WASHINGTON — Diana Nataly Arreola never wanted to live in the United States. Seventeen years later, there is no where else this Dreamer would rather be.
“When I was in sixth grade, my friends and I planned that when we turned 18 we would come here to the United States to visit,” she said.
However, that was as far as it was going to get because Arreola had no desire to move away from family in Mexico.
“When I was 12, my mom told me that we we’re going to the United States because her husband (at the time) was here already and she wanted to be here, too.”
Although her mom and brother were ready to move, Arreola was not.
Born in Morelia, Michocán, Mexico, Arreola described the town as a central hub, comparing it to Iowa City in that residents from smaller towns came to Morelia often. In her native culture, being in seventh grade meant she had more responsibilities and could be more independent in her choices.
Arreola did not want to leave her extended family — aunts, uncles and grandparents. Instead she hatched a plan to stay in Mexico and live with her aunt and grandmother.
“My mom said, ‘No. The family has to stay together,’” she recalled.
After crossing the border into Arizona, Arreola, her mother and brother all met up with her stepdad. The original plan was to move in with her stepfather, her mother’s then husband. That plan did not work well.
Although it was January and the semester was starting, her stepfather did not enroll her in school right away.
“I waited almost two to three months until he decided to take me to school,” she said.
Having turned 13 that March, Arreola started school in late April 2003, having missed most of the semester already.
The biggest difference she noticed was the large number of students, but she took comfort in the number of Hispanic students enrolled, she said. Having peers that were able to help her with her school work and class schedule was a plus.
Back at home, things were not going so smoothly. Arreola’s mother soon learned her husband was living a double life and had another wife and children in Arizona.
The trio had to move again. The first thought was returning to Mexico, because her mother learned her husband was a suspected criminal and the family could be in danger.
“When you’re with those kinds of people, sometimes if they want to hurt the person they go for the family,” Arreola said.
Before the move, Arreola’s mother called her brother in Iowa, and he invited them to stay in the United States. They moved to Washington, and life began to be normal once more.
“We got here on a Saturday, and my uncle put me in school on Monday,” she said.
Despite the initial shock over having to move her family multiple times, Arreola said her mother persevered and sacrificed for the family, consistently working, sometimes at multiple jobs. A year later, the family was able to afford its own trailer.
“My mom paid for doctors, dentists, for everything — all by herself,” she said. “I don’t know how she did it.”
In school, Arreola said it took a while to realize she was different from everyone else.
“When we came here, we thought we were the same as other people,” she said.
She quickly found that was not the case when she tried to apply for a job and did not have a Social Security number.
“That’s when I found out I was illegal,” she said.
Similar experiences happened throughout her life, including when she wanted to obtain a driver’s license.
Without a driver’s license, driving was not possible and explaining that to other people was hard, she said, because her illegal status felt like a secret.
“Nobody at school knows you’re illegal,” she said. “They all think you’re the same as everyone else, but when you turn to the age that you want to work and get a license, that’s when you find out.”
Struggles continued until 2012 when then-President Barack Obama announced the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program that protected undocumented youth who came to the United States as children, according to the National Immigration Law Center.
These children — known as Dreamers — had to meet nine qualifications including coming to the states before their 16th birthday, having lived in the United States continuously since June 15, 2007, and not being convicted of a felony offense.
The Dreamer designation gave her some security, but there were drawbacks, too.
“I was planning to go to Mexico until my lawyer said ‘No you cannot go to Mexico,’” she said.
Having just had her first child, Arreola was looking forward to returning home to show relatives the new addition.
Despite her travel plans being canceled, Arreola said DACA brought a sense of safety and stability to her life.
“It feels safe because at least someone in the family is safe to protect the rest of the family,” she said.
Before DACA, Arreola said she had to rely on other people to assist her with things such as getting around, due to not being able to apply for a driver’s license.
“The only thing that changed in my life is I didn’t have to ask people to do things for me,” she said.
Arreola said she sometimes wishes DACA would have been enacted sooner for that reason. In 2011, she was on her way to the mall when she was stopped by a police officer.
Because it was windy and her car was little, it was swerving. Arreola did not have a driver’s license due to not being able to apply for one and received a ticket.
“Now I have a driver’s license so that’s not an excuse to give me a ticket,” she said with a laugh.
Although DACA has provided a sense of security and independence, that has not always been the case.
In 2017, the Trump administration announced a plan to phase out DACA, ending security for thousands like Arreola.
Along with a group of friends and family, she attended a protest in Iowa City. All were wearing a T-shirt with one message:
“You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one,” a quote from John Lennon’s song “Imagine.”
The outcry across the country lead to court challenges. On June 18 this year, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected an attempt to dismantle the program. The decision protects nearly 650,000 recipients, including Arreola.
“For me, it’s a blessing,” she said of DACA.
Every two years, DACA recipients have to apply to renew their status. Although the initial application process can be costly, Arreola feels it is worth it.
“I think God is always with me because the first time I applied for my DACA I spent almost $1,800 just to apply,” she said.
The renewal process is much simpler, she said, and she saves the $1,000 in lawyer fees annually.
Despite not wanting to be in the United States in the first place, Arreola said this is home now. After graduating from Washington High School, her uncle offered to allow her to come back to Mexico to attend college but turned down the opportunity to stay with her mother and brother.
Seventeen years after first arriving in the states, Arreola is now the manager at Mango Jaziel, an ice cream and yogurt shop in Washington. Serving others is something she enjoys, and now that she has the opportunity, she is determined to pursue it as part of her own American dream.
“My dream would be to have a company that will help kids,” she said.