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Inside the life of a DACA  recipient

By Chanel Dias

Living the DACA Dream

Photo courtesy: Gabriela Andrade

From Tough Beginnings to Taking a Public Stand

Gabriela Andrade will never forget the opportunities the DACA (Deferred Action of Childhood Arrivals) program gave her, so she's taking her turn now to stand up for the much-maligned program.


Although the millions of DACA recipients in the U.S. can come from all over, Andrade is one of America’s 5,780 DACA recipients from Brazil.  She is co-founder of the Aloha Dream Team, a DACA advocacy group dedicated to helping raise awareness and support Hawaii’s Dreamers, despite President Donald Trump’s recent decision to shut down the DACA program.


Born in 1987, she was raised in Recife, Brazil, and became accustomed to the day-to-day street violence. At 12 years old, for example, Daniella Andrade (Gabriela Andrade’s older sister), felt something sharp, like a shard of glass, pushed against her throat while she was sitting in a car with their mother and brother. Two children had approached them and pushed the blade against Daniella’s skin.


“Give me everything,” one child spoke in Portuguese, as the family story goes, “or we are going to slit her throat.”


Andrade’s sister’s life was spared. Yet a couple of years later, their mother was shot at while driving in her car. The automobile's thick doors stopped the bullets from hitting her, but that was the moment that scared the Andrades into drastic action, to leave their homeland, in search of something better. 


“At the time, when you live there, it’s so normal,” Gabriela Andrade said. “You don’t talk about it. It’s almost like you’re not allowed to feel a certain way about it. Little kids should be afraid of the Boogeyman, not scared of street bullets.”


“When my parents would leave me with my grandma," she said, "I would cry. I was afraid they were going to get caught in the crossfire between the police and gang members.”


According to the Pew Research Center, more than 49 million people who live in the United States, as of 2017, were born in another country, with over 750,000 obtaining their American citizenship. To be eligible, one must meet the necessary requirements of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA).


When then-President Barack Obama announced Deferred Action of Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, in 2012, immigrants under the age of 16 living in the U.S. were granted protection from deportation. Benefits under the DACA program include work permits, driver’s licenses and social security as well as a few other benefits.


At 15 years old, and 11 years before DACA’s introduction, Andrade boarded the plane that would take her and her family to Euless, Texas, exactly one month after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Euless didn't exactly turn out to be paradise for Andrade, either.

"Little kids should be scared of the Bogeyman, not scared of street bullets. They shouldn't even know what that is but that was our reality." - Gabriela Andrade

Graphic by: Chanel Dias

America has its own set of issues to address

While Andrade’s parents viewed their move as a new opportunity for their children, Gabriela Andrade saw it as punishment for being an angry teenager.


With no money and furniture, Andrade said she helped her family collect whatever spare change they could find to pay rent. Dumpster diving became a game to them, as the parents would encourage their children to find the best furniture possible for their apartment. Daniella and Guilherme, Andrade’s youngest sibling and brother, liked to laugh at the ridiculously mismatched display of appliances.


To Andrade, though, it was anything but funny. In fact, she was humiliated, humiliated at living this kind of a life, in a foreign country, where her English was funny, and she was without friends. She didn’t want to live in Texas or America anymore. She wanted to go home.


Shortly after moving, Andrade enrolled into The Welcome Center, a school for immigrants, before then enrolling into Euless' Trinity High School. For four months there, she studied to learn English as best as she could but also was held back from attending high school for two years.


“They (the teachers) felt like if I started high school without speaking English, I wouldn’t be able to earn my credits,” she said.  “Which was very problematic for me. Not only am I just unhappy about everything, I’m now having to go to school with people two years younger than me.”


At 17 years old, Andrade was considered a sophomore in her high school when other kids her age were graduating. She did well in school for a while, but a year later, she said she was ready to move on, acknowledging she did not want to wait until she was 20 years old to earn her high school diploma.


With her parents’ convincing, Andrade agreed to go to a charter school, where she could spend four hours a day studying before going to work. That turned out to be even worse, she said. She quickly realized that the school was a place for troubled teens that were either pregnant or getting into drugs. Andrade was not a struggling child. She was a strong, independent woman. So, for the second time in her life, she dropped out of school.


