Young America 18 to 29 Now Speaks UP

In 2020, 13 young adults from around the country came together to document their lives during a historic moment. These are our stories.


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Radio Rookies

Life in Legal Limbo: A Dreamer Reflects


Juan Mireles-Palomar

Stockton and San Francisco, CA.


Juan Mireles-Palomar has to navigate the politicized nature of his immigration status. He gets into the conflicting feelings he has about how his legal status plays a role in his future — and his sister's.

Juan Mireles-Palomar with his father and sister.
Photo: Courtesy of Juan Mireles-Palomar.

Juan: [Talking on telephone] How’s my mom?

Eva: [Talking on telephone] She’s doing good. I went to her house the other day. Have you talked to her?

Juan: This is my older sister Eva. She is someone I have always looked up to because she is a badass, resilient, and like my favorite Powerpuff girl, Buttercup. The green one.

Juan: [Talking on telephone] Yeah, she FaceTimed me and showed me her new house.

Eva: [Talking on telephone] I know, I’ve seen it. I went over last week or two weeks ago. It’s hecka cute. Her kitchen is hecka big and Sofi has her own room. She was running around showing me her room and showing me all of her stuff.

Juan: [Talking on telephone] Oh, I miss Sofi. She’s so cute…

Juan: When we were little, Eva and I would play all day outside until the sun came down. We both loved Rihanna, had the same taste in ice cream. In many ways we were the same, except for our legal status, which divided us. I was undocumented, while she had papers, which meant she had access to opportunities that I didn’t.

[Music plays]

Juan: In high school, the majority of my friends were already working and getting their driver’s licenses. But because of my legal status, I couldn’t. My sister Eva could though. She was a year older and she had first priority when it came to obtaining documentation. My parents paid for her to apply for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, but they couldn’t pay for both of us.

Eva: Oh, it made all of the difference, having DACA. Having that now meant that I can go and pursue my dreams, go to college, get a job, earn money for myself, make myself an independent person. That just meant everything. It was a life changer, you know.

Juan: That’s what I wanted too. But during my junior year of high school, my dad was unexpectedly deported back to Mexico. Without my dad around, my mom’s job at a flower nursery wasn’t enough to cover the bills and play for the DACA application of $495. Also, it was almost impossible for me to find a job without DACA. The only other option in Stockton, California was to go to work in the fields. So during my senior year, I got a job in a fruit packaging warehouse and I got paid under the table, like most undocumented field workers.

[Music changes]

Juan: Everyday after school, I rush over to this big stuffy warehouse and start packaging cherries. I stand at the same spot for hours, trying to move my hands and open the bags faster than the cherries falling on the ground. I’m exhausted. And I’m thinking to myself, “Why is this my only option? Why can’t I just have a regular job like my friends or Eva? And can this damn machine slow down?!”

Eventually the bell rings, notifying us it’s time to clock out. By now, It’s 1 a.m. I go home and start whatever homework I have due the next day. This was my routine my senior year. School. Work. Grieve for my dad in silence. Repeat. My goal was to save up for my DACA application, but the reality is most of the money went to help around the house. As my senior year was coming to an end, it became more urgent. I was scared I would have to put off college. But then I got a surprise.

Juan: [Paper crinkles] Here’s the note I got…”Sometimes the American Dream comes true … with a little help. Never stop dreaming. From: those who believe in you.”

Juan: As a graduation gift, my teachers pooled money together to pay the full amount of my DACA application. I was so overwhelmed with emotions, I couldn’t believe it! I turned in my application just before Trump’s election. It would take nearly a year until I finally received my official Employment Authorization Card. I finally had temporary legal status. I immediately applied for a job, opened a bank account, got my drivers license, saved up some money and moved out of my house to the city.

All the things I wanted to do but couldn’t before getting DACA. I wanted to take full advantage of the opportunities I now had, or at least temporarily had. So I was able to find a job at a fashion boutique store and a place to live, I was able to buy my own bed and my own furniture. I was doing things all on my own. On the other hand, my sister? She let her DACA expire. She didn’t want to continue paying the money. We ended up on opposite paths again.

Eva: Now I’m looking at it like you’re so dumb. “You should have just paid the five hundred dollars.” It was so hard for me after that. I struggled more without it. [Back] then, I would have struggled without those five hundred dollars at the time.

Juan: She had to move back home, and lost some of the independence I admired in her. I got a taste of what my sister went through once the coronavirus pandemic hit. I was starting to feel comfortable in my new adult life when the governor ordered the closure of non-essential businesses. Clearly that meant my job at the boutique would close, and I was furloughed. The idea of losing my job scared me, and I figured I’d be back where I started. Then I learned that I would be eligible for unemployment benefits through the state of California, something my sister Eva can’t access because of her current status.

Eva: No government aid, no government funding, nothing because I’m not documented.

Juan: Despite her legal status, my sister is still working. She works at a restaurant in Stockton.

Eva: Luckily my work didn’t get shut down but I know other jobs did, a lot of other restaurants did. My hours have gotten cut about like five to six hours a week and now I need as much hours as I can. Because I just moved out but yeah, this thing has cut back on my hours. Coronavirus. [Laughs]

Juan: [Laughs] I totally feel that. They completely cut my hours.

Eva: I know, you lost your job! It’s crazy. That’s why I’m fortunate to have mine and I’m fortunate to have the hours that I do have and I’m just hoping for it to go back to normal because I want to work my full hours.

Juan: This lockdown is more than a matter of health for families like ours. It’s about whether or not there will be food on the table or even a place to live. If you are undocumented, you don’t qualify for the Federal CARES Act, which provides economic assistance for U.S. citizens. But in April, Governor Newsom announced his plan to get $75 million in statewide funds for immigrant families impacted by COVID-19. However, it’s not clear if my family will get any of those limited funds. So we still have reason to worry.

Eva: If I stopped working that would mean my income would completely stop. I would have no income at all. Because unlike citizens who lose their job and can go and sign up for unemployment and receive some money to help them, I can’t.

Juan: The truth is, even if both of us had DACA, my sister Eva and I are both still in limbo. This program for young immigrants like us has been debated in Congress and threats to end it are ongoing. While the Supreme Court upheld the program for now, it’s fate will probably depend on the next presidency — Trump or Biden. But for now, my sister and I have each other’s back no matter what, even though we still can’t decide on which Rihanna song is best.

Also featured on Adult ISH podcast distributed by Radiotopia.

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