Esmeralda Tovar-Contreras is an undocumented immigrant who was brought to the United States from Mexico City when she was 2 years old. Thanks to Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), which provides qualifying young people like her some protections, the 21-year-old has been able to get a job at a nursing home and has started train to become a nurse. But with DACA now under threat, Tovar-Contreras says her fiancé, a Kansas National Guard reservist preparing for a one-year overseas deployment, is facing incredible stress. “It’s hard on him,” she says. “He’s worrying about whether I’ll be here when he gets back.”
Her fiancé, Michael Mora, is a U.S. citizen, and he urged Tovar-Contreras to marry him before he deployed, thinking it would allow her to gain permanent residency, or a green card. But the pair soon learned that obtaining legal status through marriage is not a sure thing. “Michael said, ‘I know you don’t want a quickie wedding, but if we just get married now, we’ll be safe,’ ” Tovar-Contreras says. “I wish it was that simple, but it’s not.”
American culture has been embedded in my life ever since I was 2.
Depending on the circumstances, some DACA recipients can obtain a green card through marriage without leaving the country; others are required to leave the United States first, potentially for as long as 10 years. Tovar-Contreras did not want to put her fiancé under additional pressure by attempting the process during his deployment, so they postponed the wedding until he returns home. In the meantime, Tovar-Contreras is working, going to school, and caring for the couple’s young daughter — one of the 2.5 million U.S. citizens who currently live with at least one DACA-eligible immigrant.
When Tovar-Contreras was in labor with her daughter, she found herself so inspired by the nurses who cared for her that she decided to study to become a neonatal nurse. “To me it was absolutely beautiful how hard they worked for us to be okay and safe,” she says. “I wanted to be that person for someone else who’s going through something so life changing.” Tovar-Contreras is now finishing nursing training at the University of Kansas School of Nursing in Salina, a campus the school opened in an effort to educate more nurses to help ease the state’s nursing shortage.
Tovar-Contreras considers herself an American and a patriot, and she is grateful to her fiancé for his service. “To me, being an American means pledging everything to the flag, which I’ve done all my life,” she says. At times, her school gave her the flag to raise up the flagpole out front. She learned how to fold it respectfully and to honor everything it represents. “I’ve done that for as long as I can remember,” she says. “American culture has been embedded in my life ever since I was 2.”
She worries, however, that unless Congress takes action to protect Dreamers like her, she will soon be deported. If that happens, she isn’t sure what will happen to her 2-year-old daughter, who was born in the United States. She does not want to take the child away from her father, but who would care for the little girl while Mora is overseas? “It would be so heartbreaking, I can’t even imagine,” she says.