I remember the chilly mornings in my parent’s two-bedroom apartment with the cartoons in English on full blast.

I also remember feeling frustrated as my eyes were slowly getting heavy because I didn’t understand what they were saying until eventually, I fell back to sleep. I was about 5 years old. On my way to kindergarten, my mom and I would walk several blocks down to John Adams Elementary School in Corona where I would get my first meal of the day. I remember my hands getting sweaty as I got closer because I knew I was gonna have to point to the school food posters in the cafeteria for my breakfast choice to the sweet lunch ladies. Luckily, there was one lunch lady who spoke Spanish and knew I wanted a chocolate muffin and not a banana muffin.

A couple of years later in third grade, I always questioned why I was excluded from fun activities and instead they sent me with three other students to learn English with a teacher. It wasn’t until 6th grade that I learned why I was different from other students. My parents finally told me I was born in Mexico City, that I was undocumented and my life was going to take different turns but they were going to be with me through it. I remember feeling different like a character in the cartoon “Arthur” where they live regular human lives but they are rabbits and anthropomorphic brown aardvarks. I didn’t yet fully understand what it all even meant, but throughout the years it always lingered in my head, “I am different.”                        

In my junior year in high school I started to apply to colleges. I always had dreams of going to college. Although no one in my family did, I had this fire desire that was screaming that college was my calling. The application process was brutal, especially because not only was I applying to college, but I also had to apply for financial aid that I didn’t even qualify for. I had about $5 in my pocket and not even a stable status to be in the United States. 

Luckily, I got an academic full-ride and my college expenses were paid. I’m profoundly proud of this, but was that luck or skill? Because, I know of many other DACA students who were just as smart as me and they were ready to take loans and that could’ve been me. Senior year came and it was my high school graduation year. I cried the entire ceremony because I know in the U.S. graduating high school is normal but in mi México it was everything. 

Shortly after, my undocumented status blocked me again. I couldn’t book a flight after high school graduation to hug my grandparents and family in Mexico. That’s when I realized my entire life I have been deprived of seeing my family in Mexico. That is something I don’t think I’ll ever get over. I hope one day to find peace within myself and the fact that my parents and I didn’t get to say goodbye to their parents because of a lack of a piece of paper. I lost my soulmate and my entire heart broke when mi abuelita passed away in December 2020. I wanted to go to Mexico City where she lived but I couldn’t leave and then get back into the U.S.

I was frightened when President Trump made an executive decision to end DACA, the program created by President Obama in 2012 to give undocumented youth who came to the U.S. before the age of 16 work permits and limited benefits. We still need a permanent solution and I’m scared to apply for an advanced parole as I could be kept out of the U.S. if I ever leave the country.

I made it to college and this year I will graduate with a degree in journalism. I am giving my whole heart to become a Latina with a degree. 

The government needs to stop treating DACA youth like we’re in a game of Whack-a-mole. It isn’t entertainment or a game, it’s every punch in our hearts and knot in our stomachs. I am also a firm believer that every country has borders and needs to protect them. But every year I do my DACA renewal I have to answer the same gut-wrenching questions. “No, homeland security officer, I have not killed anyone nor have I filled my pockets with drugs to sell or consume.” Can I for once be treated like the human being that I am? 

I am the statistic of the DACA student who is getting a degree, the one who is paying taxes and the one who has been an essential worker during the pandemic. When the pandemic hit in 2020, I was one of the  202,500 DACA recipients at the forefront of the COVID response. I worked to protect the health and safety of Americans as the country confronted the COVID-19 pandemic.

Vazquez is among hundreds of thousands of DACA recipients who served America during the pandemic.

I worked as a cashier at a hardware store. My co-workers and I lived in fear, because some saw family members pass away because of this virus. I remained loyal to this country and served as an essential worker. 

I also am among the 87% of DACA-eligible students enrolled in undergraduate programs. I am her. I am enthusiastic to wear my gap and gown and go to graduation. 

But I still have to think of that traumatic phrase I have carried with me since childhood: “I’m different.” I am not bitter about this country because it has partially allowed me to reach my dreams. But how far can I go with DACA, which is not permanent?

The government needs to understand it is not meeting me and other DACA recipients halfway by fully recognizing me with a pathway to citizenship when I have sprinted a marathon for this country. I have a work permit but no permanent status. Will my career be limited?                                               

Mitzi Vazquez is a graduating journalism student at California State University, Long Beach and the editor in chief of the first and only Spanish-language news magazine in Long Beach, DÍG en ESPAÑOL.