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Clark County ‘Dreamers’ face a nightmare

Deportation looms for Vancouver man who knows only life in U.S.

By , Columbian Local News Editor
3 Photos
Vancouver’s Marco Chavez-Silva, 24, is pictured Aug. 25 outside his attorney’s downtown Vancouver office. Chavez emigrated from Guadalajara, Mexico, to the U.S. with his parents when he was 3 years old. Previously a DACA recipient, Chavez is facing deportation proceedings.
Vancouver’s Marco Chavez-Silva, 24, is pictured Aug. 25 outside his attorney’s downtown Vancouver office. Chavez emigrated from Guadalajara, Mexico, to the U.S. with his parents when he was 3 years old. Previously a DACA recipient, Chavez is facing deportation proceedings. Alisha Jucevic/The Columbian Photo Gallery

For the last 21 years, Marco Chavez-Silva has called Vancouver home. He knows nothing else.

He graduated from Hudson’s Bay High School with a 3.6 GPA and scholarships, he said, with hopes of attending the University of Washington — his dream school.

He’s worked in the local restaurant industry and pays taxes.

“I felt and I have always felt American,” the 24-year-old said. “I speak (English) like everyone else.”

Chavez’s parents crossed the U.S. border, emigrating from Guadalajara, Mexico, when he was 3 years old.

“My earliest memories are preschool here. I have no memories of Mexico. I wouldn’t know where to start,” he said. “My whole history is in the U.S. I know the presidents and our Constitution.”

But now, Chavez is in the midst of deportation proceedings. He was previously a Dreamer — one of 800,000 people admitted through Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, an Obama-era program that granted work permits and two years of protection from deportation for children who entered the United States illegally.

He lost his DACA status last year after being accused of rape. A Clark County Superior Court jury in June acquitted him of all charges.

Chavez’s future is now unclear.

He believes he will once again obtain his work permit — which he expects to arrive in the next month — despite the fact that President Donald Trump announced Sept. 5 that he is ending the DACA program, created by executive order by then-President Barack Obama. Trump calls the program unconstitutional.

With his life hanging in the balance, Chavez said he can’t help but feel concerned.

“I’m always worried, but I still have to get up and go through my day. I still have plans and things I want to do,” he said. “I try not to let it get the best of me.”

Chavez knew there was a strong possibility Trump would end the program, he said, but at the same time, the decision pushes Congress to pass immigration reform. However, he said he is doubtful Congress can accomplish that task in the next six months that Trump has given the DACA program.

Trump has been in talks with Democratic leaders to outline a deal to protect Dreamers, but a protections package has not yet been finalized.

Still, Chavez said he considers himself to be one of the lucky ones — after all, he has his freedom, and people across the nation fighting for his dreams.

“I know there are a lot of people out there worrying about it,” Chavez said. But it’s important for Dreamers to try “to keep their heads up and keep going.”

Fighting stereotypes

Chavez was taken into custody last year by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents outside his work in downtown Vancouver. He came onto their radar because of the rape charge.

It’s not lost on Chavez that the rape allegation ties into comments Trump made about undocumented immigrants during his presidential announcement speech in June 2015: “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. … They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people,” Trump said.

During an immigration hearing, Chavez had to provide all documentation that proves he’s a longtime resident. But none of it appeared to matter. He said the judge kept asking why he was in the country and then heard Chavez’s pending charge. “He chuckles and says, ‘Oh, that’s why he’s here,’ ” Chavez recalled.

The stereotype doesn’t bother him much, he said, because he knew all along that he is innocent.

“But on the other hand, is that really how people in the U.S. see us? I haven’t seen that,” he said, adding that most undocumented immigrants are working hard to support their families. “Criminals come in all races. It’s not a specific group. I was a minority in the jail.”

A better life

Chavez’s parents brought him to the U.S. so he could have a brighter future. His father was a migrant worker, with no education. And his mother only received a fourth-grade education, he said.

As a child, Chavez said his focus was on doing well in school.

He played high school sports and received a GEAR UP grant — a competitive program through the U.S. Department of Education designed to increase the number of low-income students who are prepared to attend college. Chavez couldn’t accept the grant, a Rotary scholarship he won or federal financial aid, however, because of his illegal status, he said.

Not knowing what to do, he deferred enrollment at the University of Washington. He instead enrolled at Clark College and paid for his education out-of-pocket. The cost required him to work so he obtained his work permit in 2013 through DACA. But his work schedule soon interfered with classes, and he eventually dropped out.

Chavez was working at a restaurant when he was charged in April 2016. Because of the pending case, his work permit was revoked. He said he was assured by authorities that deportation shouldn’t be a concern.

“I didn’t think they were after me,” he said of ICE.

Then on Aug. 24, 2016, a co-worker approached Chavez and said the police were looking for him and wanted to speak in private.

“I thought it was strange because I was complying with supervised release,” he said. Chavez called his criminal defense attorney, Brian Walker, and asked him to look into it. They soon realized the officers were ICE agents.

