Invisible Americans: A queer DACA recipient contemplates an uncertain future

(Poe immigrated to the states from São Paulo, Brazil when she was just 6 years old. Graphic by Shayna Yacyshyn)

Imagine living in this country for as far back as you can remember. Your friends and family live here. You’ve gone to school and graduated here. You learned how to drive here. You opened a savings account here. You learned how to read and write here. You learned how to tie your shoes here.

You experienced the tragedy of 9/11. You celebrated when Osama Bin Laden was killed. You witnessed Barack Obama become the first African-American president. You watched Boston police chase Dzhokhar A. Tsarnaev across Watertown on live T.V. following the Boston Bombings.

And yet, every two years you have to spend hundreds, sometimes thousands, of dollars to renew a document that allows you the same luxuries your neighbors and peers are given as a birthright – the ability to work, drive and study in the United States.

This is the life of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) receivers. Brought to this country as young children, DACA receivers are granted permission to stay in the country for two years at a time.

Once the two years are up, immigrants must reapply. This process not only costs them the DACA and the lawyer’s fees – it costs them peace of mind as well.

And life has never been more uncertain for DACA recipients than now. President Donald Trump has promised mass deportations of undocumented immigrants and, at certain points during his campaign, to eliminate the DACA program entirely.

Currently, over 780,000 immigrants are protected under the DACA program in the United States. In Massachusetts alone there are 12,058 DACA recipients. At Framingham State, there are 31 DACA students currently enrolled.

This week, The Gatepost is publishing the first of three articles depicting the lives of MetroWest DACA recipients, and what the policy has, and has not, given to them.

All names have been changed to protect the individuals featured.

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Poe drove 65 mph through the suburban neighborhoods of New Jersey, anxiously searching for a white house.

When she finally found the home, there was a small, curly-haired woman waiting outside for her.

Poe was so struck by the sight of her that she gasped and drove right by.

After performing an illegal U-turn and pulling over in the middle of the street, Poe ran to the woman and kissed her.

Poe had driven six hours straight from Ashland, Massachusetts to meet the woman, Court, and ask her to be her girlfriend.

The trip, which had not been approved by her mother, was a moment of liberation for Poe, a queer undocumented immigrant from Brazil.

“It was the first time I actually drove somewhere really far without any parents,” she said. “To be honest with you, I was 19, 20 at the time and I didn’t ask my mom’s permission. I was like, ‘I’m going and I already have it booked and that’s it. I’m driving.’ It was the first time I was really like, ‘I’m doing this and you can’t stop me.’”

Two years prior, a trip such as this would have been impossible for Poe, who could not obtain a license or a job because of her legal status.

However, when the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy was instituted by the Obama Administration in June 2012, Poe was finally able to acquire her license, her Social Security number and a legal job.

For the first time, she had a chance to have a real life.

Immigration and

assimilation

Poe was just 6 years old when she left her home in São Paulo, Brazil for Boston.

She said her parents decided to immigrate to the United States to give her and her brother “better opportunities.

“Plus,” she said, “Brazil is really dangerous.”

Poe’s father was “constantly” being robbed and “held up” right outside their home in São Paulo. The robbers would stalk their home, and knew about her father’s family, she said.

One week, their car was stolen. The next, her father bought plane tickets to Boston.

“We were kind of well-off in Brazil – we had a nice house and everything. And we left it all behind,” she said.

When they first arrived in Boston, Poe and her family stayed with her aunt in a one-bedroom apartment in Brighton. Including her aunt’s husband and roommate, there were six people living there.

However, her father lived in Framingham during the week to work.

“On the weekends, he would drive back home and be with us for two days in Boston,” she said.

Her family couldn’t afford the rent in the MetroWest area because they had just arrived, she said.

When Poe enrolled in Brighton schools, she was “jumped forward” a year to sixth grade after taking a placement test, while her brother was sent back a grade.

