During her sophomore year at Yorktown High School in Arlington, Flor Selena Cáceres watched as her friends got their learner’s permits, and tried to explain why she wasn’t joining them.
She told them it was because she was busy with her academic programs, which she was. But the full truth was a little more complicated.
It’s not that she didn’t want to get her permit, and eventually her license, an act long viewed as a right of passage in an American teenager’s life. It’s that she couldn’t.
Flor Cáceres is an undocumented immigrant. Cáceres, who is now 18 and soon to be 19, was brought here from Guatemala when she was 4 years old.
“What’s the point of me trying to get this, if I don’t have the legal documentation yet?,” Cáceres says, reflecting back on the experience.
Cáceres was eligible for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, an American immigration policy that provides undocumented immigrants who came to the United States before the age of 16 with temporary protection from deportation, work authorization, and the ability to apply for a social security number.
But the application cost $465, and Cáceres’ parents did not have the financial resources to pay for her DACA application. “Because there were so many financial bills to take care of, there just wasn’t the chance for me to get my DACA approval, so there was no chance for me to apply to be part of the driver’s ed class in high school. I was watching all my friends go to driver’s ed class, get their permit and eventually their license, and I realized, ‘Wow, I’m not like any other average student at all.’”
This wasn’t the first time Cáceres’ undocumented status isolated from her friends and classmates. In the 5th grade, her class was going on a school trip to El Salvador, but when she told her parents about it, they told her she couldn’t go. “My parents sat me down and said, ‘If you go to another country, you’re not going to come back.’”
“That’s when I really started understanding what it means to be undocumented,” Cáceres says.
Cáceres has since applied for and received DACA protections, but still can’t travel abroad. Now a college student at Lafayette College in Pennsylvania, she is asked by classmates who are unaware of her status about whether she’ll study abroad. Each time, she has to explain to them why she can’t go.
“You really want to go out and explore the world and you can’t.”
Despite these missed opportunities, Cáceres is eager to point out that in many ways, she’s just like any other teenager. She enjoys listening to music and dancing, her favorite food is spaghetti, and like many teenagers, she keeps a journal. She’s also deeply wary of politicians. “You can’t trust anyone,” she says, with a laugh.
This contradiction – of feeling very different from your peers, but also, in some ways, just like any other teenager is a part of the Dreamer experience.
Cáceres speaks openly about how she’s struggled at times to juggle her dual identities. “I was raised here in the U.S, but I was born in Guatemala, and trying to balance those two cultures out has been tough, especially in high school.”
She went to a majority-white high school and had to figure out how to reconcile her Latin American roots and her American environment. “The people that I hung out with were very different from my family at times, so trying to navigate those two parts of myself, those two parts of my identity, was difficult, but I think I handled it pretty well.”
Cáceres has created a bridge between the two cultures. She loves the Wizards of Waverly Place, a Disney channel show about three wizard siblings with magical abilities and her favorite book is To Kill a Mockingbird. But her favorite film is Under the Same Moon, a film about a young Mexican boy illegally traveling to the U.S. to find his undocumented mother after his grandmother passes away.
Coming to America
Cáceres’ and her family’s journey to America was only slightly less fraught. When her father, Jose Miguel, came to the U.S. in 2002, he planned to stay with his brother, work, save money, and return to Guatemala.
He quickly picked up two jobs, one at a Rite Aid pharmacy, and another at a bakery. He worked “long nights and long days,” Cáceres says.
He also didn’t have a car, which meant relying on the Metro. “When he was entering at 2 a.m. or finishing up at 6 a.m., the Metro wasn’t running at those hours, so he had to sleep outside of the Metro station, waiting for his shift to start or end.”
But Cáceres’ father saw the opportunities that America provided – opportunities that did not exist in Guatemala. He decided to stay and bring his family to join him. His wife (Flor’s mother), Ruth, joined him in 2004. Flor and her oldest brother, Jose, who had been living with their grandmother in Guatemala, came a year later.
Flor’s other brother, Miguelito, chose to stay behind in Guatemala to take care of their grandmother.