“Dropping out of that school was the best decision I ever made,” she said.


After obtaining her GED, Andrade set her eyes on Tarrant County Community College, near Fort Worth. She struggled there, as she tried to balance three different jobs to pay for her tuition. During this period, Andrade began regretting leaving high school. Despite being an undocumented student, she could have consulted a counselor for advice and opportunities for the ideal career path.

“I remember people telling me in college that there is money available to students like me,” she said. “And all I could remember thinking in response to that was, ‘Where the hell was that money?'”

Hear about Andrade's life when she first moved to America.

Leaving Texas, coming to Hawaii and finding home

Andrade decided to move to Oahu to finish school at Leeward Community College, but her green card and ID card had expired by then, making it impossible for her to enroll. With the announcement of DACA in 2012, though, Andrade’s hopes were restored.


The Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency was established in 2001, after the Sept. 11 attacks, and put in charge of many serious tasks, one of which includes the removal of illegal aliens or other types of non-citizen criminals within the country.


After the Trump administration announced recently the decision to end DACA, thousands of recipients failed to renew that designation before the deadline, making them potential targets for ICE agents.


While ICE agents are seen by some people as a threat to America, Immigration Attorney John Egan said he recognizes that this organization is doing what is expected of it.


“If I have a DACA client who’s in ICE’s custody, it’s because they did something wrong,” he said. “They’re not just picking them up off the street and arresting them.”


Shortly after DACA was introduced, several workshops had been set up on Beretania Street in Honolulu to promote it. At these workshops, Egan met Andrade and applied for the program.


“After that, she became something of a community advocate herself,” Egan said.


After becoming a recognized Dreamer, Andrade began working for FACE, or the Faith Action for Community Equity organization, dedicated to helping undocumented immigrants with their applications, as a community organizer for undocumented immigrants.

“To some extent, I’ve always had this desire to just like do something about the messed up things I saw in the world," she said. "But I never really knew how.”


Egan will never forget Andrade’s passion and determination to help Hawaii’s immigrants recognize the opportunities available to them through the DACA program.


“She was pretty active in spreading the word throughout the immigrant community that this was a real opportunity for people who had come in without papers,” said Egan.



When FACE began fighting for in-state tuition for undocumented immigrants at the University of Hawaii, for example, Andrade was asked to submit a testimony to the school. She was more than happy to do so.


Andrade later met with Hawaii House Representative Tulsi Gabbard to share her testimony on behalf of DACA. Andrade in that process also helped to convince UH’s Board of Regents that it should change the policy, and that all DACA recipients were granted in-state tuition. Andrade said she was beyond elated by the results.


“They told me that I was gonna be able to go to school,” she said. “And I was like, ‘Wait… what?'”


As a permitted nursing student, Andrade also was granted permission by UCIS to visit her sick grandfather in Brazil. After 12 years of not setting foot in her homeland, for fear of never being able to make it back to the U.S., she said she was ready to go.


During her two-week trip to Brazil, Andrade realized she was called to become the political voice of Hawaii’s DACA recipients. After flying back to Hawaii, she immediately changed her major to political science and begged professors to let her take the courses she needed in that program.

Photo courtesy: Gabriela Andrade

Andrade speaking on behalf of undocumented immigrants to the United States.

Andrade excelled in her political science class and once again became more and more involved with FACE. When Obama announced the initiation of DAPA, the Deferred Action for Parents of Americans, Andrade took issue with its marginalized benefits for some DACA parents.


“My frustration with Obama and the Democrats in general was, they say they are allies, and that they’re looking out for the immigrant community," she said, "but time and time again, they always pull back. They always don’t do it.”


During a meeting with several other DACA activists, Andrade raised the idea of getting the younger generation involved with helping the Dreamers, a coalition of immigrants helping other immigrants. So with two other friends, Andrade created the Aloha Dream Team in 2014, where young immigrants could come and unite together to promote immigrant free speech and advocacy without consequences.


Yet Andrade has changed course recently. She said that the Aloha Dream Team would not allow any further interviews. She said she has moved to California. What happens next in the life of this Dreamer is to be seen. 

The moment Andrade realized she wanted to change the world. 

Written By: Chanel Dias

Published: May 14, 2018

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