Poe didn’t know any English when she started school. “It was pretty horrible,” she said. “We had English classes to learn the language, but we didn’t know anything. I couldn’t talk to anybody. My mom, especially, and my dad – they couldn’t do anything. They couldn’t go to the grocery store by themselves.”

After a year and a half, Poe said her family found an apartment on Second Street in Framingham.

“Which is like, the safest place,” Poe said, laughing. “I’m being sarcastic, obviously.”

While her mother spent her days cleaning houses and her father painting them, Poe and her brother stayed home alone, since her parents could not afford a babysitter.

In Framingham, “the whole school was Brazilian,” according to Poe, and she was able to learn in both English and Portuguese.

She said since she already knew how to read and write in Portuguese, reading was her ultimate tool in learning the English language.

“I ate books when I was younger,” she said. She also learned from television shows, such as Nickelodeon’s “SpongeBob SquarePants.”

Poe’s parents, however, still struggled to learn English.

“I did all the translating for my parents pretty much my entire life, since I was like 7,” said Poe. “If they went to the bank, I’d have to go with them. I had to pay the bills for them.”

Right before she entered middle school, Poe and her family moved to Ashland after finding a cheaper apartment through their former neighbors on Second Street.

“It was two bedrooms, so we finally got to have our own room, my brother and I,” said Poe. “It literally wasn’t until I was 21 that I got my own room.”

She added many people have been “creeped out” to learn she shared a room with her brother. “We always shared a room. Always. So it was never weird to me.”

Most of Poe’s new neighbors in her apartment complex were also from Brazil, which provided her with a sense of community, she said.

“The complex is kind of what saved me when I was younger,” she said. “No matter how annoying school was, I was able to come home and see everyone.”

She added, “We used to play hide and seek at 11:30 at night and get the cops called on us every other day. It was just fun. We had a little community.”

While the Ashland apartment was bigger and nicer, transitioning from Framingham public schools to Ashland schools was hard, said Poe.

“It was coming from an entirely Brazilian-filled school,” she said. “I think I could count on one hand the number of people who weren’t white [in Ashland]. … So, we kind of cliqued together.”

Poe said the girls she was friends with were “pretty bad people.

“But, they were all I had because they were the only ones I got along with because of our language,” she said.

During this transition, Poe started experiencing a lot of changes.

“That was when everything happened. I got my period, so puberty started. Everything in my entire body started changing. I got huge boobs in like, a month. I had no idea how to control any of it,” she said. “I went from the skinniest little girl to a fluff ball in the span of a summer.”

When Poe returned to school in the fall, she was bullied “every day for everything,” she said.

It wasn’t until high school, when she joined the theater club, that she had found a place where she belonged.

Poe’s American dream

Poe joined the theater club during her freshman year of high school, after some coaxing from a friend.

“I always wanted to sing and act, but I was always afraid to. I finally did it, and it was the best thing I’ve ever done, hands down,” she said. “High school was still hard, but at least I had theater to fall back on.”

Theater, according to Poe, gave her a “purpose” and “a reason to go to school.”

Poe has suffered from depression and anxiety since she was very young, she said, and she would often miss school because of it.

“Even if I didn’t go to school, I would literally sneak in after school to go to theater rehearsal,” she said.

She auditioned for the winter play, and while she didn’t end up with a part, she still worked “house,” selling tickets and showing audience members to their seats.

That spring, she participated in the club’s Musical Revenue, which they put on to raise money for a winter musical the following year.

The students used their own money to put on the show, during which they performed multiple Broadway songs.

Poe made her debut performance, singing, “Mama, I’m a Big Girl Now.” She had never sung in front of anyone before. 

Before the show, she was so nervous she was shaking. Many of her peers were worried she would vomit.

But as soon as she walked on stage, all her fears melted away.

“I got out there, and I killed it,” she said. “My dad came out to see me, and my mom came out to see me and that was a big thing for me, too, because they saw me sing and they were like, ‘Oh my God.’ They had only heard me sing in the bathroom, because I’m so shy.”

When she finished the song, and the audience cheered, Poe knew she wanted to be on stage for the rest of her life.