The family made a life for themselves in the U.S., and Ruth gave birth to a daughter, Thalia, in 2008. Throughout those years, they longed to be reunited with Miguelito. It wasn’t until 2015 that he came to America, under difficult circumstances.
Cáceres says her brother was being extorted by Guatemalan police, forcing him to flee and cross the American border illegally. Upon arriving at the border in March 2015, he was detained by the United States Border Patrol in McAllen, TX.
Cáceres becomes emotional when talking about that time. The same week her brother was detained, her great grandmother passed away. “2015 was really hard,” Cáceres says.
Miguelito was transferred from McAllen to another detention center in Louisiana. Her family fought for his release, and after four months in detention, he was finally released and her family was reunited.
Those four months took a lot out of them, though, and it’s clear Cáceres still carries some scars from that time. “We didn’t have time to fully grieve. We didn’t give ourselves that chance,” Cáceres says, speaking about the aftermath of her great grandmother’s death.
Your number one job
In telling her story, Cáceres kept coming back to how much she appreciated everything her parents have done for her. They left the only country they had ever known to provide her with better opportunities in life. But beyond that, no matter the challenge, they made sure she could focus on her schoolwork once she was here.
“They said my number one job should be school…They really wanted me to excel in education. That’s the main reason they brought me here.”
It’s because of her parents that Flor signed up for every academic program she could in high school, and she did so with a very specific plan. “The one goal that I had in high school was to get to college and make sure that my parents don’t pay a single dime for it.”
Cáceres’ hard work paid off, and she earned a full-ride scholarship from the Posse Foundation, a nonprofit organization that identifies, recruits and trains student leaders from high schools to form diverse groups called “posses.” These groups then go through an intensive training program before being awarded full-tuition scholarships to top-tier universities.
For Cáceres, the Posse scholarship opened the door for her to attend her top choice school, Lafayette College, where she is double majoring in Film & Media Studies and Anthropology & Sociology, while also pursuing a minor in Spanish.
Cáceres also received a supplemental scholarship from the Dream Project, an Arlington-based non-profit that “serves promising young immigrant students through mentoring, scholarships, community-building, and advocacy.” The Dream Project scholarship help covers additional expenses outside of Cáceres’ tuition.
“It worked out for me, and I’m so thankful that my parents kept pushing me and kept supporting me.”
A way to create change
Despite their support for their daughter, Cáceres’ parents have always been nervous about her advocacy work in the immigrant rights movement. “Whenever I was going to give a small speech at an event, they would always say ‘Be careful, do you really want to do this?’ and every time my answer was ‘yes.’”
Cáceres credits her brother Jose with pushing her to become an advocate. “He was too afraid to tell his story, but said I should go ahead and tell mine, because that’s a way to create change. And that’s the thing that I’ve always told my parents, and whether they liked it or not, they still supported me no matter what.”
Cáceres is a strong believer that stories have power and is vocal about her own story. By her junior year of high school, most of her classmates knew she was undocumented.
“I feel empowered whenever I share my experience with other people.”
Still, Cáceres understands her parents’ concerns, and shares them on some level. “Being undocumented puts some fear in you.” Cáceres openly admits with struggling to trust others and says it’s the hardest part of being undocumented. “Even though I’m very open about sharing my story…sharing those stories is hard.” She never knows how people are going to react. “It’s hard to tell who will be with you and who will be against you.”
But that fear hasn’t stopped her advocacy work, which has become a central part of who she is. Whether it’s producing videos for the Dream Project or speaking about her experiences at George Mason University’s annual “Immigration Monologues” event, Cáceres is committed to using her platform to reach out and help immigrant communities and to fight for a pathway to citizenship.
The original Dreamers
One issue she’s particularly focused on is the plight of Dreamers’ parents, including her own mother and father.
The public overwhelmingly supports a pathway to citizenship for Dreamers, but the parents of Dreamers are often an afterthought. The question of what to do about Dreamers’ parents has been a contentious one, as Republicans have balked at allowing DACA recipients who would receive citizenship to then sponsor their parents for eventual citizenship.
