By ERIC A. HOWALD
Of the Keizertimes
At age 22, Hugo Nicolas is wrestling with questions some twice his age have never tackled.
“Being an undocumented person with no social security number, you’re kind of in the shadows everywhere you go,” Nicolas said.
In August 2012, Nicolas was a recent McNary graduate and applied for a federal program called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). In exchange for registering with the program, the federal government, under an executive order by President Barack Obama, agreed not to deport him.
“That was the first question I had to answer. Was it worth it? It was nerve-wracking because it wasn’t a new law, just a presidential order that could go away. If they reverse it later, then I’m just kind of out there,” he said.
He was also able to apply for a renewable, two-year work permit that allowed him to be paid above the table and with all the protections that come with legal employment. The work permit also allowed him to get a driver’s license.
DACA was made available exclusively to undocumented residents brought to the United States before their 16th birthday. The program does not confer legal immigration status and doesn’t provide a path to citizenship. It’s also expensive.
Fees associated with the process top more than $500 and most immigrant advocacy organizations suggest working with an immigration attorney, which can cost up to $2,000. Nicolas’ family sold their car to cover the costs.
“That was a hard thing, especially since my father was the only one working at the time,” Nicolas said.
However, the relatively few new freedoms Nicolas gained under the program have expanded his opportunities a thousandfold.
“I started working and, because of those jobs and being able to drive, I got to start thinking about going to college,” Nicolas said.
He still gets more than a little excited as the subject veers to paying taxes like any other resident of the United States.
He worked three jobs while attending classes at Chemeketa Community College for a year and he’s since transferred to University of Oregon where he’s studying economics. He’s one of just a few dozen undocumented students in the entire Oregon University System.
“For me, it’s a big step toward figuring out the system and being able to help other people down the line,” Nicolas said. His younger brother and sister are just a few of the ones he’d like to follow in his footsteps.
While Nicolas started at U of O with the intent of focusing on his studies, his activist blood runs deep and wide.
In his first year as a Duck, he started working with the university’s student government as a finance assistant, which paved the way to him running for the student senate.
“Since getting deferred action status, I’ve been able to become even more involved in the community. I can drive to Portland and Eugene for advocacy events and organizations,” Nicolas said.
His boundaries also expanded. Nicolas has traveled to Washington, D.C., to meet with members of Congress and to other colleges helping students set up their own advocacy programs. The most meaningful trip – and the source of some of his biggest questions of late – was his first trip back to Mexico since crossing the border with his mother at age 11.
“I got to ask questions I never really thought about like, why did my parents leave? Why did they come to the United States? Should I blame the Mexican government for the things not being good enough to stay? Do I blame the United States for not allowing me to become a citizen?” he said.
While the specter of undocumented immigration is used to forward the agendas of those seeking scapegoats for numerous social ills, Nicolas knows what that feels like on an intensely personal level.
As he was applying for DACA status, the Keizer City Council was making changes to its youth councilor program that would bar undocumented residents from participating. Nicolas held that honorary office for almost a full year before his undocumented status came to the attention of city officials. Despite his exemplary performance of his duties, the council voted to change the rules. (They’ve since been loosened to allow exchange students to participate, but only after a request from John Honey, former McNary principal.)
Despite that sour note, Nicolas used lessons gleaned from serving as a youth councilor to formulate his answer to the tough questions he was asking of himself.
“The No. 1 thing was learning how to listen to everyone in your community. I began to understand how a part of town might be improved by better roads or more lights. Maybe it’s the street where we arrest the most people, but that doesn’t mean they’re bad people. Maybe it means we just have to help them more,” he said.
Armed with that lesson, he’s thinking about establishing an international consultancy firm working on issues of infrastructure in Mexico.
“It’s not as simple as thinking about the situation in Mexico or the United States, we have to be thinking about both of them,” he said.
If signals from the White House are any indication, DACA is in the process of becoming a more entrenched option for undocumented immigrants. Recent action by President Obama would lengthen the deferred action period to three years and remove an age cap. At the start of the program, in 2012, studies suggested as many as 1.7 million immigrants might be eligible for the program. Since then, a little more than 580,000 have been granted DACA privileges; another 24,000 applicants were denied.
For now, Nicolas’s path remains troubled by questions.
His father received a driver’s license as part of state law, enacted in 2013, that made Oregon the first state to offer licenses to undocumented residents, but that law was overridden by a ballot initiative passed in November requiring proof of legal presence in the United States. His father’s license, which was used to help provide for the family, expired last week.
“Now it’s like what is my family going to do? Will I have to drop out to go help my family? Will my brother have to drop out of school to help?” he said. “There are are a lot of people losing licenses over the next couple of months, and there’s going to be a lot more people afraid of driving around their communities, going to church or going to buy groceries.”