Jessica Moreno Cacho is not only a Dreamer — she’s a doer. She was brought to the United States undocumented from her native Peru by her parents when she was just 8 years old. Her dad had been out of work for more than a year, and crime rates were rising across the country. So the family decided to give the American Dream their best shot and relocated to Alexandria, Virginia.
Growing up undocumented presented plenty of challenges. When Moreno Cacho turned 16 and all of her friends were getting their driver’s licenses, she would lie and say that her dad wouldn’t let her, or that she was moving to a city after high school and would not need a car. But when the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) order was signed at the end of her junior year in 2012, a whole new world opened up. “I remember the day DACA was announced,” she says. “I went on Facebook and saw someone share about Obama’s executive order. I clicked on it and started crying, because I needed the opportunities it was going to give me. It was very emotional.” Moreno Cacho’s parents were equally thrilled. “We felt I was so fortunate that it was happening while my college application process was underway,” she says.
Coming here definitely opened up a lot of doors for me to be able to build a career before I graduate.
She got into her first-choice school: Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU). But even with her DACA status, she was still ineligible for in-state tuition, despite having lived in Virginia for 10 years. Moreno Cacho could not afford the out-of-state rate, which was three times as much, but she did not let that stop her. She enrolled in a local community college and took classes there for two years until Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring declared DACA recipients wold be eligible for in-state tuition in 2014.
“After that, I was able to re-apply and get in-state tuition and finally go to my dream school,” she says. “But we’re still paying everything out of pocket, because DACA students are not able to apply for federal aid. So the university really benefits economically from us.” Since 2014, more than 1,200 Dreamers have enrolled in colleges and universities in the state.
In May 2018, Moreno Cacho will graduate with a degree in costume design. She has worked on roughly two dozen educational and professional shows in the two years she has been at VCU. That’s in addition to interning at the Public Theater in New York City, which first launched the Broadway show “Hamilton,” and designing a show for Andrea Navedo, an actress known for her role on The CW’s “Jane the Virgin.”
“Coming here definitely opened up a lot of doors for me to be able to build a career before I graduate,” says Moreno Cacho. In addition to theater, she hopes to work in film and television. “There aren’t that many people of color behind the scenes. And we need to be there in order to get our stories told,” she says. “I am an advocate of having more Latinx representation.”
In addition to juggling her classes, school productions, and a part-time retail job, Moreno Cacho also advocates for diversity offstage. She is vice president of VCU’s Political Latinx United for Movement and Action in Society, which supports the rights of Latinxs, a gender-neutral noun some are using now instead of Latina or Latino. When President Donald Trump announced plans to rescind DACA, she participated in a sit-in at Trump Tower in New York City, followed by a protest back home in Richmond, Virginia. “It was something that had been looming over our heads since he got elected,” says Moreno Cacho. “So when he announced it was going away, there was a lot of anger and disappointment that I put into action. And I will continue to fight for this cause and put all of my emotions into making sure there is a solution. Not just for Dreamers, but every immigrant who is just trying to survive here.”
In Moreno Cacho’s community, however, immigrants do more than survive. In the Richmond metro area, they paid more than $883 million in taxes, and held $2.1 billion in spending power in 2014. And they account for key segments of the construction, agriculture, forestry, tourism, hospitality, and recreation industries.
Moreno Cacho wants comprehensive immigration reform to give everyone — no matter where they are from or what dreams they want to pursue — the opportunity to succeed. “I know the first step will be for Dreamers to obtain a pathway to citizenship,” she says. But she believes that all undocumented immigrants who have been living here and contributing deserve the same opportunity — even if they do not go to college. Not everyone can afford that opportunity, she says, but it does not mean they’re not engaged in their communities.
After she graduates, Moreno Cacho hopes to go to graduate school before entering the job market. But since her DACA protection ends in September 2018, she doesn’t know whether that will be possible. Not that she is giving up: “Until then, it’s about fighting,” she says. “Not just for me, but for everyone whose DACA may expire even sooner.” She will be fighting “to stop police from collaborating with ICE, so that undocumented people won’t be afraid to report crimes, and so that parents can bring their children to the hospital without worrying that the people who are supposed to be keeping you safe are working with the people who want to kick you out. It’s going to be a very long fight,” she says. “But it’s not a fight we weren’t anticipating.”