Poe thrived in high school, participating in multiple shows, taking Honors and AP classes, and starting the Gay Straight Alliance.

College never seemed like a possibility to Poe, she said, until her guidance counselor suggested she apply.

“I was like, ‘You’re right. I’ll just go for it.’ I applied to like, 12 schools. I got into all of them,” she said.

One of the schools was Emerson, a Boston college known for its performing arts program.

“I got the email that I got accepted and I literally almost passed out,” she said.

Poe said ideally, she would have moved to Boston, attended Emerson and “become whatever it is they would have helped me become.”

She even went to the school’s orientation, hoping to find someone who could help her make attending the school a possibility.

Poe and her family lived “paycheck to paycheck,” and could not afford tuition. Additionally, because she is undocumented, she could not apply for financial aid.

Her mother and brother accompanied her to the orientation, where they learned about classes and programs, discussed the cost and toured the school.

When the tour brought Poe and her family into Emerson’s Cutler Majestic Theater, she was speechless.

Poe said the theater was “the most incredible place I had ever seen in my entire life.

“It had chandeliers and everything was gold. It was unheard of. It was like a dream,” she said. “I knew I couldn’t go.”

At one point, an orientation leader said the cost of one year was approximately $40,000, without room and board. Her brother turned to her and said, “You’re not going to this school. You know that, right?”

She answered, “Yeah, I know.”

Poe spoke to a few orientation leaders about her immigration status and what it would mean for her education. However, “to them, it didn’t even cross their minds I could go to this school.”

According to Poe, going to school just wasn’t a possibility.

“We didn’t have the money – that’s it.”

Poe had also applied to Framingham State University, believing it to be her best chance at obtaining a college degree.

However, the University ended up being the only school that asked Poe for a copy of her passport and visa.

“That let me down so bad,” she said. “Everyone was like, ‘Try FSU. It’s such a good school and it’s right there. You can still be away from home,’ and I was like, ‘You’re totally right,’ and then it was like, ‘Just kidding!’”

Poe said she stopped responding to FSU’s emails.

“I freaked out,” she said. “I was scared. I was like, ‘What if I do this and somehow they catch me and deport me or something?’ That’s just how I thought back then, because we didn’t have DACA. I didn’t have a Social Security number. I didn’t have anything. I was unheard of in this country.”

Today, Poe still wants to attend college. If she can’t be on stage, she wants to become a psychiatrist or a social worker.

“Anything to do with kids like me, that felt alone and didn’t feel like they had anybody,” she said. “I want to be of help to them, because I never had that growing up.”

After she graduated high school and finally received DACA, she started working legally for the first time.

Her first job was a part-time position at the AMC Theateres in Natick. Because she was only paid minimum wage and had so few hours, she had to get a second job as a secretary and cashier at a car dealership.

“I had three part-time jobs, technically. I was at two car dealerships and AMC,” she said. “I would do morning shifts at Honda from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m., and then get in at AMC from 4 p.m. to close. So, I was out of the house the entire day making zero money because it’s $8 an hour.”

She added, “I was working to pay for my gas, at that point.”

Nearly two years ago, Poe was hired as a teller at a bank in the MetroWest area. She is no longer making minimum wage and has full benefits.

Poe reapplied to MassBay Community College, and was planning on attending the following fall.

“I was like, ‘OK. Next year I’m going to go. I’m going to do this.’ And then, my dad left,” she said. “And then, I couldn’t do it anymore, because I had to suddenly be an adult and pay rent and all the utility bills. I didn’t have money for school anymore.”

Her father had been cheating on her mother through the messaging app WhatsApp with someone in Brazil.

“My mom found out and that was that. She kicked him out that same night,” she said. “She said, ‘Get out of my house!’ And he did.”

Poe said her parents’ separation was “the hardest thing I’ve ever been through.”

Because her mother only worked cleaning houses occasionally, the bills became Poe’s responsibility.

Her mother still doesn’t speak English or have a Social Security number. “Even if she wanted to, she can’t legally work anywhere,” Poe said.

