the Golden Gloves amateur competition.
Then, days before DACA was set to run out, Dario received a letter from DHS. His DACA status was reactivated, giving him two more years to live and work legally in the US. But for Dario and many like him, their long-term futures here remain a question mark.