Graciela Nuñez hasn't been sleeping well since President Donald Trump announced on September 5 his decision to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. President Obama established the program via executive order in 2012 to protect immigrants who arrived to the United States as minors, known as "Dreamers," from deportation and grant them work permits.
As an aspiring law student and DACA recipient, Nuñez now feels like her future, along with those of nearly 18,000 undocumented Washingtonians, is uncertain. The federal government is no longer accepting new DACA applications.
"I always knew DACA was going to end. I just didn't know it would end this poorly," said Nuñez, who currently works as a legal assistant in Shoreline. "I thought it would end as it transitioned into a law. I never thought racism would be a motivating factor [for] this decision."
Washington State attorney general Bob Ferguson, joined by 15 other states and the District of Columbia, launched a lawsuit against the Trump administration on these grounds, alleging the decision to end DACA is discriminatory and violates the United States Constitution's equal protections clause and due process procedures.
"The president has made numerous statements on the campaign trail and in office disparaging Mexicans... nearly 80 percent of Dreamers are of Mexican descent," Ferguson said during a press conference on September 6. "If the overwhelming majority of Dreamers were Caucasian, does anybody really think this president would have [ended DACA]?"
Nuñez was 7 years old when she and her parents flew from Caracas, Venezuela, to Miami, Florida, in August 2002. She thought they were just vacationing at Walt Disney World. In reality, Nuñez's parents, both employees in the Venezuelan government, were fleeing reprisal after they became political dissidents during an attempted coup d'état against then-president Hugo Chávez. With just three suitcases and overstayed visas, Nuñez's family worked to rebuild their life in Miami.
Nuñez said she didn't truly understand what her undocumented status meant until the DREAM Act failed to pass in the United States Senate in 2010. That proposal would have provided undocumented youth a path to permanent residency. Around the same time, Florida governor Rick Scott campaigned on the promise to allow law enforcement officers to stop people and check their legal identification.
"I started thinking, 'Oh my gosh, when I turn 18, what if I wanted to go see an R-rated movie and I don't have an ID?'" said Nuñez, now 22. "It was that lack of identity that not having documents gives you. You never really feel like you're a person."
As a result of Florida's changing political climate, the Nuñez family relocated to Washington State, where they settled in Tukwila. During the cross-country move, Nuñez said she "felt like a fugitive."
"That really made me feel that this is what it means to be undocumented—to live in fear and to hide in the shadows," she said.
Nuñez applied for DACA after being accepted into the University of Washington's political science program. Her parents assured her that applying for DACA was an investment in her future. Now Nuñez and her parents fear that the information they provided to the federal government under a promise that it wouldn't be shared may be used against them.
Since Trump made his announcement on September 5, Nuñez said her parents are considering moving from their apartment complex in Tukwila out of fear of raids by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials.
"People are actually thinking about physically hiding, physically moving from where they last applied for their renewal," she said. "It's like Big Brother. You don't know who's looking at you or whether ICE vans are parked outside your window."
For Nuñez, deportation to Venezuela means being sent back to a country that was never really home. The family members she left behind upon coming to the United States are now "scattered all over the world."
Monserrat Padilla, 25, tells people that she's had to come out three times: as undocumented, as a queer man, and as transgender.
"The fear of coming out as queer within undocumented immigrant spaces is a very frightening thing to do," she said. "We're already undocumented. We already can't rely on broader support networks [such as] Social Security... For us, coming out as queer could exclude us from the only community we might have."
During Padilla's sophomore year of high school, her mother made the difficult decision to move back to Mexico after her brother's death. Padilla, who was brought to Los Angeles when she was 2 years old, was able to turn devastation in her family into action by becoming an activist in support of the national DREAM Act.
After she and her sister moved to Washington State to be with their father, Padilla, 25, became more conscious of her undocumented status when she enrolled at University of Washington as a political science student and became a DACA recipient. Without financial and institutional support, Padilla struggled to pay her tuition and ultimately decided to put her degree on hiatus to dedicate herself to volunteering with local organizations to pass the Washington State DREAM Act, which allowed undocumented students to receive state financial aid.
Padilla remains an active community organizer, having helped lead the movement against two anti-transgender state bathroom bills and ballot initiatives. Since Trump announced his decision to rescind DACA protections, Padilla turned her activism to helping undocumented LGBTQ individuals.
As a trans woman, Padilla said deportation could mean death if she doesn't "question if continuing my transition would be a safe thing to do" in a country with high rates of hate crimes and employment discrimination against LGBTQ people.
"I don't want to be in survival mode all the time in a country I'm supposedly a citizen in," she said.
Since the Trump administration announced its decision, state elected leaders, including Attorney General Bob Ferguson and Governor Jay Inslee, have highlighted the economic contributions of undocumented residents. Reports showed immigrants eligible for DACA contribute about $51 million annually in taxes and ending the program could cost the state $258 million in lost taxes over 10 years, according to the lawsuit from Ferguson's office.
Some immigrants are fed up with politicians measuring their value with dollars. "People should inherently recognize our human dignity and human worth," said DACA recipient Paúl Quiñonez, 22, who arrived in the United States when he was 7. "They should realize that they would never do this to an American-born person."
Quiñonez's family lives in Eastern Washington, where his father works in construction and his mother is a seasonal farm worker—jobs many US citizens see as undesirable.
Padilla expressed similar frustrations about the US government's flawed immigration system, which forces undocumented people to "try to live up to impossible standards" and "always validate our humanity at the cost of our labor."
Nuñez said she understands this frustration, but says it's important to recognize that the best "tools at our disposal are our stories."
"We've been paying into all of these social safety nets, yet we don't get those benefits," she said, referring to undocumented people's taxes going toward federal programs such as Social Security, Medicaid, and unemployment, which can only be accessed by US citizens.
Beyond economic impacts, Quiñonez emphasized that ending DACA is not just about their personal legal status—it's about protecting their families and communities, too. Shortly after Trump announced he would end DACA, information regarding recipients' and their families' privacy rights disappeared from a government website.
Trump administration officials now have access to almost a decade of residential history for Padilla, Nuñez, Quiñonez, and their families. They now worry this information can be used by immigration officials to target their communities for sweeps.
Anyone picked up during these sweeps is "collateral damage" in the eyes of ICE officials, said Quiñonez, also a member of the Washington Dream Coalition, which advocates for Dreamers.
Despite this uncertainty and Trump's culture of fear, all the immigrants who spoke with The Stranger said, given the chance, their parents would still choose to risk their livelihoods to bring their children to the United States for a chance at a better life. Now they see it as their opportunity to do the same for their immigrant communities.
"Our parents are not criminals," Nuñez said. "Our parents are victims of a broken immigration system, just like we are."