Endangered Chesco 'Dreamers' live in limbo and fear

Anel Medina, 26, a registered nurse at Chester County Hospital stands on main street of her hometown, Kennett Square, where she has lived since she was 5.

Anel Medina, 26, a registered nurse at Chester County Hospital, walked confidently down State Street in her hometown, Kennett Square, past vendors setting up tents for the annual Mushroom Festival, where she worked during her Kennett High School years, past American flags flying from storefronts, and past restaurants where she waitressed to pay her way through college.

Medina is a hometown girl in every way except one. She was 5 years old when her family brought her to Kennett Square from Mexico. She’s undocumented. She’s not a U.S. citizen. She wants to be. She has never been given the opportunity. She’s still hoping.

Camera icon JESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer
Anel Medina walks down the main street of her hometown, Kennett Square on Friday, September 8, 2017.

“I am a Dreamer,” she said, meaning she is one of nearly 800,000 undocumented immigrants who were brought to this country as children and would have been offered a path to citizenship through the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act, but it has repeatedly failed to get through Congress since it was introduced in 2001.

Medina’s dream deferred took a hopeful turn in 2012 with the Obama administration’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). It allows an undocumented immigrant who came to the United States as a minor to obtain, in renewable two-year periods, a deportation deferment, a work permit, a driver’s license, a Social Security number, and an education.

When President Trump recently announced that he planned to rescind DACA in March, Medina was heartbroken.

“I was 21 when DACA came out,” she said. “Basically, DACA said, ‘The government will not deport you if you come out of the shadows.’ ”

She came out of the shadows. “Before DACA, you were afraid to go out, afraid to get stopped without having a driver’s license because law enforcement could ask for your legal status,” she said. “Before DACA, I would not have been able to get a nursing license or apply for a hospital job.”

Medina said that she and the nearly 800,000 young people who came out of the shadows and revealed themselves to the government are now facing a return to lives of fear. “Our lives have always been in limbo,” she said, because DACA is not a path to citizenship. It is, however, a renewable reprieve from the threat of deportation.

Medina said she had been hopeful that DACA would eventually lead to Congress’ passing a DREAM Act path to citizenship. “If DACA is revoked without something else in place, our lives are back in limbo,” Medina said. “It kind of feels like you’re in a country that doesn’t want you here.”

In reality, Medina said, Chester County needs the 3,000 immigrants who live and work there — who could be eligible for DACA.

“This is one of the wealthiest counties in Pennsylvania,” she said, walking down State Street. “Behind the elegant restaurants here, there are hardworking immigrants. We are also nurses, doctors, accountants, and lawyers. Some are business owners or they have management positions at local mushroom farms and landscape companies. We are in the economy, paying taxes, and nobody knows who we are.”

Meghan Klotzbach, regulatory manager for Mother Earth Organic Mushrooms in West Grove and Landenberg, knows who DACA Dreamers are because some of them are her employees.

Mother Earth is one of the 50 Chester County growers of Agaricus mushrooms that produced 405 million pounds of product during the 2016-17 growing season, valued at $391 million, according to the American Mushroom Institute in Avondale.

Trump’s threat to rescind DACA, Klotzbach said, “definitely affects us and makes us a little nervous about what’s going to happen in the coming months. We’re already in a labor shortage, and these are people we’re able to rely on for our workforce.”

Klotzbach said her company and the Chester County mushroom industry as a whole have always relied on immigrant workers.

“A long time ago, it was Italians,” she said. “Then it was Puerto Ricans, then Mexicans. Now, we’re seeing a shift toward more Guatemalans. Immigration fears and crackdowns are stopping us from moving forward.”

The arrest of 12 mushroom workers during an April raid by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents at a processing facility owned by the Kennett Square-based South Mill mushroom company stoked fears throughout the area.

“Knock on wood, we haven’t had any issue here with ICE raids,” Klotzbach said. “But a lot of people, who are legal to work here, fear their families being broken up or their friends being taken away. That’s affecting morale. A lot of people are making the decision to go back home and stay there.”

The threat to rescind DACA, she said, “has us fearing as a company that we’ll go into more of a labor shortage than we have now. They are highly skilled labor. We rely on them.”

Away from the mushroom farms, Chester County relies on DACA recipients who are health-care professionals like Medina and legal professionals like Gabriella Pedroza, 30, who works in an immigration law firm.

An undocumented Mexican immigrant who came to Kennett Square with her family when she was 5, Pedroza said DACA “was the opportunity of a lifetime to obtain a permit to work here legally, get a driver’s license, and be able to drive around without the fear of getting pulled over by police, leading to something worse. DACA gave me the ability to feel safe, to know I wasn’t going to be detained by immigration and deported.”

Pedroza, who has bachelor’s degrees in English and Spanish from a private Catholic university, said her DACA status expires in August 2018. Like Medina, Pedroza said she plans to be a Dreamers activist. “Once we hit the streets,” she said, “people will see the support this has.”

Medina demonstrated outside the Philadelphia offices of the Justice Department last week after Attorney General Jeff Sessions made his DACA announcement, She held a poster that read, “Undocumented registered nurse. #HeretoStay. #DACA #Dreamer #Unafraid.”

“There’s 800,000 of us Dreamers,” she said. “We’re young. We’re educated. It’s important to share our stories so more people know about us, see our faces. This will wake up the sleeping giant.

“One of my biggest fears is to go to bed at night and question whether I’ve done enough for the community, for immigrants,” Medina said. “I don’t want to be a bystander in our civil rights movement.”

This story has been updated to clarify that Chester County has 3,000 immigrant residents who could be eligible for DACA.

Camera icon JESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer
Anel Medina is one of Chester County’s DACA Dreamers able to get a social security number, a driver’s license, an education, and a good job, thanks to the renewable program for undocumented immigrants who came here as children. She is upset that President Trump said he plans to end the program. As many as 3,000 immigrants in Chester County could be eligible for DACA.