When Teresa Henning recalls her early childhood, she has hazy memories of drinking from coconuts along the edge of the ocean’s vast expanse with her parents and siblings.
She remembers a few details of a family ranch on Mexico’s west coast, where her family lived until Henning was 8 years old. But mostly she remembers the Wisconsin landscape that raised her, and the Eau Claire schools that set the stage for much of her young adult life.
“This is home,” Henning said earlier this month from her perch on a stool at Eau Claire Downtown Coffee. “The countries we come from aren’t really home. They’re where we were born, but, at the end of the day, I call this home.”
When Henning uses the word “us,” she’s referring to herself and the others whose families brought them to the U.S. illegally as children. Of those children, 790,000 of them have been granted protection from deportation under the Barack Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, according to the Pew Research Center. That number includes Henning.
By what she calls a stroke of luck, Henning met her husband, Keegun Henning, at South Middle School. They married in 2015, and Teresa Henning is currently going through the process of obtaining U.S. residency through marriage — and ultimately citizenship. She has a work permit while she awaits her green card and no longer uses DACA to continue her education and life in Wisconsin.
However, as the DACA program faces termination under President Donald Trump’s administration, Henning feels the uncertainty weighing on hundreds of thousands of others as their protections begin to expire.
State of the ’Dreamers’
The DACA program allows young undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. as children with their families — a group of illegal immigrants known as Dreamers — to legally live and work in the this country. The protection lasts for two years, after which program participants must apply to renew.
DACA is now tied up in the courts after Trump announced in September that his administration would begin dismantling the program. While no new applications are currently allowed, a nationwide injunction is forcing the Department of Homeland Security to resume accepting DACA renewal applications. The Department of Justice on Thursday night asked the U.S. Supreme Court to hear the DACA case so it can move forward with dismantlement.
In a September interview with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., called DACA “a clear abuse of executive authority, an attempt to create law out of thin air.” However, he expressed hopes for a “permanent legislative solution” for young undocumented immigrants.
“At the heart of this issue are young people who came to this country through no fault of their own, and for many of them it’s the only country they know,” he told the Journal Sentinel. “Their status is one of many immigration issues, such as border security and interior enforcement, which Congress has failed to adequately address over the years.”
Henning’s DACA protections expired in December 2016, and instead of seeking a renewal, the 23-year-old decided to adjust her status through her marriage. When that application was taking a long time to process, the office of U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., confirmed it sent in an inquiry to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services on Henning’s behalf in April to check on her application’s status.
About a week later, her application was approved.
“I’d been patiently waiting to get everything through my residency, and it wasn’t happening,” Henning said. “I needed my independence back.”
While Henning is technically unaffected by DACA’s instability, she understands how it feels to be scared of the unknown.
When her family moved to the U.S., “undocumented” was a concept she understood even as a child.
“To me, the word ‘undocumented’ meant this wasn’t my home,” Henning said, referring to her childhood years. “I always felt scared. I understood that we didn’t belong here.
“In the back of my mind, I always thought that after high school, I wasn’t going to have an opportunity to do anything, to go to college or pursue any type of career because I was undocumented.”
That idea created some cognitive dissonance — as she grew older, Wisconsin became host to many cherished memories and relationships, including her husband. It was hard to imagine a future elsewhere.
DACA opened the door to her career in the medical field. Henning currently works at HSHS Sacred Heart Hospital and plans to become a physician.
“We’re sort of fortunate compared to a lot of people, because I am a citizen, and we have made huge impacts on each other’s lives,” Keegun Henning said. “Other people don’t have our exact situation. It must be a constant state of fear.”
Contact: 715-830-5828, firstname.lastname@example.org, @LaurenKFrench on Twitter