A heart on the scales: DACA decision is only temporary relief for Keizer woman

Keizerite Itzel Hernandez is a recipient of DACA protections, but years of uncertainty are fostering frustration.

Amemait is salivating. 

In ancient Egyptian belief, Amemait is the devourer of souls that fail the weighing of hearts to gain entry to the afterlife. In Egyptian art, she has a hippo’s hindquarters, the trunk and mane of a lion and the crocodile’s face. It was believed that, upon death, one only gained entry to the afterlife after their heart was weighed against a feather of Ma’at, who embodied truth, balance, order, harmony, morality and justice. 

The deceased’s heart was placed on one side of a scale and Ma’at’s feather on the other. If the scale balanced, the soul proceeded to the Field of Reeds. Amemait ate those with heavier hearts.

Keizerite Itzel Hernandez felt as though she’s been dangled over Amemait’s crocodilian jaw ever since applying for protection under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, a package of protections for the children of undocumented immigrants brought to the United States while minors. 

“It’s a Band Aid,” said Hernandez of DACA, put in place by President Barack Obama in 2012. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled last week that the program could continue despite attempts by President Donald Trump to end it. DACA stipulates that children brought to the U.S. under the age of 15 can apply deferred action from deportation and become eligible for work permits and driver’s licenses and attend colleges and universities without fear of reprisal. DACA recipients cannot have been convicted of a felony or serious crimes, they cannot receive federal student aid and DACA does not provide a path to citizenship. DACA protections also have to be renewed every two years, which is where the analogy to Egyptian lore emerges. “We have to go back every two years and see if our life is still worth it. That’s not fair. My parents … they’ve just gone through too much for them to keep going through it again and again.” 

The analogy to Egyptian belief falls short of encompassing all that DACA recipients face, however. In lore, the same court is judging all souls that pass into the afterlife. For people like Hernandez, as a result of the way in which Obama enacted the DACA – through executive action – the “court” presiding over her fate will change each time the presidency switches hands or parties. 

The Trump Administration attempted to end DACA based on the findings of a lower court in regard to a state-level program without having to take responsibility for ending it outright. A majority of the Supreme Court, led by conservative Chief Justice John Roberts, returned a decision that will require the Administration to seek a more active stance in discontinuing DACA protection. President Trump has already said on multiple occasions that he plans to do so. 

Hernandez said news of the reprieve for DACA recipients was met with relief, but it does precious little to alleviate the strains on hearts still on the scales. She speaks not only for herself, but on behalf of the people she works with as a volunteer on the Oregon DACA Coalition. 

“It’s temporary relief, temporary victory. We’ve been hoping for the best and getting ready for the worst,” said Hernandez, 22, of the days leading up to the decision. “We were pretty sure we were going to lose everything. If we had lost, we were focused on having people contact their Congress members and forming emotional support groups. We also had lawyers working on new drafts of DACA so that it could continue.”

Losing everything would mean rippling effects throughout the nation. Hernandez graduated from Chemeketa Community College and is now a dental assistant with the Boys & Girls Club of Salem, Marion and Polk Counties. She was, at one time, a patient of the same community service she helps provide now. Her twin sister, a Chemeketa and Portland State University alum, is a social worker in Portland. 

After eight years, the initial DACA recipients, who are now in their twenties, hold jobs throughout the country with many in critical roles serving the nation as it responds to the coronavirus pandemic. 

For Hernandez, and her sister, DACA changed the trajectory of their lives in ways few who were born in this country – and all white people – can fathom. 

“You’re so thankful, and you start to feel a little more safe, and you recognize you are being given a sort of privilege that other people don’t have,” she said. 

Hernandez’s mother and father left the twins with grandparents and crossed into America in hope of a better life than the one they were living in the city of Chemutal in the Mexican state of Quintana Roo. Her mother was an accountant and her father, who had only made it through high school, had difficulty finding consistent work that supported a family. 

“They told us that when they had something here, they would bring us over too,” Hernandez said. “It was definitely hard to see them go, but I knew that we were hopefully going to reunite again, which not a lot of families can do.”

The girls and their grandparents joined the couple when the twins were 7 years old. 

“They have different ways of hiding you in a car, it was very scary,” Hernandez said. 

To support the family, Hernandez’s mother worked two jobs, her father worked three – manufacturing dog leashes, at a restaurant and, also, a bread company. As work opportunities were prone to shift from season to season, the family frequently moved back and forth from California and Oregon. Despite finding a new level of success, the move to America took another, unexpected toll. 

“My grandma wanted to pass away in Chetumal but, because my grandparents had to bring us, they died here. I feel a sort of guilt that she had to leave everything behind for us,” Hernandez said. 

Her mother helped the twins assimilate to their new home with assignments to watch English-language television. Hernandez was fortunate to have a classmate that translated what was happening in classes at American schools. 

Hernandez was a senior at North Salem High School when she applied for DACA protections and the program unlocked a slew of new opportunities.

“There were little things people take for granted, like being able to drive my mom to the grocery store,” Hernandez said. 

Applying for DACA protections wasn’t a decision the family arrived at without heavy contemplation. 

“The top conversation that we had was about giving the government all of our information,” she said. “It wasn’t the information that my sister and I gave that worried us, it was having to give information about our parents.”

They decided it was worth the risk because it meant the twins would be eligible to attend college, even if it meant working their way through school on their own while attending classes and helping support the family. Both women still work two jobs, almost out of habit. 

Around the same time, the Hernandez family added a new sister to the family, she’s now 8 years old. Unfortunately, part of her inheritance is a different version of the nightmares her parents and sisters lived while undocumented in the United States. 

“She’s worried that, one of these days, we’re not going to be here. She understands that,” Hernandez said, fighting back tears. “And she knows that sometimes we’re waiting to hear if we have to leave. She has to live with that fear, too.”

The young adults protected by DACA are often referred to as “Dreamers,” but Hernandez thinks that label is better suited to her parents. 

“My parents brought me here for a reason, because they believed that America had more for us. They have always said it since the day they left,” she said. 

Before DACA, Hernandez’s mother would become dismayed because the twins felt they might have been brought to the U.S. “for nothing” or, at best, to live as second-class citizens. DACA protections allow them to live with more freedom and liberty, an American promise if not necessarily the dream her family traveled here with. But it all still comes with a sense of foreboding. 

“I wouldn’t know how to dream without my parents, but I demand something more permanent,” she said. “I do not want to be here again wondering if who knows who will cancel [DACA]. It’s very exhausting. They need to come up with a better plan, a pathway to citizenship. It’s not going to be easy, but wouldn’t you want something more permanent?”

Until then, every two years, Hernandez’s heart will be put back on the DACA scale, and Amemait is salivating.