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February 22, 2018

Roberto Valadez stands outside the UTEP campus overlooking Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. Valadez came to the country illegally as a child. (Kirk Carapezza/WGBH News)

On Monday, the Supreme Court gave temporary relief to thousands of students who entered the country illegally as children. For the time being, they will be allowed to renew their status under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA. 

Those who live in conservative states continue to face a hostile political climate. 

WGBH's On Campus Radio visited a city and a campus in Texas located right on the US-Mexico border to take a look at DACA in a red state.

Roberto Valadez knows the road on Route 375 like the back of his hand.

For the past year, it’s the route he's taken to the University of Texas at El Paso.

On this morning, Valadez takes us just south of UTEP to Segundo Barrio, one of the city's oldest - and poorest - neighborhoods.

It's known as the other Ellis Island because over the years so many Mexicans and Central Americans have passed through here after crossing the border.

Today, a pedestrian bridge spans both the muddy Rio Grande and a see-through border fence.

Thousands move back and forth to work and go to school every day.

But for Valadez, that’s not an option.

"I've been here in the U.S. undocumented since I was one,” he explained. “So I've never been across the border because I can't come back."

Since 2012, people like Valadez have been protected by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. In blue states like Massachusetts, they also have the support of officials like Attorney General Maura Healey.

But since the election of President Donald Trump in 2016, the fate of these “Dreamers” has been uncertain, especially in red states like Texas, where state officials have done their best to make sure DACA is wiped off the books.

The Senate’s failure to find a compromise on DACA has left the fates of thousands of young people like Valadez in the balance. And with a March 5th deadline set by President Trump just around the corner, time is running out.

But even though these Dreamers are immigrants, many have never known another home.

Twenty three years ago, Valadez’s parents brought him and his sister here to El Paso hoping for a better, safer life. And they found it.

His dad worked in construction, picking up odd jobs in Segundo Barrio.

A mural in Segundo Barrio, a neighborhood in El Paso that is known as the "Other Ellis Island" due to its location on the U.S.-Mexico border. (Esteban Bustillos/WGBH News)

But when Valadez turned five, his parents had “the talk” and told him he was undocumented.

"At the time, like, you don't understand what legal status is so you're just like, 'I was born somewhere else, ok cool,’” Valadez said.

It wasn't until middle school that Valadez realized the consequences of being undocumented and he lost focus.

"I used to excel in school and then I just gave up,” he said. “I was like, 'What for? I can't go to college. And I can't get a job if I don't go to college, so why even try?'"

In 2012, President Obama invoked his executive power to establish DACA, providing temporary legal status to more than 700,000 children of illegal immigrants.

Nearly 80 percent of them are from Mexico, and 45 percent are enrolled in school

In Texas, 113,000 young people have signed up. That's compared to only 6,000 in Massachusetts.

Under DACA, Valadez got a customer service job, obtained a Texas driver's license, and - for the first time - traveled outside El Paso to visit family in California and go to Disneyland.

Above all, Valadez says the DACA program gave him hope. He graduated high school and enrolled in college, paying full, out-of-state tuition. He graduated in December.

“Now I'm going to go to school. Now I know it's for a purpose,” he said. “Now I know what the end goal is. I know what I can do. It was like my golden ticket. Everything changed."

DACA In A Red State

In Texas, state leaders oppose DACA.

Last year, Republican Attorney General Ken Paxton led ten states in suing the federal government to overturn it.

That case forced President Trump to phase out the program, unless Congress renews it next month.

In an interview with Fox News, Paxton said Obama violated the Constitution when he created DACA.

"For years, President Obama said he didn't have authority to change immigration law and then out of the blue he started making new laws,” Paxton said.

In Massachusetts, Attorney General Maura Healey blames congressional GOP leaders for inaction on immigration.

"The Republicans, given the power that they have right now, have done nothing,” Healey said in an interview with Boston Public Radio. “They continue to kick the can and it's at the risk and the expense of the American people and the future of our country."

The ongoing immigration debate is putting a lot of stress on DACA students.

Valadez says he'd have less anxiety if officials in Texas supported giving students like him - a clear path to citizenship.

“When you have the support… you feel better,” he said. “Psychologically, [it’s] like, ‘Oh they're with me. They support me.”

Undocumented On The Border

In El Paso, the realities of living on the border are present every day. UTEP’s campus is only about 500 yards away from Ciudad Juarez and border security agents patrol the city on bike.

They even bike through UTEP’s green campus planted in the barren foothills overlooking Mexico.

When Valadez spots them, despite his status, he turns the other way.

"I get nervous, you know, with the climate now,” he said. “It's scary."

To garner more support on campus, Valadez helped found a group called Education Not Deportation and he's been urging cautious administrators to be more vocal in support of DACA.

“I would like more programs for undocumented students -- more scholarships,” Valadez said.

Administrators we spoke with on campus say they're walking a political tightrope.

"I think all of our leaders are very much protecting and supporting,” said Gary Edens, vice president for student affairs at UTEP. “In fact, I think that's why they've been a little less vocal."

Edens says the university supports the estimated two hundred DACA students on campus and administrators have been referring them to local immigration attorneys.

As state employees, Edens explains they're not allowed to openly advocate for DACA to continue.

"Our job is to follow the law and this battle will take place in the political arena,” he said. “And when we hear a result sooner or later we will then apply those parameters to our unique situation here on the border."

Back in Segundo Barrio, Roberto Valadez gazes at the fence separating the U.S. and Mexico.

Businesses in Segundo Barrio heavily resemble those in Mexico. (Esteban Bustillos/WGBH News)

In October, he renewed his DACA status. It expires in two years.

He said he thinks young Dreamers like him have been used as a political football to get the extended border wall the President has been promising.

But even if an agreement is reached in Congress that gives Dreamers a chance to stay in America in exchange for increased border security and drastic reductions in legal immigration, it’s not a deal Valadez is willing to make.

“You can't throw another community under the bus just so that you can get ahead,” he said.

WGBH News' Esteban Bustillos contributed to this report.

This is the first of a two-part series. Listen to our story on conservative college Republicans on the border here. 

Web Extra: An extended interview with Roberto Valadez.

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