‘Just a number’

The agents were waiting near Chavez’s truck outside his work. Walker talked with them and was told his client would be processed and released the following day; a court date for Chavez’s immigration hearing would likely be set out a year. But a manager in Portland later changed the deal, Walker said.

“It was a complete about-face,” Walker said. “(But) I knew we had no choice. There’s not a lot I could do.”

Chavez said he was disappointed and felt deceived.

“They put you in the vehicle, go around the corner, pull over and shackle you from wrist to ankle. The last thing you’re seeing is your hometown, driving away,” he said. “They are asking you all these questions, and they treat you like you haven’t lived here your whole life.”

After being housed in a holding room at the Portland facility, he was put on a bus — with blacked-out windows and bars on the inside — and transported to the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma.

“You’re just a number at this point,” Chavez said. “You’re so worried about where you are, what your family is thinking.”

When he called his family and girlfriend to let them know what happened, they couldn’t believe it, he said.

“It’s such an unreal situation,” Chavez said. “There are a lot of sad stories. There are people who have committed crimes. They’ve done their time, get out and start families, and then ICE contacts you and you’re just gone.”

There are people of all nationalities in the detention center, Chavez said, listing off Mexicans, Cambodians, Haitians, Chinese, Canadians and Ukrainians.

He spent much of his time, he said, wondering, “Who is like me, who has lived here?”

“You’re looking for the day to go by. You can’t sleep at night, because you’re thinking, stressing, wondering when is this going to be over?” Chavez explained. “You try to spend time trying not to think about what you’re going through. You tell (your family) not to worry.”

Walker said he eventually obtained an order from Superior Court to have Chavez transported back for his case. As part of the agreement, the county held him for ICE until his case was resolved. Chavez spent the next eight months in the Clark County Jail.

After he was acquitted in June, ICE agents picked him up the following day and took him back to Tacoma.

His immigration attorney helped him apply for his work permit again, and Chavez was permitted to post bail. He was denied the opportunity the first time because he was deemed a danger to the community, based on the rape charge and a prior traffic offense, he said. It cost his family $12,000 to secure his release in August.

An uncertain future

Chavez is due back in immigration court in January, he said. Until then, he doesn’t know what his fate will be. He’s hopeful that by obtaining his work permit, it will end the deportation proceedings.

Now, though, he may have another obstacle with the DACA program ending in six months.

“Some people don’t have a choice,” Chavez said of being an undocumented immigrant. “I didn’t have a choice. My parents brought me here for a better future.”

Walker describes Chavez as being like any other “American kid.”

“They bring them here for their kids,” he said of families who come to the U.S. “They put their lives on hold to build a life for their kids. They live in the shadows and live in constant fear forever, in general.”

Walker said he believes the country’s current immigration system is hypocritical and absurd.

“The idea that we are allowing them in here, benefiting from low-cost work and citizenship and then this idea that we rope them up and kick them out is inhumane,” he said.

Chavez argues that there aren’t enough opportunities for people in his circumstances to obtain citizenship — it’s a long and difficult process that not everyone qualifies for.

If he were to be deported, Chavez said he has family in Mexico but doesn’t know them.

“Those people don’t understand the damage they are doing,” he said of undocumented immigrants being separated from their families.

‘We are all immigrants’

The Department of Homeland Security is no longer accepting new applications for DACA but said those who are already enrolled in the program can continue working until their permits expire. Dreamers whose permits expire by March 5, 2018, are allowed to apply for two-year renewals by Oct. 5.

Chavez narrowly beat the deadline for new applications. He submitted his about a month-and-a-half ago, he said, and it’s still being processed. The Department of Homeland Security said applications and renewal requests received before Trump’s DACA announcement are being reviewed and validated on a case-by-case basis.

He recently received a letter providing login information to track his application’s progress. He was instructed to check in over the next month to determine if any additional documentation is needed.

Chavez said that in light of Trump’s decision, he is concerned about the fact that Dreamers have provided all of their information to authorities.

“They have our fingerprints, our photos, our addresses. If we decide to move, we have to tell them. If or when they start picking people up, they have everything they need,” he said.

Vancouver’s Diana Perez, Washington state director of League of United Latin American Citizens, mirrors his concerns.

“What kind of society are we creating? As far as we are concerned, we are not going to let it happen, to have this society of constant fear,” she said. “We can do better.”

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She said she doesn’t believe Trump when he says deporting Dreamers isn’t a priority. And she said that U.S. congressional leaders shouldn’t be negotiating with people’s lives.

With DACA ending, Perez said she hopes local law enforcement won’t step outside its jurisdiction and target “noncriminals.”

“The rules are clear on who is to be deported,” she said. “But this administration has (been) emboldened and made everybody of brown skin or dark skin targets, regardless. We have people who are citizens who are in detention centers.”

Most undocumented immigrants are respectful and working hard to make the best of their situation, Perez argued.

“They are hugely contributing to our society, since day one,” she said.

To those who say undocumented immigrants don’t belong here, Chavez had this to say: “What makes you better? What makes you American? We are all immigrants.”