Faces of Deferred Action: Photos of Undocumented Youth Coming Out of the Shadows

The deferred action program, which allows many young illegal immigrants to seek a work permit and protection from deportation, is bringing untold numbers out of the shadows.

The program, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, allows some undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. before their 16th birthday to apply for permission to stay and have a work permit. And while many are still waiting to learn if they have been approved the existence of the program gives them hope. I spent a few weeks gathering audio interviews and portraits of nearly a dozen undocumented youth applying for the program. A year ago, many of them would have been too scared of deportation to be photographed or interviewed. Their stories have common themes. Each one remembered the moment they learned about the program. Each has familiar hopes and dreams: to get a job and an education. They also said they realize the program, with its temporary work permission, is not a permanent solution to their problems or their futures.

Erika Andiola, 25, came to the U.S. when she was 11 with her mother. She’s looking forward to not living in fear of being deported. “It gives you a sense belonging a little bit more than before,” she said. She looks forward to using her psychology degree from ASU to help council victims of domestic violence.

In five years, she hopes there will be a permanent immigration solution. “I need to be accepted in the country as what I am, an American,” she said. “And be able to have a path to citizenship. … A lot of my friends who are undocumented here are already engineers from ASU. 

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Christian Lira, 23, was 10 when his family moved to Phoenix from Nogales, Mexico. He’s studying architecture at ASU and hopes to earn an advanced degree. He is the first in his family to go to college. “I feel that was one of the reasons they brought us to the United States,” he said.

He has never worked and is looking forward to getting his first job. “I’ve always been dependent on my parents,” he said. “That’s something I want to change. I want to provide for my parents.”

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Carina Gayosso, 18, right, came to the U.S. when she was 6 years old. She is a freshman at Grand Canyon University in the pre-med program. She hopes to become a pediatrician. “Because most dreamers grew up here, this is all we know,” she said. “We consider ourselves to be Americans. We know everything about here. We follow the rules. We learn about the constitution in school. … Some of us, we appreciate everything the U.S. gives us more than people who just have it for granted.”

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Elizabeth Gayosso, 23, came to the U.S. when she was 11. While her sister is going to school, she is trying to make money to help her family get by. “I’m the oldest,” she said “I think it’s cultural that they expect a lot from the oldest child to help younger siblings.”

Her mother is unable to work after fighting cancer. “Right now it’s not that good. My father is stressed because of money and my sister is in school,” she said. “I will be able to help them with money.”

She hopes to one day go back to school and become a veterinarian.

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Lucero Santillan, 24, came to the U.S. with her mom when she was 11 years old. She has two siblings who are citizens and one who is undocumented. Her mother is a U.S. citizen. “I am going to be able to come out of the shadow , because you always live hiding,” she said.

“All the time that I came here from Mexico, I just stayed here. I didn’t go anywhere. I wish that I could travel like my friends,” she said.

It’s frustrating for her to watch her friends go to school, find careers and grow up. “I just want to make up for the time that I lost,” she said.

She hopes to become a social worker.

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Brayan Abigail Mejia Ramirez, 21, came to the U.S. when he was 3 years old. He didn’t know he was undocumented until he was 16 and wanted to get a drivers license. He finished school at the East Valley School of Technology studying culinary arts.

He’s looking forward to being able to work, go to school, and support his family. “It’s the things you don’t really think about, that matter so much to us,” he said. He hopes in the next five years to own his own home.

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Ileana Salinas was 15 when she came to the U.S. Her father decided to move the family from Mexico City after several children in her neighborhood were kidnapped. He sold his business and moved their family to Phoenix. “The person who purchased our house was killed right in front of the house,” she said. “My parents were just trying to survive.”

She is the first person in her family to graduate from college. “With my work permit I will be able to use my degree in psychology from ASU,” she said. “By having a higher income, I will pay more taxes.”

She knows what it feels like to almost lose living in the U.S. In 2009, she was detained during a camping trip and put into removal proceedings. Her case was terminated because of the “prosecutorial discretion” that President Obama announced in 2011.

She hope to go back to school for a master’s degree.

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Angelica Gaona, 25, came to the U.S. when she was 6 years old. She earned a bachelor’s degree from ASU in psychology but has not been able to use her degree. “I got an education to work, not just sit at home,” she said. She finds it frustrating to see former classmates moving on with their careers while she is unable to work.

She is torn between two identities.“I consider myself American in a way, then in a way I’m not,” she said. “Because I have different cultures. Even if I were to go back to Mexico, I’m not Mexican enough for the Mexicans and I’m not white enough for the U.S., so it’s like an identity crisis you go through.”

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Lorenzo Santillan, 25, came to the U.S. when he was 3 months old. He’s trained as a chef and is excited at the possibility to be able to work and learn legally under chefs. “It’s been really hard for me to not break the law, pay my taxes and do  all that good stuff,” he said. He thinks the new program will be a great stepping stone and let him grow as a person. In 10 years, he hopes to open his own restaurant.

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Itzel Carreon, 22, came to the U.S. when she was a year old. She is working on an accounting degree while working full time.

“I will be able to use the knowledge I have gained for something that is actually pay-worthy. At the moment, I earn minimum wage. …I’m doing a salary job for eight bucks an hour,” she said.

“I don’t know what it means to be Mexican as opposed to what it means to be American. I can’t say I assimilated to the culture because this is where I grew up. This is the culture that was handed to me.”

Carreon said, “If I’m going to be an accountant I am going to be the best dang accountant that’s out there. … I’m not going to stop at that. I’m going to get my master’s and maybe open my own firm.”

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Jesus Henry Mejia, 20, came to the U.S. when he was 2 years old. He quit high school to support his girlfriend and newborn daughter. He’s finishing up his education through online courses. His dream is to become a police officer. “We are hardworking. We’re not like stereotypes,” he said. “We’re good people. They just need time to see that.”

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