“I went from being the daughter to the head of the household,” she said. “All my money that I was making went to bills, and I had to become an adult in literally a month.”

She added, “That was the worst year of my life.”

A year later, Poe said she and her mother are “finally” used to life without her father.

Her mother’s boyfriend moved in, and started helping with the bills. However, Poe is still essentially her mother’s care-taker.

She still drives her mother everywhere, since she has no license, and translates for her wherever they go.

“I could make her a dependent on my taxes,” said Poe.

Currently, Poe said, there is still no way she can attend college.

“I’m in a really bad rut right now. I can’t go to school. I can’t afford it. And that’s the only way I could somehow get a future,” she said. “At this point, I’m literally just waiting for a miracle, or a chance to do something.”

She added, “I’m just trying to survive at this point.”

Poe said going from being an AP and honors high school student, to a bank teller is “discouraging.

“I was always told that education is the most important thing for you to do, and that you should broaden your horizons and try your best,” she said, “and I tried very, very hard.”

She added, “What’s the point of me trying so hard my entire high school career and having it drop dead in the end?”

Poe said she wasn’t brought to the states by choice, and that if her family had remained in Brazil, her story might be different.

“If I was in Brazil right now, I’d probably be some hot-shot psychiatrist somewhere at this point. I’d probably be making thousands of dollars,” she said. “But, here I am – 21, making $14 an hour at a bank.”

Poe said she and immigrant children like herself didn’t have a choice in coming to the states.

“I was a child. I didn’t know what was happening. And, it kind ruined my whole life,” she said.

She added, “All the bratty kids who get Fs but still get to go to college because their daddies pay for it – it makes me crazy,” she said. “It shows you that hard work doesn’t pay off. Ethics don’t exist anymore. It’s all about money and if you belong here, which is a load of s–t.”

Applying for DACA

When DACA became available, Poe started working on her application.

Her brother’s mother-in-law worked in a social security office, and was “on top of it,” said Poe.

“She’s the one who got us the forms. She printed them all out for us and helped my brother fill out his form. I pretty much just took his form and copied down everything she wrote,” she said.

While many undocumented immigrants hired lawyers to help them, Poe felt confident filling out the forms herself.

After receiving the mother-in-law’s help the first time she filled it out, she was able to reapply by herself every year since.

“It’s very long. There’s lots and lots of forms to fill out. It’s expensive,” said Poe. “This last time, I paid about $650 just to be able to work in this country for two years.”

Poe applied for her latest DACA in January, and received confirmation that she had been accepted in March.

“You’re supposed to apply two months before your expiration date, because if you let it expire, you’re screwed,” said Poe. “Nothing is valid any more.”

After applying, applicants must have their biometrics, such as fingerprints, taken.

“So you go to Boston, waste a day of work, and they take your biometrics. You wait in this scary-ass office, which is literally the immigration office, so it’s terrifying,” said Poe.

Waiting in the office – the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services – is a nerve-wracking experience, according to Poe.

“You go in there and you can’t use your phone. You can’t do anything,” she said. “And it says it everywhere – Immigration Services. And you know everyone in that room is an immigrant. You just know it. It’s so scary because it’s literally a hot spot.”

She added, “If any cop was bored, they could just go in there and say, ‘OK, deporting you, you and you.’ He just could.”

Following the appointment, Poe said, applicants wait for their DACA cards in the mail.

“After that, you’re good for two years,” she said.

Essentially, DACA gave Poe a right to exist in the country.

“It provided me a way to get a Social Security number so I can pay my own taxes and actually have a job, and have a license and get a vehicle – all things you need in the country,” she said. “You can’t get anywhere without a job and a license here. It’s impossible.”

Otherwise, Poe said, she would have to go back to Brazil – back to a family and community she “barely knows.”

While DACA has certainly improved Poe’s life, she said it is still “not enough.

“I can’t blame Obama for that, because he did what he could for us. The fact that he got this much done is impressive, considering the Congress at the time,” she said.

However, DACA does not provide Poe with citizenship.

