This story is part of the 2020 Project, a special men’s health project that examines the lives of 20 different 20-year-old men across America. To learn more about the others, click here.
Nelson Martinez de los Santos remembers hiding on bus trips to school. When police cars passed, he crouched.
In 2001, when he was one, his parents came to the United States with their four children. At home in Saltillo, Mexico, drug cartels ruled the city and violence increased. At the time his mother was a nurse and his father owned a tractor-trailer company. They received visas, drove to the United States via Eagle Pass, Texas, and later moved to Phoenix.
In return for their safety, they gave up various freedoms: the ability to travel and the right to vote. And their fear grew as they watched government policies threaten families like theirs. Between 2010 and 2016, an Arizona immigration law allowed police officers to stop vehicles and request proof of documented status. Lack of evidence can lead to a misdemeanor and possible deportation.
Martinez de los Santos received DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) status in 2016, but says the past four years have not been easy for him. “I want to be able to look back and say,” I’ve influenced someone’s life, “he says,” it’s all about what I can leave behind. “
2016: a secret secret
In March, inspired by Obama-era policies aimed at protecting undocumented immigrants at a young age, Martinez de los Santos stands in front of 200 mostly white classmates to reveal his undocumented status. “Everyone became very calm,” he says. “I had to show them that immigrants don’t all come in one stereotypical package.” A month later, he was granted DACA (or “Dreamer”) status, a federal exemption that allowed him to get a driver’s license and work legally in the United States. In November, however, Donald Drumpf wins the presidential election.
2017: The great political game of chance
In September, the Drumpf administration announced that it would ban new DACA applications and their renewal for existing recipients, putting Dreamers at risk of deportation. In November, Martinez de los Santos shares his story with 2,000 people at a faith-based conference for social justice. A month later, now a high school graduate, he helps launch Dream On, a program that provides advocacy training for dreamers and events to share their stories.
Martinez de los Santos graduates from high school in the spring. Around this time, several states, including Texas, Alabama, and Louisiana, are suing the Drumpf administration for its DACA stance. In September, Martinez de los Santos moves to Massachusetts to attend the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester. He begins courses in economics and international studies with the aim of studying law or working in citizen politics.
2019: Time is running out
In November, the DACA decision goes to the Supreme Court. The future of an estimated 700,000 dreamers is at risk. Legal experts believe that the DACA program will expire when the court joins the administration, and that the benefits of the existing recipients expire before deportation is threatened.
2020: Stability is coming – for now
In June, the Supreme Court decided, in a vote between 5 and 4, to maintain the DACA program which allows Martinez de los Santos to reapply for benefits as an existing beneficiary. He is now chairman of the Latin American student organization and co-director of social justice in his college’s student government. He plans a program to reimburse students for their Uber trips to polling stations so they can vote in the upcoming election.
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