Shortly after Donald Trump was sworn in as president, an undocumented high schooler in Delano received a text from her parents. It was a photo of Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents in their town. Her parents were on their way to work.
“And they turned back,” the 17-year-old says. “We stayed in the house, I didn’t go out, I didn’t go to school for a week. It’s just the constant living in fear and I don’t think anybody should have to go through that.”
That moment marked the beginning of sleepless nights and constant worry for Priscila Garcia, who goes to Robert F. Kennedy High School.
Valley Public Radio agreed to change Garcia's name to protect her identity. Her parents are fieldworkers and also undocumented.
“Anywhere I would go it’s like, ‘No, we should just go back home. No, I don’t really need that notebook for school. Like, no it could wait, it could wait,’” Garcia says. “I never saw me living in fear like that just because of a piece of paper.”
Garcia was able to qualify for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA. But still, she says she would “freak out” every time she saw a van while walking to school, or someone wearing a green uniform with a badge she didn’t recognize. She says she felt “trapped.”
“Everytime I would get home I would knock on the door and they wouldn’t answer like I would panic so much,” Garcia says. “Will they open the door? Will they be there when I get home?”
Soon it was time for Garcia to start thinking about college applications and personal statements. But the increased emphasis on undocumented people in Delano made her rethink applying for college.
“It’d be so stressful because everybody would be so ahead of their applications, it would run so smooth, and I’d be left behind,” Garcia says. “It kind of made me feel like I didn’t know who I was for a second. I was very lost and I was like, ‘I don’t know, is this even worth it?’”
She needed lots of help on the forms she had to fill out because she isn’t a citizen. Some people didn’t have answers or know how to help. But even though Garcia says she felt alone, she knew others in Delano were in her situation too.
“I can’t believe a piece of paper really defines my status or really put boundaries and borders in front of me,” Marco Ayon says. “And I even contemplated, ‘Should I even be applying?’”
Ayon is an undocumented senior at Delano High School. Unlike Garcia, he doesn't qualify for DACA. Valley Public Radio also agreed to change his name to protect his identity.
He says his biggest concern was how to pay for college because undocumented people don’t qualify for federal aid. But luckily Ayon says he had a good counselor.
“She gave me at least an inch-thick packet that has a bunch of scholarships for undocumented [students],” Ayon says. “So she was really on top of the game and really helped me out in a lot of aspects of it.”
Even applying for a driver's license made him paranoid. Under California state law, undocumented people can get a driver's license. But, he still needed to provide proof of identity and residency.
“I was eventually filling out some paperwork in the computer and I just came to the realization that once that paperwork goes to Sacramento anything can happen from there,” Ayon says. “We might have those people at the door, ICE, coming back to me.”
Ayon deleted everything he filled out and walked out of the DMV. He says the risk of the government knowing his information just wasn’t worth it.
“I was just lost because I came to the realization that I’m limited to doing many things,” he says. “From the beginning of my career with college applications to simply getting a driver's license. It was one of the moments that made me realize, I’m not going to say I wasn’t normal, but it’s just difficult. It’s just difficult times.”
Adelaida Ramos, the assistant Superintendent for Delano Joint Union High School District, says school counselors and psychologists are there to help students. There’s also the Migrant Education Program, which provides educational support to migrant students and their parents. But even then, Ramos says families are sometimes uneasy about sharing personal information because they aren’t citizens.
Kids like Ayon have a lot of anxiety because of ICE’s presence in their town, he says.
Between October 2017 and May 2018, there were 282 ICE arrests in Kern County that occurred out in the community, according to data from TRAC Immigration, a nonprofit data research center at Syracuse University. Out of 1,467 counties in the United States that were looked at, TRAC data shows that Kern County made the top 25 list of most ICE arrests overall in that time frame.
Ayon says there was even more fear in the community after reports last year of a Delano couple who died in a car crash while escaping ICE agents.
“Ever since that incident it kind of made me realize that it could happen to anybody,” Ayon says. “It’s just real life.”
Valerie Gorospe, a community organizer at the Center on Race, Poverty and the Environment in Delano says no kid should have to endure what Ayon and Garcia are experiencing.
“Everyone says that, right? ‘Oh, kids are living in fear, families are living in fear,’” Gorospe says. “It’s almost like sometimes it doesn’t have any weight, that statement that people are living in fear. But it’s more than living in fear, this is their identity. This is how they are [dealing with] coping strategies that they never knew how to do.”
Gorospe often meets with Ayon, Garcia and other students at the center. She says some students don’t even talk to their parents about their struggles because they don’t want to stress them out more.
But Garcia and Ayon didn’t let their status stop them from their goals. They both applied to various schools in the state and Garcia says she’s starting to overcome her biggest hurdle.
“It was the biggest challenge I’ve had in life, accepting myself,” Garcia says. “You know saying, ‘I’m undocumented’ and not being afraid. But, I still live in fear sometimes. But, it doesn't define me. A paper doesn’t define me.”
But that paper will still be the one thing that limits thousands of kids and adults in the San Joaquin Valley.