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Immigrant students tell of living in fear of deportation after DACA decision
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Diana Vela, a Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals recipient and fourth-year student at the University of North Georgia, poses for a portrait on Friday at the UNG Student Center in Oakwood. - photo by David Barnes
Our parents have always told us that if they are ever deported that we should stay in the United States and continue our education. They don’t want us to follow them to Mexico if anything should happen to them.
Indira Islas, former Gainesville High School student

The thought she could be uprooted from her family and the only place she knows as home began to weigh heavily on Diana Vela during her sophomore year at Gainesville High School in 2012.

At the time, encouraged by being one of the top honor students in school and having determined she would go to college and pursue her dreams, Vela began to have doubts about her future because of the uncertainty surrounding her immigration status.

Shaken, confused and running late to class, Vela remembers walking at the Gainesville High campus and seeing a young Latino student from Emory University who was there promoting the first ever Hispanic Organization Promoting Education conference. The Emory student was David Araya, one of the founders of HOPE.

“He took the time to sit down with me and talk about what the vision and mission of HOPE was,” Vela said. “I went to the conference and fell in love with everything HOPE stood for. I became so passionate I filled out the paperwork that same day to bring a chapter of HOPE to Gainesville High School.”

Vela is one of the approximately 800,000 immigrants who were brought illegally to the United States when they were children and have been protected from deportation through the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program put in place through a presidential order in 2012.

Last week, President Donald Trump announced his plan to rescind DACA in six months and urged Congress to address its status through legislation. 

In the wake of that decision, Vela said it’s important for her and other DACA recipients to share their stories.

Indira Islas, a Gainesville High graduate taking pre-medical courses at Delaware State University, became involved in HOPE through Vela.

“I feel it is my duty to speak and stand up for my family, friends and the other 800,000 DACA students,” the 19-year-old Islas told The Times.

Islas said she has two sisters ages 15 and 17 who are attending Gainesville High. Her parents, doctors in a region of Mexico where corruption and violence reigned, left their profession and migrated illegally to the United States. They took their children with them.

Indira has four other siblings born in the United States, a brother and two sisters. One of her great fears is her family being torn apart if her parents are deported.

The New York Times profiled Islas earlier this year to offer a glimpse of what it’s like to live day to day with the fear of deportation.

That fear became all too real in 2011 for Islas, who was 13 at the time. A fender-bender accident in which another driver was at fault ended with her mother being arrested by a Hall County Sheriff’s deputy for not having a driver’s license, Islas said. The mother was reported to federal immigration authorities, and she’s been living in the shadows since being released from jail on bond.

“Our parents have always told us that if they are ever deported that we should stay in the United States and continue our education,” Islas said. “They don’t want us to follow them to Mexico if anything should happen to them.”

Islas said she wants to give others the hope that’s been given to her by Vela and others.

“Just like others have stood up for me, I too have to do the same for others who are afraid,” Islas said. “I have finally found a reason to not be afraid to speak up, all while doing it with love and understanding.”  

Vela graduated from Gainesville High in 2014. She turned down a full scholarship at Armstrong State University in Savannah because she didn’t want to be far from her family and instead attends the University of North Georgia. She is majoring in marketing and would like to someday work with nonprofit organizations.

She’s been attending UNG four years, but still has two years to go because in Georgia she’s not allowed lower in-state tuition and must take fewer classes to afford paying higher out-of-state rates out of pocket. Vela, who turns 22 Oct. 4, continues her involvement with HOPE as a director of the organization and is politically involved in and outside of campus helping other Latino students facing a precarious future with their immigration status in limbo.

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Diana Vela, a Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals recipient and fourth-year student at the University of North Georgia, poses for a portrait on Friday at the UNG Student Center in Oakwood. - photo by David Barnes
“I know many more DACA students on campus; there’s at least a hundred of us on campus,” Vela said. “It is the most affordable institution to attend. Many DACA students see UNG as an open door for higher education. A lot of us don’t know what’s going to happen, but we’re grateful for the opportunity that UNG has allowed us. We hope to continue this journey.”

Vela thrives on hope even when faced with adversity. She was thrilled when her mother was sponsored to live and work permanently in the country with a green card. Then she was devastated to learn her mother was diagnosed with cancer.

“At about the same time, we learned my grandmother in Mexico also had cancer,” Vela said. “My mother was able to go see her in May before she died. I could not go. I was 4 when I last saw my grandmother.”

Watching the news livestreamed on her smartphone the day the decision was made to rescind DACA, Vela said she cried.

“This has sparked even more of a fire within us to be able to continue to fight on,” Vela said. “As many of us have said, we’re here to stay. We’ve been in the shadows too long. This is our home. This is all we know. We’re part of this country.”

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