“It doesn’t protect me. If for any reason they want to deport me, they absolutely can. [DACA] won’t keep them from sending me back,” she said. “It’s nothing.”

Poe said ideally, the government would grant citizenship to immigrants who have been protected under DACA for over five years.

“After proving yourself for all this time – that you’re able to keep a job, pay your taxes, not get into any criminal problems – there is no reason not to,” she said.

She added, “DACA is very, very helpful. But it doesn’t accumulate to anything.”

Life as a queer

immigrant

Since Poe was 10, she knew she had feelings for girls. Her mother would tell her she was just confused.

“I’ve been coming out to my mom for my entire life,” Poe said, “and she just never believed me.

“She’d be like, ‘Oh, you don’t know what you want yet. You’ve never kissed anybody. You have no idea what you want,’” she said.

So, Poe created a space where her feelings would be taken seriously – she started the Gay Straight Alliance (GSA) club at her school.

She recounted coming out for the first time during a GSA meeting. “I said, ‘I’m never going to be able to come out because my mom is going to hate me and kick me out of the house.’ I was crying in front of everybody. And now, I’m out and it’s good.

“I was obviously in denial because of being Brazilian,” said Poe. Being queer “is looked at as a horrible thing because of religion, and people tend to be really old-fashioned in Brazil.”

Poe said her mom refused to believe her until she was 19, when she broke up with her boyfriend.

Poe and her boyfriend were close friends and worked together at the AMC Theateres.

“We kind of just became something else,” she said. “It’s not that I didn’t love him, because I definitely did, and I still think about him all the time. We got along so well and his parents loved me and I loved his parents and it was great. It was just me knowing that that’s not what I wanted.”

She added she was “scared” of being intimate with him, or any man.

Before Poe decided to break up with him, she spoke to her mother one night when they were both home drunk.

“We just started talking about it because it was on my mind and she’s my mom, so I was like, ‘I can tell her anything.’ So I just blurted it out,” she said.

“I told her, ‘I don’t think that I like guys,’” she said. “And I was with somebody that I really, really loved. Mentally, we really loved each other.”

This time, Poe said, her mother couldn’t tell her she didn’t know what she wanted.

After the breakup, her mother dropped the topic, according to Poe, and the drunken conversation was forgotten.

That is, until she started dating Court.

Poe met Court online, and flirted with her for months through phone calls and text messages.

Eventually, Poe made the decision to drive down to New Jersey and see Court, and officially ask her out.

Poe said she “pretty much lied” to her mother, and told her, “I’m going to New Jersey for no random reason, and I have someone I know from online that I’m going to hang out with. She had no idea that it was Court. She had no idea that I stayed at her house or anything like that.”

Eventually, however, Poe’s mother saw pictures of the two of them on Facebook. When Poe arrived home, she told her mother the truth.

“I was like, ‘I have a girlfriend now,’” she said. “And then I told her about her, and she couldn’t say anything. She was very, very sad. It was weeks of her crying by herself. And then she would try to pretend like she wasn’t, but I knew she was.”

Poe said she never understood why being herself would make her mother cry.

Her mother forced her to tell her father, something that terrified Poe because of all the “homophobic things” he had said before.

“I really thought I was getting kicked out of the house. I really did,” she said.

But when she told her father, he said he already knew.

“He said he was totally aware that I was,” she said. “And he told me to keep it quiet.”

Poe’s parents wanted her keep her sexuality a secret until they “got used to it,” she said.

“They both wanted me to stay in the closet,” she said.

And she did, at least for a few months. “I did what they asked just because I knew it was something that was really hard for them to grasp. The fact that they didn’t kick me out of the house was a really big deal for me,” she said.

Eventually, Poe invited her girlfriend to come visit her, and stay with her family. During the first trip up, her mother would not let Court sleep in the same room as Poe, forcing her to sleep on the couch in the living room instead.

Even though her parents knew she was dating Court, the couple was still very reserved around them.

