SLO County Dreamer waits and worries: Deportation stories ‘scare the hell out of me’

For Matias Bernal, every new day is a roller coaster of emotions.

That’s because Bernal, 29, is a “Dreamer,” an immigrant who was brought to the United States illegally as a child.

Bernal — like about 200,000 other California Dreamers — relies on the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, also known as DACA, which gives them temporary protection from deportation and allows them to apply for educational aid and obtain work permits.

The fate of DACA has been up in the air since September, when President Donald Trump’s administration announced it would phase out the program.

Now, it’s become a key factor in congressional government funding negotiations. Some Democrats say they won’t vote for funding unless they’re guaranteed protections for DACA recipients, which could lead to a government shutdown.

“It feels like DACA’s become the hot potato,” said Bernal, the interim associate director of RISE in San Luis Obispo, a nonprofit that helps survivors of sexual assault or intimate partner violence.

Before DACA: A life in the shadows

Bernal and the nearly 700,000 other Dreamers living in the United States hang on every new DACA development — after all, the lives they’ve built in the United States are at stake.

“Most of us, if not all of us, didn’t have much of a say if we would come to this country,” he said.

California has been Bernal’s home since he was 14, when he moved to the Fresno area from Mexico City. Bernal’s mother sent him to live with relatives after he escaped an attempted kidnapping back home.

“My mom was pretty afraid something like that would happen again,” he said.

He was smuggled over the border in a van and then traveled from Los Angeles to Fresno.

Bernal knew only basic English when he started attending high school, which he said was “scary” and “intimidating.” But over time, he became an active part of student government and other groups.

About 2006, when the time came for Bernal to begin looking at colleges, his immigration status prevented him from applying to some of the more prestigious schools he aspired to attend.

Without the financial aid opportunities DACA would later provide, he simply couldn’t afford it. The Associated Press even featured Bernal in a pre-DACA story about California’s efforts to help undocumented immigrants attend college.

“My legal status was primarily why I couldn’t attend top schools,” Bernal said.

So Bernal worked his way through Fresno State, tutoring and doing other kinds of work to pay for his tuition. He couldn’t get a driver’s license until 2014 — when California passed a law that allowed undocumented immigrants to apply for them — so he biked to school, got rides from friends or simply drove without a permit.

Even after Bernal graduated from college, he could only work at places that didn’t require him to disclose his immigration status, including a carpet cleaning business and a trucking company. Bernal hid his undocumented status from most people, using a tax identification number in place of a Social Security number at work.

“I did a pretty good job of keeping it a secret,” he said.

But when President Barack Obama issued an executive order creating the DACA program in June 2012, Bernal’s life completely changed.

“I remember being very excited, very hopeful,” he said.

About two months after Bernal applied for DACA protection — an extensive process that requires applicants to pay nearly $500, disclose information about their families and submit to biometric evaluations — he received a permit that allowed him to legally work in the United States.

“As soon as I got my card in hand, I started applying to the other jobs I wanted,” he said.

An uncertain future

Today, Bernal said DACA has enabled him to live the kind of life he wants, out of the shadows.

At RISE, he works with victims of sexual and intimate partner violence, and he has ambitions to continue his education. He’s also the Gay and Lesbian Alliance of the Central Coast’s board president, and is involved in other community groups.

“I’m here, I’m contributing,” Bernal said. “I’m giving back to my community.”

But every twist and turn that’s occurred since the Trump administration announced it was ending the DACA program has impacted Bernal’s life.

Last week, a U.S. District judge in California issued a preliminary injunction that ordered the federal government to reopen the renewal application process. DACA recipients’ protection expires every two years — Bernal’s status is set to run out in May.

On Wednesday, Janet Napolitano, president of the University of California, and Xavier Becerra, the state attorney general, held a joint press conference encouraging Dreamers to file their DACA papers while they have the opportunity.

This week, Bernal began filing paperwork to reapply for DACA status, hoping to get everything submitted in time.

“It’s a very, very small light,” he said. “A small ray of hope.”

Even so, he said hearing about the recent deportations of undocumented immigrants without criminal backgrounds — including a Grover Beach mother who was deported soon after Christmas — contributes to his uneasiness.

“They scare the hell out of me, to be honest,” he said. “Nothing is stopping the administration from putting any of the Dreamers on the same path.”

Lindsey Holden: 805-781-7939, @lindseymholden