New England 'Dreamer' To Attend State Of The Union

Jan 30, 2018

When President Donald Trump delivers his State of the Union address Tuesday, his audience in the House chamber will include a number “Dreamers” who could face deportation as early as March — including one who grew up in Portland, Maine.

Christian Castaneda’s mother brought him here from El Salvador early this century, when he was four years old. Growing up on Portland’s peninsula, Castaneda says he sort of assumed he was a U.S. citizen.

“My parents really never talked to me about that. So throughout my years I went on knowing that I was a citizen and that I belonged because I had established friendships and an identity around myself,” he says.

It was a pretty ordinary Portland upbringing. Castaneda says his parents worked on the city’s waterfront; he played soccer and lacrosse and ran track; and geography and history were his favorite subjects. In eighth grade, he says, with a mixture of shyness and pride, he was voted “Student of the Year.”

It wasn’t until a few years ago, when he applied for his first job at a Wendy’s, that he was forced to confront his lack of citizenship.

“I wasn’t able to work because I didn’t have legal status. But luckily in 2012 DACA was passed and I was able to work and get a work permit that established me to work each two years,” Castaneda says.

Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, provides young immigrants brought to the U.S illegally as children a renewable deferral of deportation and work permits. The program’s fate is now uncertain. Trump recently announced DACA’s termination, but a California court issued an injunction, with further litigation expected.

Castaneda, 20, is a sophomore at the University of Southern Maine, aiming for a business degree. He has a full-time job as a tax preparer, he pays taxes and he helps his mother pay the mortgage. He says he has no connection with El Salvador — it’s a dangerous place, from what he hears.

“Gang members waiting for people outside the airports, ready to see who comes back from the United States, who has the money. It’s very scary stuff,” he says.

Trump has indicated he will announce a new immigration policy at the address, and last week floated an expansion of the DACA program along with a path to citizenship for DACA residents. But whether Congress will coalesce around that is different story.

“I don’t know, frankly, if they’ll bring a bill to the floor,” says Democratic U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree of Maine’s 1st District, who invited Castaneda to the State of the Union address.

Pingree says she believes the Senate can devise a solution that will protect DACA residents and other immigrants who lack permanent residency, such as Castaneda’s parents. But she says the House is another matter.

“The Republican majority and the president are held hostage by this small group of extremists who want to use this for leverage to get something else or just are mean-spirited about these 700,000 or 800,000 young people who are in this country and are virtually, you know, Americans,” she says.

Casteneda says if he got a chance to speak with Trump, he’d tell him that he wants the chance to serve this country in the Marines. And he’d tell Trump not to worry that he poses an economic threat to U.S. citizens — he wants eventually to start his own business and create jobs.

“That’s in my plans. I just want to create jobs. I’m not here to take anybody’s job. My family’s law-abiding citizens, we’re just here to work and live a good life,” he says.

Even if lawmakers manage to throw a lifeline to DACA residents such as Castaneda, uncertainty will remain for many of their families.

Trump has already announced that he will end the temporary protected status that has allowed Salvadorans such as Castaneda’s parents and an older brother to live and work here for nearly 20 years. So even if he avoids deportation, Castaneda’s family could face the end of the stable life they’ve built together in Maine.

This report comes from the New England News Collaborative, eight public media companies, including Rhode Island Public Radio, coming together to tell stories of a changing region, with support from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.