For Cáceres, that sort of restriction is unacceptable.
“It was wonderful that DACA happened, it was a baby step in the right direction. But, what about my parents? My parents are the original dreamers, they’re the ones who paved the road for us,” Cáceres says. “They should not be thrown under the bus.”
Cáceres traces her activism back to her roots as an undocumented immigrant, and her experiences have not only shaped her work as an advocate, but also her future career aspirations.
After she obtains her Bachelor’s degree, Cáceres wants to get her Master’s in Education. She could barely contain her enthusiasm about all the different avenues that might be available to her, from working in classrooms, to working for a non-profit, to being a social worker.
Regardless of which path she ultimately pursues, Cáceres is determined to give back, particularly to the immigrant community.
“I’ve seen so many people struggle individually, with so many problems and I just want to help out in any way that I can.”
It can easily be taken away
While Cáceres is excited about the future, she also lives with the uncertainty that comes with being undocumented, and her parents have taught her to always have a Plan B and a Plan C. Cáceres applied to renew her DACA status in August 2018 and received her approval in June 2019, but she still lives in constant fear that DACA could be struck down by the Supreme Court. “It can easily be taken away.”
The Trump administration has done nothing to ease her fears either, with its repeated attempts to end DACA and the President’s frequent use of racist, anti-immigrant rhetoric.
After Trump was elected, Cáceres remembers her younger sister, Thalia, asking if their family was going to be separated. “Here was this eight-year-old asking me this question. What do I say? I didn’t know if it was going to be okay, I really did not,” Cáceres says.
“Thankfully, we’re still here,” Cáceres says. But she also knows that she and her family are far from secure. “Anything can happen one of these days.”
While she and Jose have DACA, and Miguelito has a work permit, her parents remain undocumented and without protections. Things were far from perfect for undocumented immigrants before Trump, but the recent surge in raids conducted by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has Cáceres particularly nervous, especially since she’s not in Arlington with her parents.
Jose Miguel and Ruth try to reassure Flor that they’re fine, but Cáceres knows they’re putting on a brave face for her.
“You can sense they have an unsettled feeling and that also unsettles you. You have all this anxiety going on through your whole body. I may go to my internship and I may distract myself here and there, but once I come back to my dorm and I just relax a bit, I start thinking ‘oh my god, what’s going to happen?’
Cáceres tries her best to stay upbeat, but doesn’t always succeed. “At times, I’m very pessimistic, and I’m like, ‘It’s only a matter of time before they’re detained and deported.’”
She isn’t the only one who’s afraid, either. Thalia constantly asks about what’s going to happen to their parents. “She’s really worried about mom and dad,” Cáceres says.
This constant anxiety clearly wears on Cáceres. But she’s grateful to what Arlington – and America – have provided her. She was particularly quick to praise her teachers and counselors for all the help they provided her growing up.
“I’m thankful for the opportunities that this country has given me, because it was not something that I could find back in Guatemala.”
Just be there to listen
Cáceres is determined to fight for the rights of immigrants living in this country, particularly those who are undocumented. She chafes at the notion that what she and other advocates are asking for is too much.
“We are human beings first and foremost. We do not need to be exceptional lawyers or doctors or future delegates or senators or representatives in order to prove that we’re worth something to you.”
Indeed, to Cáceres, she and her fellow undocumented immigrants are as American as anyone else, as average as anyone else. And yet, they are constantly being asked to prove their American-ness, that they’re worthy of being here; that they belong.
Cáceres wants other undocumented immigrants out there to know that no matter what, they’re not alone. “I went through a feeling of isolation…I know what it’s like. I still feel it at times at college,” Cáceres says. “It’s okay if you’re not prepared to share your story, but just know we’re out there.”
Despite living in constant fear of being separated from her family and despite having to navigate the daily contradictions that come with being undocumented, Cáceres just wants people to treat her and the rest of the undocumented community with respect.
“Don’t assume, don’t jump to conclusions, just be there to listen to us. Sometimes that is enough.”
Correction: A previous version of this story referred to Lafayette College as Lafayette University.