After DACA Status Stopped Her From Teaching, NC Woman Spends 3rd Year In Mexico
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Madai Zamora has shared the story of how she decided to pack her bags, leave the United States and move back to her native Mexico more times than she can remember. One day in 2018, she was so overwhelmed after a family member had been deported — plus other issues due to her own immigration status — that she bought a one-way plane ticket to Mexico. That ticket meant she would leave her parents, brother, and sister behind in Kannapolis.
“Even though I wish, with all my heart, I could be in North Carolina, I can't because there's no future (for me),” the 27-year-old said.
Growing up, Zamora says, she was always a good student. She started thinking about college and a career in the fall of her senior year at A.L. Brown High School. There, she took honors and Advanced Placement classes. Her love of learning sparked her goal of one day returning to her high school as a teacher.
One day in 2011, Zamora asked her guidance counselor about going to college without legal status. She says he had no idea how to help her.
“His words were, 'I don't know. I'm gonna have to research,'" Zomara said. "And, so, that moment, where you go and you ask for help, and they tell you that they don't know because they've never done it before, it's like, 'Dang. Well, then, now what?'”
She says the encouragement she got through high school felt like it was for everyone but her.
“You’re fed these lies like, 'You can be whatever you want to be, you can go to any college you want,'" Zamora said, her voice breaking. "I just felt disappointed — disappointed in every single teacher who told me that, disappointed in the system that made me believe that this was my home."
The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, started just days before Zamora graduated from high school in 2012. DACA protects people brought to the U.S. at a young age from being deported and also allows them to apply for a driver’s license and a work permit. But that work permit often doesn’t allow them to obtain a license for some professions, like teaching. Rules vary from state to state, but currently only17states allow DACA recipients to become certified teachers.
North Carolina isn’t one of them. There are about 24,000 DACA recipients in the state.
“A lot of people would tell me, 'You could have just moved to a different state,' but that's not the point," Zamora said. "That would still be pulling me away from my family, and I would still be having to deal with the uncertainty that DACA had.”
That uncertainty was former President Trump’s campaign promise to eliminate DACA. In 2017, that uncertainty became unbearable for Zamora when the Trump administration formally announced it would end the program, leaving it in legal limbo.
“Those were the two, like, major points where I was like, 'Nope, I'm done. I'm leaving,'" she said. "And in 2018, I left."
Zamora was 24 when she moved to San Luis Potosí in central Mexico with her now-husband, who is also a Mexican native. Her degree from Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte opened doors to many professional opportunities in Mexico, and she is now a third grade English teacher. Still, she resents the system that forced her to make the decision to leave the U.S.
“I'm happy being here, and I'm happy that I left, but I'm also pissed off," Zamora said. "I'm so angry that I had to leave to feel better — like mentally and emotionally to feel better — and to feel like I could actually achieve everything that I wanted.”
The hardest part is not knowing when she’ll see her family. She wasn’t able to visit her father before he died of COVID-19 in September.
Despite her DACA status, Zamora’s time living in the U.S. was considered unlawful. And under current immigration law, immigrants, including DACA recipients, who have lived here more than a year and leave are barred from reentering for 10 years.
“If that is still in place, I am three years down, seven to go," she said.
But she could be back sooner if President Biden’s proposed U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021 becomes law. It eliminates the "10-year ban" and a similar provision that bars immigrants from reentering for three years if they stayed in the U.S. illegally between 180 days and under than a year.
In light of Biden’s attempted immigration overhaul, immigrant rights groups like Mijente are sharing stories like Zamora’s. Mijente Field Director Jacinta González says it’s all part of a campaign highlighting the impact of immigration policy and enforcement through a series of forums to generate popular support.
“These are truth and accountability forums where folks are able to talk about not only their experiences but also what are their demands, what are their policy suggestions of what this new administration should do differently to make sure that they're not replicating the same past, you know, hurtful mistakes that have really caused so much damage,” González said.
Zamora, for example, would like for there to be a family reunification visa allowing her to occasionally return to the U.S. Under the current law, after her 10-year mark, Zamora can only come on a visitor visa — either B-1 for business or a B-2 for tourism. She says that having a family reunification visa would help differentiate the purpose of her visit from the rest.
“I don't want to go back to live, because I am happy with my life here, but I would like to have that mobility to be able to say, 'Hey, this summer I want to go visit my family,' which currently I don't have,” she said.
Zamora says that while some people may see her decision to leave as having given up, for her it was about survival. People shouldn’t focus on her leaving, she says, they should focus on why it was so hard for her to stay.