Omar Salinas-Chacon is a senior studying political science and paralegal studies. He’s also one of 800,000 “dreamers” whose lives could change as a result of Trump calling to an end of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA).
Salinas is involved in multiple student organizations on campus. Currently, he serves as the assistant director for Latino Retention, inspector general for SGA, secretary for College Democrats, and an ambassador for the EKU Honors Program.
Like many undocumented immigrants in the U.S., Salinas has been able to set goals for himself because of DACA. The 22 year-old has hopes of graduating from the University of Louisville’s law school and plans on becoming a “low-cost lawyer”, working on immigration and smaller cases such as divorce settlements. He’s currently gaining experience through volunteer work at the Maxwell Street Legal Clinic in Lexington. Between classes, club meetings and volunteer work, he’s been studying for the LSAT exam.
Salinas’s story started in El Salvador. Between his father and grandfather, his family did well for themselves – running a public transportation company, selling clothing, operating a pawn shop and owning a bar.
“When the average wage was $5 a day, we were making $100,” Salinas said. The family’s maid, chauffeur, and butler were part of his childhood home.
While his family had little to worry about economically, the same couldn’t be said about their safety. Salinas said their “new money” status made them a constant target to El Salvadorian gangs, whose harassment of the family escalated to the kidnapping of Salinas’s father and grandfather. The family paid a “massive” ransom for their return.
Fearing for their lives, the family attempted legal means of escaping El Salvador. They approached the American Embassy seeking asylum, but were turned away due to 2 reasons: they were not being persecuted by the El Salvadorian government, and they were running out of money, which meant poor credit. The family was out of options at this point, so they applied for tourist visas, planned a trip for “Disney World” and boarded a plane for Atlanta in January of 2001. Salinas was 5 years old.
The family’s Disney vacation was spent with relatives in Nashville as their visas gradually expired. As the family laid low, Nashville became Salinas’s home for the rest of his childhood and adolescent years.
Salinas said he was fluent in English after roughly 6 months. His earliest English lessons came from PBS programs on an old TV given to his family by an aunt. This was his first exposure to Bob Ross, although he said he had no idea what “happy little trees” meant until later.
Salinas remembers immigration having a large influence on Nashville when it was his home. 9/11 brought with it a wave of anti-immigration reform, including Tennessee’s attempt to pass the “English-only amendment” that would have forced all government documents to be restricted to English and cut funding to translation services. Interested in politics from a young age, Salinas was out protesting the bill at 10 years old.
Tensions over immigration in Nashville continued to escalate during his childhood. Public places like Latino markets or neighborhoods with a high concentration of Latinos were common targets for police raids. Salinas remembered the raids usually happening between 3 a.m. to 4 a.m. It was not uncommon to hear rumors at school of students getting deported and never seeing them again, Salinas said.
“After the raids happened things got really quiet,” Salinas said. He recalled one incident when he and his family went into a supermarket after a particularly bad raid. The store was the size of the Richmond Kroger and was usually packed with customers, Salinas said. But on that particular day, the only people in the store during its busiest hours were 2 employees and one American couple.
Among the people hiding from public places were also Nashville’s documented immigrants, who feared that if they were detained, their undocumented relatives might be tracked down through personal information that immigration police collected.
DACA erased a lot of the inconveniences Salinas had to live with for most of his life. For the first time, he was eligible to get his driver’s license. He could get a job and earn his own paycheck, and he did; he worked at McDonald’s for 5 years. The biggest difference for Salinas, however, was the “peace of mind” of getting to walk outside and not worry about deportation.
“Unfortunately, that’s something my parents haven’t gotten to experience yet,” Salinas said. For Salinas’s parents, El Salvador is still home, but Salinas considers his true home to be the U.S. “It’s home for basically all DACA recipients,” Salinas said.
The stress of losing the DACA program has been “unreal” for Salinas. “I have trouble sleeping sometimes, but it’s not just me, it’s other people,” he said. “I was not expecting this the week before my LSAT.” Trying not to think about 6 months from now. After Inauguration day, he asked his friend “why are we even signing up for classes?”.
Salinas said that the “good side of him” is hopeful that Congress can save DACA’s provisions, but he doesn’t want to be too hopeful. He mentioned that the issue does come with a silver lining, however.
“On the bright side, people are talking about DACA in a way I haven’t seen before,” Salinas said.
He found it ironic that once Trump stepped into office, people began talking about immigration as a positive thing and raised awareness of how immigrants contribute to the country.
“I haven’t seen support like this since the DREAM Act almost passed in 2010,” Salinas said.
Still, Salinas has heard plenty of criticisms about DACA – the most common being how immigrants are “criminals” or “taking jobs” from Americans. He thought one example was amusing: when the DACA announcement was made, he saw a #DefundDACA hashtag being used on Twitter.
“Me and my friends were dying,” Salinas said, laughing at the fact that the program is self-funded. “We pay $495 to renew our DACA every year and a half. What are you going to do, take my bank account?”
He also noted that Jeff Sessions’s statement about “keeping out criminals” was invalid because all DACA recipients are required to pass extensive background checks. An applicant with as much as a significant misdemeanor on their record cannot qualify for the program, according Salinas.
“The fact that he’s the attorney general and he’s supposed to be interpreting the law and applying it and blatantly lied about something so simple – that’s what kind of worries me,” said Salinas. He mentioned that the 6,000 undocumented immigrants living in Kentucky contribute roughly $11 million to the economy.
Salinas feels that if DACA isn’t saved this time around, it may be impossible to see similar immigration reform passed anytime soon. Still, he remains optimistic about his chances if Congress doesn’t help. “I can speak three languages and I’ll have a degree,” Salinas said. “If the U.S. doesn’t want me, some country will.”
When addressing the issue of immigration, Salinas wishes people would look at it more personally. “We tend to look at immigration as numbers; we’re not looking at the human side,” Salinas said. “I wish people would realize that they’re just average people like you.”