Cairo Mendes put his hand over his mouth Tuesday morning as Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced an end to the Obama-era program that has shielded him from deportation. This was the moment he had feared since President Trump was elected in November. He shut the silver MacBook that he had used to watch the announcement and shook his head.
“It’s unbelievable,” said Mendes, a 24-year-old University of Massachusetts Boston student whose father brought him, his sister, and his mother to Marlborough from Brazil when he was 9. “People have made lives out of the program, and to just throw them all back into the shadows is absolutely inhumane. It’s cruel.”
Mendes said he was not immediately certain what the phase-out of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, would mean for him, but he was not ready to give up on his life in the United States. He said he remains focused on finishing college. He is one semester away from getting his bachelor’s degree in economics and politics and hopes to one day work in political organizing or run for office.
“I’m not anxious, but I’m just very angry, and determined to continue fighting,” he said as he sat in the cluttered office of the Student Immigrant Rights Movement, a youth-led nonprofit in Boston where Mendes works as an organizer.
Mendes said his father immigrated from Brazil first and then brought the rest of the family to Marlborough on a tourist visa in 2002. On the drive from Logan Airport, he said, Cairo’s father told him that he was going to be staying in the country illegally.
But the full meaning of being undocumented didn’t hit home, he said, until he was 16 and a friend from Marlborough High School who had also emigrated illegally from Brazil killed himself as he faced deportation proceedings.
“That had a profound impact on me,” he said. “That’s when it became real.”
The following year, Mendes declared that he was undocumented at a rally on the steps of the Cathedral Church of St. Paul, a massive granite church built in the 19th century across Boston Common from the State House. Ending the secrecy that had shrouded his immigration status marked the start of his activism on behalf of immigrants’ rights.
He said the fear of being deported never went away, but there was comfort in working with other students who are part of the “dreamers” movement. “The more people who come out of the shadows, the more awareness there is that this is happening,” he said. “The more people know you, the more there’s a community ready to rally behind you.”
When President Obama created DACA in 2012, it spared him and his sister, who is now a 19-year-old college student, from deportation and allowed them to work in the country legally.
But he said he always knew the protections might not last.
In a way, he said, he was relieved that Trump had finally announced his plans to end the program, after months of tormenting him and other young immigrants with mixed messages about whether he planned to rescind the policy or preserve it.
“This fiasco has been going for seven months now, and part of me is kind of glad it’s over because a lot of us were anxious this whole time, especially in the beginning of the year,” he said. At least now, he said, he knows the battle that lies ahead.
On Monday night, after he heard Sessions was going to make an announcement about DACA, Mendes e-mailed his professors to say he was going to miss class. It was the first day of the semester, but he knew he would not be able to focus on school.
On Tuesday morning, after watching the announcement, he recalled the advice given by his mother, a house cleaner who is undocumented.
“My mother said yesterday we’ve just got to fight,” he said. “That’s what she said to me seven years ago, and she’s still saying that today. So that’s what I will go with,” he said, breaking into a smile. “Moms are always right.”Michael Levenson can be reached at mlevenson @globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @mlevenson.