Abdiel Gonzalez has always liked history.
In school, he enjoyed reading about the war and how soldiers helped protect the country. He dreamed of being one of those soldiers when he grew up, but he knew that wouldn’t be possible. Not unless the law changed.
Gonzalez grew up in Arizona without legal status.
The story goes, he says, that his godparents took him through the port of entry when he was just six months old.
“They told the officer I didn’t have an ID, and he waved us through,” the 19-year-old said.
Amid the political impasse on immigration reform, young people like Gonzalez have more support from members of both parties than any other illegal-immigrant group — but it’s still an uphill battle.
In the bill the Senate passed in June, lawmakers offered “Dreamers” — youths who were brought to this country illegally by their parents and who meet certain criteria — a more expedient path to legal permanent status and eventual citizenship.
This summer, Republicans Eric Cantor and Bob Goodlatte said they are working on a so-called KIDS Act. But a draft bill hasn’t been made public, and it’s unclear if it will include a path to permanent legal status.
Even though many politicians on both sides of the aisle say they sympathize with the plight of young people who came to the United States through no choice of their own, opponents argue the law comes first.
“If you legalize people that are here in this country unlawfully and you waive the application — even if they were children and you waive the application of the law on their parents, especially if they are the ones that brought them to commit this act, then who do you enforce the law against?” Rep. Steve King, a Republican from Iowa, said during a House Judiciary Committee hearing.
“I think we have to preserve the rule of law so that this country can last for many, many generations into the future,” he said.
In June, all but six House Republicans voted to defund the administration’s “deferred action for childhood arrivals” program, or DACA, that provides Dreamers relief from deportation and a work permit that is renewable after two years. The amendment from King didn’t go further than that, and the program is still in place.
More than half a million people have applied nationwide — about 20,000 from Arizona — in the past year.
Gonzalez was among the first ones to get deferred action in September 2012.
“For me, it was like a miracle when I got it,” he said. “All these 18 years of struggling — finally there was some hope. Everything I had fought for was being compensated.”
Unlike many other youths who find out about their illegal status when they apply for college or try to get a driver’s license, Gonzalez learned about his when he was 10.
“My friend Matthew would always invite me to San Carlos where they had a home, but my parents would never let me go,” he said.
Eventually they told him that if he left, he wouldn’t be able to come back.
“I felt trapped,” Gonzalez said. “I knew nothing would be the same.”
While classmates went across the border to get a haircut, grab a bite or play soccer, he had to stay home in Rio Rico.
Even a trip to Tucson, about 60 miles north, wasn’t possible because there’s a Border Patrol checkpoint on Interstate 19, less than 20 miles from his house.
With deferred action, he now has a job caring for pets in nearby Amado and goes through the checkpoint every day.
But the benefits of DACA, as the program is known, are limited and uneven nationwide, experts say.
“We see that DACA has provided young adult beneficiaries with wider access to the American dream,” said Roberto Gonzales, an assistant professor of education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, who has researched Dreamers for 10 years.
Many have opened bank accounts, gotten credit cards, pay in-state tuition, he said.
Still, “many of our respondents are very worried about what’s going to happen after two years, what’s going to happen to their family members and friends.”
Together with the D.C. Immigration Policy Center, Gonzales is conducting a survey of DACA-eligible young adults throughout the country. The goal is to survey as many as 5,000 participants to understand the impact of the program.
Arizona is one of two states that don’t issue driver’s licenses to DACA recipients, which for many was one of the main benefits of applying for the program.
Gonzalez sometimes has to drive himself to work, and he fears being pulled over and eventually deported. But he has no other option, he said. He has to work.
Traveling to their native countries has also proved challenging and confusing, the Immigration Policy Center reported. There’s no guarantee they will be allowed back into the United States and they can only go for humanitarian, educational or employment purposes.
Luis Parra, a local attorney who represents Gonzalez, applied for advanced parole, essentially a permission slip from the government to allow Gonzalez to travel to Nogales, Sonora, to see his grandmother, who has cancer. The request was denied because she’s not considered an immediate relative.
Dreamers need to be given an opportunity to become legal permanent residents, Parra said.
“A lot of these kids are going to help out the economy once you bring them into the mainstream of society,” he said.
Parra is also helping Gonzalez adjust his status through his wife, Claudia, a U.S. citizen from Texas. But that has also turned out to be more complicated than anticipated.
Gonzalez needs to prove the customs officer actually waved him through when he was a toddler.
He could return to Mexico and apply from there, but he risks being barred from returning for three years for living in the country illegally for more than six months as an adult.
Gonzalez turned 18 in January and didn’t get deferred action until September — eight months later.
“DACA recipients ... we are just students who want to have an education and contribute to the growth of this country, but we can’t do so with so many setbacks,” Gonzalez said in the living room of his Rio Rico home. The walls are decorated with pictures of him as a kid and on the day he wed his high-school sweetheart. She wore a short white dress and held a bouquet of red roses. He wore a buttoned-down red shirt — his favorite color.
The two met as teens singing in the church choir in 2009.
They were together through high school and got married in March. He was 19. She was 18.
He liked that she got along with his parents. She liked that he was sweet and always willing to lend a hand.
She wants to study early childhood education, and he wants to work with the elderly. But he still dreams of one day becoming a Marine.
“I’ll keep fighting and staying positive,” he said. “I’m going to prove myself and do something great for this country.”