“I didn’t act touchy with her around them. We were very, very secretive, which was just pretty sad, to be honest with you,” she said.

Poe said not being able to show simple signs of affection, such as holding Court’s hand, in front of her parents was devastating.

“I just wanted to respect my dad and my mom’s wishes,” said Poe. “They were ashamed, and they were trying to figure out a way to be comfortable with it.”

When the strain became too much, Poe spoke to her mother about Court’s sleeping arrangements, and begged her to let Court stay in her room.

“I was like, ‘We’re always apart. We’re never, ever together. For you to not let her sleep in the same bed as me is ridiculous. It doesn’t make any sense to me. You know we’re together. It’s not like we won’t find a way to do whatever it is you’re worried about,’” she said.

Poe said her mother will often ask questions about her sex life – questions she would never dream of asking her brother.

“To her, sex is guy/girl. So, it’s like penetration and that’s it,” she said. “I never understood. It’s just not true.”

According to Poe, her mother will ask, “Who is the guy?” and “Who does what?”

Poe said, “I was always like, ‘What kind of question if that?’ She’d be like, ‘Who is the man?’ and I’d be like, ‘Neither of us. … That’s the point.’”

Eventually, Poe said, she “stopped lying” and started telling family and friends about Court.

“I finally put our relationship status on Facebook. I started posting pictures of us on there. That was like the big outing moment,” she said.

While no family members have been outright about their views, many don’t want to speak to her any more.

“They’re just uncomfortable,” she said. “So when we go out, they don’t ask. We don’t mention it. We don’t talk about it. That entire part of my life they completely ignore – it’s not relevant to them,” she said.

“In a lot of ways, I think that’s worse. I’d rather them respect me as a person than pretend I’m not real or that what I’m going through isn’t real,” she added.

While Poe loved Court, about four months ago, she decided to break up with her. Poe’s depression and anxiety were getting worse, and she didn’t want to hold Court back.

“I was just in a really, really low place in my life,” she said. “And I’m only going lower and lower right now, to be honest with you. I knew that I was only going to get worse, and I knew that she loved me too much to realize she deserves better, and she would just stay. She would let herself suffer and be with me because I’m her first everything.”

Poe said near the end of their relationship, she started “shutting down.” She couldn’t be open with her feelings, and she would go days without speaking to Court.

In December, Court flew up to see Poe. Three days in, while driving around in the car, Poe told her they couldn’t be together anymore. Hours later, Court had booked a plane ticket home to New Jersey.

Poe dropped her off at 3 a.m. the following morning, and she hasn’t seen her since.

What now?

It’s a Sunday evening in early April. Poe sits in a booth in Los Cabos, a Mexican grille in Ashland just a few miles from her home. Sporting a pixie cut, thick, black glasses and a Tom Brady jersey, Poe sucks down a mango margarita.

She is still living at home with her mother, and paying most of their bills. She is still working as a teller in a bank. She is still unable to afford college.

Two weeks ago, she started seeing a psychiatrist in Framingham. According to Poe, she is at “the lowest point” in her life.

Poe said she would be depressed regardless of her situation. However, her immigration status does exacerbate her illness.

“It’s hard. You don’t want to keep going anymore,” she said. “After going through so many dilemmas and so much suffering, you start wondering if it’s all worth it – if you should keep going.”

However, Poe believes immigrants, and people like her, have to keep fighting, no matter what.

“You can’t give up. I’ve always had dilemmas in my way. I’ve always had things go wrong,” she said. “You just aren’t able to give up or feel sorry for yourself. There is never an easy way out. You just have to push through.”

And while Poe and immigrants like herself continue to fight daily to survive in this country, that is all they can do – survive.

Unable to return to Brazil – a county she barely remembers – and unable to really live in the states – her home for 15 years – Poe is stuck in limbo.

Without a clear path toward citizenship, there is no real future for Poe, or anyone like her, in the United States.

There is no way to pay for college.

There is no ticket out of poverty.

There is no American dream.

“You’re in this country of opportunity,” Poe said, “but you can’t do anything about it.”

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