DACA Hits Home for AFSCME Members

“This is my home,” says correctional officer Maria Olanda Aguilera.  “I don’t know anything but this country. I would fight for this country – I would fight for this country before I fought for Mexico.”
“This is my home,” says correctional officer Maria Olanda Aguilera. “I don’t know anything but this country. I would fight for this country – I would fight for this country before I fought for Mexico.”

People debating about immigrants and DACA may not be aware that some fellow AFSCME members fall into this group. They work alongside us, keeping our coworkers and our communities safe.

Maria Olanda Aguilera is a prime example. She’s a Stillwater correctional officer and member of AFSCME Local 600.

Olanda Aguilera came to the U.S. from Mexico with her mom and some family members when she was 20 months old. She grew up in the Twin Cities. She’s only returned to Mexico once, when her mom went back to get a permit to work legally in the U.S.

“Growing up here, it was good,” says Olanda Aguilera, now 27. “I always knew I was here illegally and that always bothered me, but I took advantage of a lot of the culture, I embraced it as my own. I’m going to have the hardest time of all my family if we end up going back.

“This is my home,” she adds. “I don’t know anything but this country. I would fight for this country – I would fight for this country before I fought for Mexico.”

Olanda Aguilera and nearly 800,000 people like her are living in a state of uncertainty. They don’t know if they’ll be deported, or get to stay in the nation where they grew up.

Last September, the Trump administration announced it was cancelling the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. DACA allows people who came here illegally as kids with their parents to stay and get work permits; it did not set up a path to citizenship.

Without Congressional intervention, these young people will lose their DACA authorization and could be deported as early as March 5, depending on when their visas expire.

So far, Congressional Republicans have blocked any action on DACA. During the recent federal government shutdown, they were willing to throw 32,000 federal workers in Minnesota out of work, rather than join forces with Democrats to renew DACA and let kids who grew up here, stay here.

For DACA participants like Olanda Aguilera, the waiting and uncertainty are tough. She got a passport for her 7-year-old daughter, an American citizen, just in case they have to leave.

“I’m sad and just scared, scared for what’s to come,” Olanda Aguilera says. “A lot of us have kids, have significant others, have workplaces to go to. I feel like we really do impact America with what we do.”

Olanda Aguilera works in the segregation unit at the Minnesota Correctional Facility in Stillwater. She says correctional officers keep coworkers, inmates and the public safe. They break up fights and search the facility to make sure it’s secure.

“I’m serving Americans when I’m in the facility,” Olanda Aguilera says. “I’m helping people better themselves, rehabilitate themselves, which is huge. My job is to help people get jobs and stop the cycle of crime.”

Olanda Aguilera tries to reach the inmates through their children. If she sees an inmate in segregation for fighting, she’ll ask if he wants his kids to end up like him and challenge him to make better choices. It makes inmates think. As they leave the prison, she likes to tell them, “Man, I better not see you back.”

She’s part of a tight-knit team of correctional officers, and she’s shared her DACA status with them. “Everybody’s close. We have each other’s backs 100 percent.”

Before she came to the Department of Corrections, Olanda Aguilera worked in several jobs including loss prevention at Macy’s. She estimates about 80 percent of the shoplifters she saw were kids. That’s when she knew she wanted to make her career in criminal justice: She wanted to provide help to kids who weren’t getting it.

DACA opened the door to that dream.

“It was literally one of the happiest days of my life when it was announced,” she recalls. “I felt this is my opportunity to actually be an American. I didn’t have a license. I lived with my parents. I couldn’t get my own place,” she says.

“I knew something could happen at any moment where someone could ask me for my documentation and I wouldn’t have any. It was in the back of my mind always that my life could change in a matter of seconds, me being in the wrong place at the wrong time, it being the end of everything my mom and dad had built.”

DACA status helped her build her credit, get an apartment for her and her daughter, and finally apply at the Department of Corrections. She started attending college for criminal justice.

Her desire to give to the nation she calls home doesn’t end there. Olanda Aguilera has volunteered at her daughter’s Girl Scout troop and school, helping out with field trips, book fairs and picture day. She’s made meals for teachers during school conferences.

But that life could disappear if Congress doesn’t either save DACA or create a path to citizenship for young people. Olanda Aguilera expects Immigration and Customs Enforcement to come knocking on her door the date her DACA status expires in March 2019 to send her back to Mexico, a country she doesn’t know. She’s been trying to save money, just in case.

“If I have to leave, it will be the hardest thing,” she says. “It’s very dangerous. The family we do have there says that after sundown, you pretty much can’t go out. Either you’ll get mugged or you’ll get assaulted or you will get kidnapped. That’s everywhere. The violence, it’s spreading and it’s spreading fast.”

Olanda Aguilera has other worries: How will she find a job? How will she start over? Will people who get deported be labeled as the “deportation group” and face discrimination in Mexico?

If she must leave, she’ll take her daughter with her. She tries to keep the 7-year-old aware of what’s going on. The morning after the election, her daughter woke up and asked who had won. When Olanda Aguilera told her daughter it was Trump, the little girl started crying and asked, “Why? When he doesn’t like us?” She told her daughter they needed to stay positive.

When the Trump administration cancelled DACA, Olanda Aguilera had another hard conversation with her little girl.

“She cried and asked, ‘Are we going to have to go to Mexico? I don’t want to go.’ I told her there is a very strong possibility we may have to leave, and you will have to be OK with it.”

Olanda Aguilera does her best to stay strong for her daughter. But inside, she’s thinking, “I want to be American. I don’t want to go back. Don’t send me back.”